Dozens of Democratic legislators in the United States are urging President Joe Biden to reverse new restrictions on who can seek asylum at the country’s southern border, saying a recently expanded expulsion policy violates national and international law.
Nearly 80 lawmakers signed an open letter to Biden on Thursday, urging the president to “to stand by your commitment to restore and protect the rights of asylum seekers and refugees”.
“It is unconscionable that asylum seekers have no option but to sleep in the streets of El Paso, in overcrowded shelters in Juarez, or in tents in Reynosa, but new asylum restrictions against migrants will not solve this problem,” the letter (PDF) reads.
“We believe that your administration can and must continue to expand legal pathways for migrants and refugees into the United States — without further dismantling the right to seek asylum at our border.”
Earlier this month, Biden announced that as many as 30,000 asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti who arrive at the US-Mexico border each month in search of protection would be sent back to Mexico.
In turn, the White House said the US would accept as many as 30,000 people per month from the four countries and give them two-year work authorisation, provided they have sponsors in the US and pass background checks.
Rights groups have criticised the plan, saying it amounts to an expansion of Title 42, a widely criticised border policy that US officials have used more than 2.5 million times since March 2020 to quickly expel most migrants and refugees who arrive at the border.
Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump enacted Title 42 in a purported effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, but US authorities have said the restriction is no longer needed on the basis of public health.
Yet despite Biden administration efforts to end the policy, some Republican-led states sued to keep Title 42 in place amid a surge in asylum seeker arrivals at the border — and it remains in effect.
Earlier this week, Texas and 19 other GOP-led states also sued (PDF) the US administration over its new programme allowing 30,000 asylum seekers each month from Haiti, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba to apply for what’s known as “parole” — a temporary period of stay in the US for up to two years.
“Every state in America, especially border states like Texas, is being crushed by the impacts of illegal immigration,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. He said the new scheme “will only make this immigration crisis drastically worse”.
But the Biden administration has defended its policies, saying the number of “encounters” with Cuban, Haitian, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan asylum seekers on the border have decreased dramatically since the new parole programme was announced.
Unlawful crossings between ports of entry dropped by 97 percent between December and January, the Department of Homeland Security said on Wednesday, to a seven-day average of 115 per day on January 24 — down from 3,367 on December 11.
“These expanded border enforcement measures are working,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
“It is incomprehensible that some states who stand to benefit from these highly effective enforcement measures are seeking to block them and cause more irregular migration at our southern border.”
In recent weeks, approximately 1,700 people from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua have arrived in the US through the new parole programme, a senior US official said this week, as reported by the Reuters news agency. Thousands more have been approved for travel, the official also said.
But for years, rights advocates have denounced the US government’s “deterrence” strategies at the border, saying migrants and refugees are fleeing desperate situations and restrictions only force them to take riskier journeys in search of safety.
On Thursday, top Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and one of the letter’s signatories, said that “anyone who tells you that the only way to secure our border is to punish asylum seekers is lying.”
“It’s why we are appalled to see President Biden replicate President Trump’s immigration strategy. The right to seek asylum is enshrined in both international and domestic law,” Menendez said during a news conference alongside other legislators.
Democrats also have questioned the Biden administration’s plans to enact a rule requiring migrants and refugees to apply for protection in transit countries, effectively barring them from accessing asylum in the US.
Trump tried to impose these so-called “transit bans” during his time in the White House, but US courts rejected such efforts on multiple occasions.
“Today we ask the president to recommit to his values, because no matter how many Trump policies the Biden administration resurrects, Republicans will continue to obstruct any effort to actually reform our border processing and modernise our immigration system,” Menendez said.
He urged Biden “not to go through with his transit ban rule and continue the fight to end Title 42 in the courts, and work with Congress — not against us — to finally dedicate the resources we need to get a handle on our mass migration challenge once and for all”.