By Josh Leach on January 29, 2021
January 29 marks two years since the Trump administration implemented its Remain in Mexico policy (officially misnamed the so-called “Migrant Protection Protocols” or MPP), forcing asylum-seekers to wait in danger in Mexico. Earlier the same week, the nation crossed the threshold of four years since Trump signed the first version of his notorious Muslim Ban—a categorical bar on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, which Trump himself admitted in interviews was designed as an attempt to exclude Muslims.
In the years these policies have been in effect, it is hard to overstate the damage they have inflicted, both to immigrants and U.S. citizens. Under MPP, asylum-seekers have been trapped in makeshift camps in Mexico, where they are at heightened risk from COVID-19 and are frequently vulnerable to groups who prey on migrants. According to data compiled by a number of human rights organizations, more than 1,300 migrants subjected to this policy have been murdered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, or attacked while waiting for their chance to seek refuge in the United States, as of December 2020.
With respect to the Muslim Ban, its restrictions on travel and migration made no exception for U.S. citizens who have family members abroad. As a result, thousands of American parents were prevented from reuniting with their children; and thousands of American children were likewise barred from petitioning to bring their relatives to the United States—even though they would ordinarily be able to do so under U.S. immigration law—solely because of their family’s country of origin. In this way, the policy deprived thousands of U.S. citizens of Middle Eastern, African, and Asian descent of their right to equal treatment before the law.
Recognizing these profound harms, the Biden administration has taken important symbolic steps to distance itself from these racist and unjust policies. On his first day in office, Biden officially revoked the presidential proclamations that instituted different versions of the Muslim Ban, including the latest iteration expanding travel restrictions to some African and Asian countries. Likewise, his administration paused enrollments in MPP; and reports indicate the Biden/Harris team plan further steps next week to formally end the program.
While these are milestones to celebrate, they are unlikely to make any concrete difference in the lives of asylum-seekers and immigrants in the immediate future. This is because the Biden/Harris team have left in place other, even more far-reaching Trump-era bans on immigration and asylum—and have shown no clear willingness to revoke them. These more extensive shutdowns on asylum and immigration processes, meanwhile, affect many of the same families who are trapped by MPP or were kept apart from one another by the Muslim Ban.
In the case of asylum-seekers at the border, single adults and families seeking refuge will likely still be blocked, even after MPP is lifted, due to the former administration’s Title 42 policy. This program was originally announced in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and remains in effect today. It amounts to a complete shutdown on asylum at the border, while making anyone entering the country without permission vulnerable to rapid expulsion without due process, even if they are asylum-seekers running for their lives.
The Trump administration originally defended this asylum blockade as a means to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic; and it is perhaps for this reason that the Biden/Harris team is reluctant to lift it. In truth, however, the order never had anything to do with protecting the public. Indeed, health experts in the former administration opposed the policy when it was being discussed, seeing it (correctly) as a back-channel way to impose the Trump team’s long-standing anti-immigrant and anti-asylum agenda.
So far, the Biden/Harris team has shown a similar reluctance to overturn Trump’s other pandemic-related bans on immigration, despite the fact these policies had little to do with legitimate public health goals, and are unnecessary from the standpoint of curbing the virus. Many procedural steps in petitioning for immigration and family reunification do not require international travel and should be able to proceed under any conditions. Meanwhile, immigrants approved to travel could both reunite with their loved ones in the United States and still preserve public health, simply by following the same quarantine rules the administration currently has in place for other forms of international travel.
Indeed, Trump’s categorical shutdown of most kinds of family- and employment-based visas last spring was so plainly disconnected from the goal of fighting the pandemic that the administration did not even bother to defend it on this basis. Instead, they invoked spurious economic arguments against immigration that have long since been debunked. Plainly, these “pandemic” measures were really about imposing Trump’s xenophobic agenda, and had little to do with containing a virus that the former president otherwise refused to take seriously.
Ending these cruel, misguided policies enacted by a former administration should be a no-brainer for the Biden/Harris team. Yet, for the reasons laid out above, even after MPP and the Muslim Ban have been partially rescinded, both asylum-seekers and many would-be immigrants abroad remain banned in practice.
We can hope that a promised future batch of immigration-related executive orders—expected sometime next week—will go further in restoring asylum and reopening the country’s immigration system. But until that time comes, we must continue to push this administration to follow through on their promises to families impacted by harmful Trump-era policies. To do so, they must go beyond symbolism, and actually revoke Title 42 and end the bans on immigration visas, allowing asylum-seekers to reach safety and families to reunite with their loved ones.
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