Two major public health crises are clashing along the U.S.-Mexico border and spilling out into the Rio Grande Valley. Officials weighing their options should focus on the most humanitarian and greatest long-term benefit, which appear to be the same.
Refusing to consider valid requests for asylum isn’t it. President Biden, however, missed an opportunity to set many minds at ease when he chose not to rescind a Donald Trump order to reject migrants at the border even if their asylum claims appeared valid.
Biden’s reluctance to formally halt the practice is understandable. A new surge in COVID-19 cases is sweeping through both the United States and Mexico amid reduced vaccination rates. At the same time, a new surge of immigrants, mostly declared refugees, is arriving at the border. The Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen and other facilities are full, and can’t take new admissions until some of their current residents are moved out.
Homeland Security officials routinely test those migrants for COVID-19 before releasing them to shelters like the Respite Center. Some have tested positive.
Obviously, releasing infected people into the general population creates a public health risk, and U.S. law addresses that. Section 265 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code of Laws allows the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent people from crossing our borders or expel them if there is “serious danger of the introduction of disease into the United States.” President Trump in March 2020 issued an executive order invoking the clause to routinely prevent any immigrants from entering this country.
For the past year, immigrant and human rights advocates have lobbied to have the order rescinded. A federal judge in November ordered a halt to the practice of using the code to reject unaccompanied minors, saying it violates the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and other laws. Another court overturned that ruling but the new administration hasn’t used it.
In February, Biden asked the CDC to review the Trump order and determine if it was needed or should be canceled or modified. The center ordered an Exception of Expulsion of Unaccompanied Noncitizen Children. The international organization Human Rights Watch reported that because its use at the border prevents asylum seekers to plead their case, it violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Healthcare officials note that because it is applied to such a specific group — U.S. citizens and people with valid visas can cross the border at will — it does little to protect public health.
Application of the order seems to be waning, although individual officers at the border reportedly continue to make their own decisions; some reject asylum seekers and others receive them. This variance should end, and the administration at least should offer a directive or clarification regarding the use of Title 42.
Official revocation of the order would send a clear public message that this president is committed to abiding by international law and providing refugees — and all people — the basic respect and humane treatment they deserve.