COVID Is No Excuse for Hardline Refugee Policy

The Biden administration is using a Trump-era order to deport Haitian migrants seeking asylum.

In mid-August, a photo emerged of hundreds of Afghan refugees packed into a cargo plane en route to Qatar and eventually the United States. It’s an indelible image, one that fills me with pride knowing that I’ll share this country with families who risked their lives for a better future.

Over the course of 17 days, the military evacuated 122,000 people from Kabul Airport as the capital fell to the Taliban. It was an extraordinary logistical feat, no matter the hasty and painful nature of our exit. We had an obligation to those who had worked with us and our allies during the war, and we marshaled tremendous resources to meet that obligation, as we should have.

Eight thousand miles from Afghanistan, we are shirking our obligation to another group of refugees, this one at our border. Worse yet, the administration is using the pandemic as an excuse to continue to expel people seeking asylum, an order first invoked by President Trump last year.

Despite early steps to unwind the most draconian Trump-era policies, there’s a widening gap between President Biden’s words and deeds on immigration. In February 2020, when asked about the high number of deportations of people without criminal records during President Obama’s time in office, then-candidate Biden conceded, “We took far too long to get it right. I think it was a big mistake.” He sounded like a man who had no intentions of repeating that mistake.

And yet, in the last eight months alone, the United States deported nearly 700,000 people, many of whom were fleeing natural disasters, violence, and political unrest in their home countries. Others, like the thousands of Haitians who crammed under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas last month, made the arduous journey north after years of joblessness and poverty living in Chile.

Faced with a clear opportunity to set himself apart from his predecessor, Biden opted to retain the cold fist of deterrence. Title 42, an obscure provision of a 1944 public health law, allows officials to quickly expel migrants in the name of COVID-19 while bypassing a person’s historical right to claim asylum. The policy is an affront to Biden’s stated values and inconsistent with the all-hands-on-deck spirit that marked the Kabul airlift.

We have an obligation to protect persecuted and forcibly displaced people at our door, pandemic or no pandemic. Their suffering amid nightmare conditions isn’t something we can wish away. Declaring “Do not come” doesn’t absolve us of responsibility.

This is not a call for open borders, nor is it a demand to abandon sensible public health precautions. It’s a plea to treat thousands of human beings in need with the dignity and grace we’d expect for ourselves and to abandon a policy that violates international norms. - MS

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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