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 U.S. 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.”
U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District, were the Pennsylvania signatories to the letter. Lee, who was elected to the House last November, has called current immigration law a “broken web of xenophobic policies that seek to punish brown and Black people instead of building pathways to citizenship.”
In February 2022, Evans joined with scores of Senate and House lawmakers to call on the White House to reverse Title 42. The effort, spearheaded by Booker, and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., said policies enacted under the former Trump administration, including Title 42, “circumvent our humanitarian obligations.
“It is essential that we recommit ourselves to reversing anti-Black policies, including by adopting a human-rights centered approach to supporting immigrants and people seeking asylum in the United States,” the lawmakers said in a statement at the time.
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.
Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed additional reporting.