The United States has been consumed with the mass evacuation and resettlement effort for vulnerable Afghans in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. It’s an undertaking that’s demonstrated the ability of the U.S. government to bring tens of thousands of refugees to safety in America and marshal local resources to help them resettle in their new home.
Rather than bringing people to safety via transit centers and, ultimately, to countries including the United States, these flights are sending vulnerable migrants and asylum-seekers back to danger.
But at the same time, the Biden administration has been quietly engaged in another series of “evacuation” flights, this time at our southern border. Rather than bringing people to safety via transit centers and, ultimately, to countries including the United States, these flights are sending vulnerable migrants and asylum-seekers back to danger — returning them to the very places they’re fleeing.
Just last week, the U.S. expelled 86 Haitians who fled the recent earthquake and political unrest, and flew them back to Haiti under this policy. Many more Haitians trying to avoid this fate are being detained in Del Rio, Texas. U.S. authorities are dedicating extra resources to pick up the rate of flights in order to remove them more quickly, saying six to eight flights a day will depart starting Tuesday.
It’s a continuation of the policy begun under the Trump administration known as Title 42, which essentially bans anyone from seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border under the pretext that concerns about the spread of Covid-19 mean they must immediately be deported. Since it was first implemented in March 2020, more than 1 million migrants and asylum-seekers have been turned away.
This has meant that asylum-seekers have been expelled in violation of the United Nations’ 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which prevents countries from returning people to places where they face threats to their lives or freedom without providing them the opportunity to apply for asylum.
The United Nations refugee agency has expressed concern over these expulsion flights, noting that those impacted are being sent back to the “very dangers they have fled in their countries of origin.” Indeed, these asylum-seekers should instead be welcomed just like Afghans are being welcomed — all refugees deserve protection, not just our allies.
The consequences are devastating, as reports of violence and insecurity in their countries of origin, along transit routes and in Mexico abound. A recent report by Human Rights First documented at least 6,356 reports of kidnappings and attacks on asylum-seekers and migrants after they were turned away from the U.S. under Title 42.
In late August, my colleagues from Jesuit Refugee Service Mexico traveled to the Mexican border with Guatemala to accompany those expelled from the U.S. on one of these flights. They met a woman from Guatemala traveling with her two daughters. She said she told U.S. officers that she was a victim of violence in her home country and requested asylum at the U.S.
She told us that she shared the name of a family member in California, and then boarded a plane, believing she would be safe and with her family in the U.S. soon. As they began to land, she was shocked to learn from the pilot that their destination was instead Mexico. She and her daughters then found themselves on a bus back to Guatemala, the place where they had fled violence in the first place.
While a federal judge on Thursday blocked the Biden administration from enforcing Title 42 for migrant families, the administration still has 14 days to implement the court ruling, and in any case is appealing the decision. The injunction also only applies to families, so single adults can continue to be removed.
But the U.S. can easily put in place measures that manage risks to public health and still protect the legal right to asylum. The arrival of Afghan refugees, including some whose status is not materially different from asylum-seekers, proves this. The majority of Afghans evacuated to the U.S. arrive without visas as “humanitarian parolees,” yet have been welcomed in the U.S.
While not able to help everyone, the U.S. ensured that more than 123,000 people were safely flown out of Afghanistan and has already accepted 64,000 evacuees. They have received medical screenings and access to vaccinations upon their arrival.
Those seeking security at our southern border should not be treated any differently. The U.S. response to both crises should be guided by international law, our moral obligations and our history. Since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, the U.S. has admitted more than 3.1 million refugees, and since 1990 more than 700,000 people have been granted asylum.
Asylum-seekers must not be forced back to the trauma and violence that they’re so desperately fleeing. The Biden administration must immediately halt flights carrying asylum-seekers back to Mexico and Haiti and fully rescind Title 42 so that everyone seeking protection can petition for safety. If the U.S. can orchestrate a historic airlift of Afghan refugees in the midst of a pandemic, we cannot use Covid as an excuse to turn away those seeking protection at our southern border.
By Giulia McPherson, director of advocacy and operations at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA