In March, a 10-year-old Nicaraguan boy crossed the US-Mexico border into Texas with his mother, only to be immediately expelled to Mexico, where they were kidnapped, according to their family.
The widely shared case of Wilton Obregon and his mother Meylin is among at least 492 publicly shared reports of attacks against asylum seekers entering the US within the last few months after they were denied entry under a public health policy invoked by Donald Trump and kept in place by Joe Biden.
While the administration has brought more than 6,000 asylum seekers into the US who were forced to wait indefinitely in Mexico while their cases were processed under a Trump-era rule, the White House has kept in place a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provision known as Title 42, which human rights organisations argue was weaponised by the former president and continues to “wreak havoc” on families and the immigration process.
“It endangers children, drives family separations, and illegally returns asylum seekers to danger, including Black and LGBTQ refugees forced to endure bias-motivated violence in Mexico,” according to an extensive report from Human Rights First, Haitian Bridge Alliance and Al Otro Lado.
The policy also “creates disorder” by forcing asylum seekers without legal options to cross into the US between ports of entry, according to the report.
“Rather than protecting public health, the expulsion policy threatens the health and safety of asylum seekers and migrants,” the report says.
US law provides that anyone entering the country is eligible to apply for asylum, a form of humanitarian protection for those fleeing violence and persecution from their home countries.
But the former president’s invocation of Title 42 effectively suspended asylum laws, now superseded by a 19th century public health law that has led to the expulsions of more than 637,000 asylum seekers since March 2020, at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
None of the more than 150 asylum seekers interviewed by Human Rights First in March and April 2021 was referred to apply for asylum or screened by immigration officials before their expulsion under Title 42, according to the report.
Within the last year, US Customs and Border Protection has screened less than 1 per cent of people who were expelled under the order.
Only 143 asylum seekers were deemed to have a credible case of fear of torture to be admitted for asylum under the US Department of Homeland Security.
In March, more than 104,000 asylum seekers were denied entry under Title 42. That figure has been growing nearly every month since last year.
Within the first three months of 2021, more than 241,300 people were expelled from the border under the rule, according to border officials.
Within the first two full months of Mr Biden’s presidency, the US expelled more than 177,000 people, including more than 26,000 families, under Title 42, according to government data.
The report – “Failure to Protect: Biden Administration Continues Illegal Trump Policy to Block and Expel Asylum Seekers to Danger” – illustrates several cases from migrants who were denied entry under Title 42 despite their appeals to law enforcement over fears of persecution or imminent danger in their home countries without protection, including a Mexican asylum seeker who was kidnapped by cartels, and a Nicaraguan woman and her family who were stranded in Tijuana after their expulsion from the US led to their detention and abuse in their home country.
The groups identified nearly 500 cases of violent attacks – including kidnapping, assault and rape – against migrants who were expelled or stranded at the US-Mexico border since 21 January, one day after Mr Biden’s inauguration.
Al Otro Lado identified 81 per cent of LGBTQ asylum seekers who were abused or attacked in Mexico within the past month of their interview with the organisation between mid-February and early April, including sexual assault by Mexican law enforcement and human trafficking.
The expulsions also have had disproportionate impacts among African, Caribbean and other Black asylum seekers stranded at the border. The report found that 61 per cent of Haitian asylum seekers blocked from asylum protections were victims of a crime while stranded in Mexico.
Advocates also collected reports of physical and verbal abuse from federal law enforcement, including “abysmal conditions” in detention facilities.
The report found migrants in freezing holding cells, officers denying food and medical care and tossing out important paperwork, or relying on “cruel jokes and threats to traumatise and deter asylum seekers” before expelling them.
One Honduran family with a baby was told “congrats, you’re going to New York City” before they were expelled to Tijuana in March, according to the report. Another Honduran woman was told “we have a surprise for you” before she was expelled to Tijuana in April, the report says.
DHS did not respond to a request for comment from The Independent about the report.
Asked for a response to criticism of Title 42, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on 23 April that the US remains “in the middle of a global pandemic” and “keeping people safe is front and centre to the president.”
“At the same time we absolutely believe we are a country that wants to treat people humanely,” she said. “We understand, and we’ve heard the frustration about this issue, but our objective … is to keep systems in place or policies in place or to implement policies that help us address the pandemic.”
Lifting the policy will be based on guidance from health officials, she said.
The White House and immigration advocates have rebuffed attempts to define the rise in migrants arriving at the border as a “crisis,” instead arguing that the latest “crisis” is the consequence of failed and neglected immigration policy, violence and persecution in other countries inflamed by the US, the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and trade agreements, and two devastating hurricanes that impacted Central America in 2020.
Border authorities are not expelling unaccompanied minors, reversing a Trump-era policy along with the practice of “zero tolerance” prosecutions for illegal entry that separated thousands of families.
In a lengthy statement last month, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the “majority of those apprehended at the southwest border are single adults who are currently being expelled under the CDC’s authority to manage the public health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Single adults from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “are swiftly expelled to Mexico,” and single adults from other countries “are expelled by plane to their countries of origin if Mexico does not accept them.”
But the ongoing reliance on Title 42 follows its use against the objections of public health officials when it was implemented, as the previous administration presided over a sweeping anti-immigration agenda across several agencies.
The Trump administration reportedly pressured the CDC to rely on emergency powers to close the border, overruling agency officials who argued there was no evidence that doing so would combat Covid-19, according to the Associated Press.
Physicians for Human Rights has also urged that the Biden administration immediately rescind the policy.
Human rights groups in the report have issued a range of policy recommendations to the White House and Congress, including urging the administration to “direct the CDC to employ rational, evidence-based measures to safeguard the lives of asylum seekers and protect public health rather than issuing xenophobic bans.”
“The United States cannot use the pandemic as a pretext to shirk international obligations to refugees,” the report says.
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