WASHINGTON – Nearly 80 Democratic members of Congress have sent a letter to the White House expressing their “great concern” that the Biden administration is backtracking on its promise to restore migrant access to asylum.
In the letter, they also condemned the administration’s expansion of a controversial policy that immediately turns back migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, known as Title 42, and doesn’t allow them to seek asylum.
During a Thursday press conference in front of the US Capitol, Democratic New Jersey Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker argued that asylum is a right granted by Congress. The administration initially promised to end the use of Title 42, a health policy put in place to prevent non-US citizens from entering the country during a health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, they said.
“We are seeing the extension of Title 42 which is ultimately putting people in crisis and risking them facing persecution and violence,” Booker said.
The policy has been in effect since 2020, and more than 2 million migrants have been turned away at the US border, according to data from US Customs and Border Protection.
The letter to President Joe Biden acknowledges the new legal pathways created by the Biden administration for Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, modeled on current probation programs for Venezuelans.
But Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern that those legal paths “come at the expense of the legal right to seek asylum on the southern border.”
Right to seek asylum
The right to seek asylum was codified into international law after the Holocaust, the mass murder of European Jews and other groups by Nazi Germans before and during World War II.
The United States passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which allows people fleeing persecution based on “accounts of race, religion, national origin, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” to seek asylum and ensures that those seeking asylum in the United States or its border are not sent back to the place where they are persecuted.
In early January, the administration announced dual immigration strategies that would increase deportations of migrants attempting to cross the southern border, while expanding opportunities for migrants from different countries to enter the country legally.
In an effort to limit border migration, the new policy will allow up to 30,000 migrants each month from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua who have US-based financial sponsors and have passed a background check to enter the country legally and would allow them to work temporarily for two years.
However, if migrants do not follow the new procedures and attempt to cross the border without authorization, they will be immediately deported to Mexico.
“We are therefore distressed by the deeply inconsistent choice to expand restrictions on asylum seekers after your administration determined it was no longer necessary for public health,” the members of Congress said in the letter.
Democratic Representative Cori Bush of Missouri also criticized the administration for using Title 42, saying she doesn’t believe the administration is using it to prevent COVID-19.
Democratic freshman Representative Greg Casar of Texas, the whip of the House Progressive Caucus, said expanding Title 42 won’t solve the humanitarian crisis at the border, where in his home state, 53 migrants, including five children, were found dead in a tractor trailer.
He said that in his San Antonio community, due to the expansion of Title 42, fewer and fewer migrants are going through the orderly process of applying for asylum at a port of entry.
“Those people fleeing disaster, spending night after night atop trains criss-crossing hundreds or thousands of miles, fleeing for their lives, will now be forced to risk drowning in the river, risk crossing in the desert or climbing the back of a tractor trailer,” he said. “It will not solve the humanitarian crisis. This decision was driven by far-right politics.”
Lawmakers in their letter also expressed concern over the Biden administration’s announcement to begin the regulatory process to require asylum seekers to first apply for “asylum in a transit country, instead of allowing them to claim their legal right of asylum at our southern border.”
“This, in effect, is a ban on driving,” they wrote.
Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Biden not to go through with that proposal, and instead continue to fight in court to end Title 42 and work with Congress on immigration reform.
“Moreover, the administration cannot have it both ways when it claims it is committed to restoring asylum access, and then callously blocks asylum access and proposes a no-transit policy that forces migrants to seek first humanitarian protection in a third country,” Menendez said.
A district court judge struck down the use of Title 42 in November, but a month later the US Supreme Court decided to keep the policy in place until judges can consider whether the pandemic-era program should be revoked or continue.
The court is expected to hear oral arguments on the case in February.