Biden must stop expelling migrants under draconian Trump policy

Central American migrants seeking U.S. asylum return in March 2020 to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after being expelled from El Paso by the Trump administration.
(Christian Chavez / Associated Press)
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We are into the fifth month of Joe Biden’s presidency, which also marks the fifth month that he has continued enforcing draconian Trump administration border policies that, as a candidate, he rejected as inhumane. Biden needs to move faster to give the nation a more effective and humanitarian border-enforcement plan, because the longer he takes to bring one into focus, the less credibility he has as a force for positive change on the issue.

To be sure, Biden inherited a convoluted mess. The anti-immigration Trump administration pulled every lever it could find to close the U.S.-Mexico border to people lacking visas, whether they were seeking to work or to gain asylum.

Despite immigration laws to the contrary, the Trump administration accepted asylum applications only from migrants arriving at formal ports of entry. And even then, under the deceptively named Migrant Protection Protocols, it forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico under a metering system that processed applications at a trickle’s pace.

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Biden ended those expulsions, but thousands are still waiting to be admitted. Not only has the system made it more difficult for migrants to argue the case that they deserve asylum, but it also resulted in many applicants becoming victims of crimes (including rape, kidnapping and murder) while they were in limbo in Mexico.

After the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, the Trump administration invoked Title 42 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which grants the government power to quarantine or refuse entry to people traveling from regions suffering a disease outbreak, against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The administration then re-imagined the scope of the law (which is being challenged in court) and began expelling new arrivals back into Mexico. They too were subject there to criminal acts large and small, often while living in makeshift camps or other precarious environments.

In fact, in a scenario of ultimate absurdity, the Trump administration last year tested arriving unaccompanied minors for COVID-19, then expelled those who tested negative for the virus. There is little need to detain migrants to ensure their appearance at hearings; the government could test asylum seekers for COVID-19, then let them join family or supporters to await processing.

How many people were expelled without due process? After the order took effect in March 2020, the Trump administration turned back 440,000 people. Since Feb. 1, 2021, just after Biden took office, the government has been turning back migrants at a faster pace, rejecting more than 300,000 people. In keeping with the Trump-era policy, none were granted the opportunity to file for asylum, as is their legal right.

The Biden administration has taken some positive strides in trying to restore some human decency to immigration enforcement after the Trump years. Biden formed a task force to try to complete reunification of thousands of families separated at the border under then-President Trump’s zero tolerance policy, and softened the Title 42 expulsions to exclude children (some families have been allowed in too). And he halted immigration sweeps in the interior of the country, ordering immigration agents to focus on people who posed a risk to public safety (immigrants, including those here without permission, commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans).

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Still, immigration detentions have increased under Biden, who also continues to use so-called expedited removals allowing individual agents wide leeway to summarily expel many immigrants living here without permission (that policy is under review).

And it is particularly distressing that the Biden administration has continued to operate under the false Trump administration notion that everyone arriving at the southern border may be a disease carrier and so shouldn’t be allowed to enter the country. It’s hard, in fact, to not see this as a cynical decision based on politics — Republicans keep trying to blame Biden for the migrants’ existence — and on a desire to continue using Title 42 as a border-management tool, cruel and inhumane though it may be.

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The truth is Trump’s hard-line approach did little to halt the flow of the desperate. Enlisting Mexico to stop migrants as they moved north from Central America simply outsourced border enforcement. Biden is right to focus on trying to stabilize Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to reduce the incentives so many people have to flee — namely, gang violence, corruption, poverty and the effects of two massive hurricanes last year. But that is a longer-term solution that will require some maneuvering to prevent billions in U.S. aid from lining the pockets of the corrupt instead of helping people remain in their homelands.

As we have noted often, Biden can’t fix the immigration system single-handedly. He needs a majority of the hands in Congress to do that — though if the nation were drowning and needed this Congress to toss us a life ring, well, we’d be lost. The nation can’t afford that inaction, and neither can desperate migrants.

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