TIJUANA, MEXICO – JULY 22: A person stands next to the U.S.-Mexico border barrier painted with a mural depicting people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children and were deported as adults on July 22, 2021 in Tijuana, Mexico. The mural was created by artist Lizbeth De La Cruz Santana. While the Biden administration has haltingly restarted the asylum system along the southwest border, only a small number of asylum seekers whose situations are considered the most urgent have been allowed to cross the border with Title 42 exceptions. Thousands of asylum seekers remain stuck in Tijuana in precarious conditions. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Nearly 80 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the White House expressing their “great concern” that the Biden administration is walking back on its promise to restore migrants’ access to asylum.
In the letter, they also condemned the administration’s expansion of a controversial policy that immediately turns away migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, known as Title 42, and does not allow them to claim asylum.
During a Thursday press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, New Jersey Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker argued that asylum was 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-U.S. citizens from entering the country during a health crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic, they said.
“We are seeing the extension of Title 42 that, ultimately, is putting people in crisis and in danger of facing persecution and violence,” Booker said.
The policy has been in place since 2020, and more than 2 million migrants have been turned away at the U.S. border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
The letter to President Joe Biden acknowledges the new legal pathways created by the Biden administration for Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, modeled off the current parole programs for Venezuelans.
But Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that those legal pathways “come at the expense of the legal right to seek asylum at 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 the Nazi Germans before and during World War II.
The U.S. passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which allows people fleeing persecution based on the “account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” to claim asylum and ensures that those seeking asylum in the U.S. or at its border do not get sent back to the place they are facing persecution.
In early January, the administration announced dual immigration strategies that would increase expulsions of migrants who attempt to cross the southern border, while also expanding opportunities for migrants from several countries to legally enter the country.
In an attempt to limit migration at the border, the new policy will allow up to 30,000 migrants each month from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua who have U.S.-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 try to cross the border without authorization, they will be immediately expelled 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,” members of Congress said in the letter.
Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri also criticized the administration for employing Title 42, arguing that she doesn’t believe the administration is using it to prevent COVID-19.
Freshman Democratic Rep. Greg Casar of Texas, the House Progressive Caucus whip, said the expansion of Title 42 will not 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 community of San Antonio, because of the expansion of Title 42, fewer and fewer migrants are going through the orderly process of seeking asylum at a port of entry.
“Those folks that are fleeing disaster, that are spending night after night on the top of trains crossing hundreds or thousands of miles, fleeing for their lives, will now be forced to risk drowning in the river, to risk crossing in the desert or to get in the back of a tractor trailer,” he said. “It will not solve the humanitarian crisis. This decision has been driven by the politics of (the) extreme right wing.”
Lawmakers in their letter also expressed concern over the Biden administration’s announcement to begin the rule-making process to require those seeking asylum to first apply for “asylum in a transit country, instead of allowing them to seek their legal right to asylum at our southern border.”
“This, in effect, is a transit ban,” they wrote.
Menendez, who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, urged Biden to not go through with that proposal, and instead continue to fight in the courts to end Title 42 and work with Congress on immigration reform.
“The administration also cannot have it both ways when they claim to be committed to restoring access to asylum, and then they callously block access to asylum and posing a transit ban policy that forces migrants to first seek 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 U.S. Supreme Court decided to keep the policy in place until the justices can review whether the pandemic-era program should be lifted or continue.
The court is expected to hear oral arguments on the case in February.
Members signing the letter
Democrats who signed the letter include:
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
Sen. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon
Sen. Jeffrey Merkley of Oregon
Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona
Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey
Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia
Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine
Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri
Rep. Betty McCollum of Minnesota
Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick of Florida
Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida
Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota
Rep. Shri Thanedar of Michigan
Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia
Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin
Rep. Rob Menendez of New Jersey
Rep. Dwight Evans of Pennslyvania
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey
Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. of New Jersey
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico
Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin
Rep. Maxwell Frost of Florida
Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona
Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina
Rep. Summer Lee of Pennsylvania
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