Arizona Welcoming Task Force Urges Biden Administration to Restore Access to Asylum

Nogales, AZ – The Arizona Welcoming Task Force (AZWTF) resolutely echoes the sentiments of our fellow humanitarian and legal service providers in California, who earlier this month released a joint statement calling on the Biden administration to reopen legal pathways for those seeking asylum in the United States. Since its inauguration, the Biden administration – far from making good on its commitment to an “orderly and fair processing” of asylum seekers – has disingenuously invoked the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to suspend asylum access almost entirely. In doing so, this administration has put countless survivors of violence and persecution into life-threatening states of limbo, forcing many into irregular migration pathways where their attempts to seek protection are subsequently labeled as ‘illegal’.

We believe that the United States, as one of the most powerful and well-resourced countries in the world, has ample capacity to meet its obligations to asylum seekers under international and domestic law. Moreover, non-governmental organizations across the border – including those of us comprising AZWTF – have time and again demonstrated both our willingness and ability to help the U.S. government welcome asylum seekers into our communities with dignity. Now, more than ever, we implore the Biden administration to fundamentally reconsider its approach to asylum seekers at the southwest border, first and foremost by reestablishing the legal asylum process at US ports of entry.

The Biden administration’s ongoing abdication of asylum law is at the root of many alarming trends in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands, most of which AZWTF sees firsthand. In 2021 alone, humanitarian and legal service organizations have documented thousands of attacks against migrants unable to access the U.S. asylum process. The Kino Border Initiative (KBI), the Florence Project, and Arizona Justice For Our Neighbors, working out of Nogales, Sonora, regularly encounter cases of assault, death threats, kidnapping, torture and sexual abuse, usually at the hands of local organized crime. These practices are well known to the U.S. State Department, which has repeatedly documented them in its annual human rights reports on Mexico and dissuaded travel to almost every northern Mexican border state accordingly.

The shelters where many migrants have chosen to await an eventual reopening of the legal asylum process are not insulated from this violence. AZWTF has uncovered numerous allegations of assault, extortion and sexual abuse within Sonora-side shelters, sometimes perpetrated by the shelter owners themselves who maintain impunity via threats of eviction.

It should come as no surprise that many migrants – caught between indefinite limbo in dangerous Mexican border towns and the circumstances that initially led them to flee home – attempt to access US protection by entering between ports of entry. Though Biden administration officials and public commentators have been quick to lament the high numbers of apprehensions and unprecedented strain being placed on Border Patrol, we observe how few seem to grasp the connection between these numbers and blanket denials of asylum claims at the ports.

Similarly unmentioned is the human toll of policies that push asylum-seeking families – many with small children – to attempt perilous treks through vast stretches of desert. In Arizona specifically, the number of migrants’ bodies recovered in our region of the Sonoran Desert is set to exceed last year’s all-time high. This will, as always, be a gross undercount due to the extraordinary speed with which human remains are scattered in desert biomes.

That the Biden administration continues to pursue draconian asylum policies in spite of their conspicuous connection with deadly outcomes for migrants is disturbing. It is also entirely consistent with the deeply flawed and inhumane “prevention through deterrence” approach to immigration enforcement embraced by prior US administrations, which deems higher numbers of migrant deaths to be an acceptable externality of policies ultimately aimed at discouraging migration.

The Biden administration’s recent policies towards Haitian asylum seekers constitute a particularly egregious and grotesque example of the deterrence-based approach. Instead of processing the legitimate asylum claims of Haitians fleeing “…political crisis, violence, and a staggering increase in human rights abuses,” as DHS itself acknowledged just one month earlier when granting Temporary Protected Status to Haitians living in the United States, the Biden administration has chosen to expel as many of the Haitians arriving at the southern border as possible. This is to say nothing of the appalling actions by Border Patrol agents in Del Rio, who were caught on camera using cords to whip Black Haitian migrants while rounding them up on horseback; or the indication that DHS is seeking a contractor to operate a migrant detention center at Guantanamo Bay, specifically requesting Creole language speakers. These anecdotes speak powerfully to the ways in which hardline deterrence measures implemented by the United States cannot be extricated from the racist and imperialist policies of the country’s past.

The Title 42 ‘expulsions’ to which Haitian and other asylum seekers are being subjected, it should be noted, are officially justified by the alleged public health risk posed by asylum seekers as vectors for COVID-19. This is rejected as “scientifically baseless” by broad swaths of the medical community, who instead argue that spread of COVID-19 and its prominent variants can be effectively mitigated by common-sense interventions that are well within DHS’s capacity to implement. Moreover, this justification for Title 42 collapses entirely when one considers that throughout the pandemic, tens of millions of people have been permitted to cross the US-Mexico border with no testing or vaccination requirement to speak of. In fact, even when asylum seekers have presented proof of their recent COVID-19 negative or vaccinated status, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at the Nogales port of entry have still turned them away. One CBP supervisor even conceded: “It has nothing to do with the vaccine or having a negative COVID test,” to an asylum-seeking family accompanied by faith leaders and Florence Project staff. The CBP officer’s comment belies the Biden administration’s attempt to rebrand a Trump-era policy that was always intended to close borders to asylum seekers.

Its flimsy and contested legal basis aside, the implementation of Title 42 has itself been highly problematic. CBP – though hardly new to the practice of disregarding the legal claims of asylum seekers – has been particularly zealous in its rejection and mistreatment of those fleeing credible threats of violence, as AZWTF has witnessed firsthand. Migrants in Sonora, Mexico who present their asylum claims to CBP officers are at best ignored, despite the legal requirement that they minimally be screened for eligibility under the Convention Against Torture. For those apprehended between Arizona ports of entry, cases of Border Patrol subjecting migrants to verbal humiliation, physical abuse, document theft, and threats of family separation are not uncommon. Massive rights violations have also been uncovered in DHS’s more recent practice of expelling migrants far into the Mexican interior in coordination with Mexican immigration authorities. Asylum seekers subjected to these expulsion flights are essentially given no chance to pursue their protection claims in either or the United States or Mexico and have reportedly suffered similar types of abuse to those in Border Patrol custody, including deliberate deceit by US officials about where they are being taken.

The logistical apparatus for implementing Title 42 expulsions is not exclusive to the border region. Asylum seekers are often held for weeks or months in detention camps via a process known colloquially as “delayed Title 42”, which takes the policy’s public health justification to new depths of absurdity. Without ever having an opportunity to present their asylum claim, migrants are subjected to prolonged detention in places such as La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, which has been notoriously non-compliant in providing basic medical care, access to legal counsel and humane treatment of detainees. Though systemic deprivations of human rights in US immigrant detention camps are not a new phenomenon, migrants subjected to “delayed Title 42” are not even afforded lip service to due process. They are simply expelled based on the theoretical public health risk they might have posed upon entry.

The Biden administration has indicated no plan to end its application of Title 42 and is only growing bolder in its willingness to impose punitive, deterrence measures against the most vulnerable. Incredibly, DHS now looks poised to reimplement the former Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (“Remain in Mexico”) program designed to further discourage asylum seekers from seeking legal protection on US soil, despite viable legal avenues that would permit the Biden administration to circumvent a Texas district court’s order that it restart the brutal policy. Thus, rather than squaring its shoulders to the veritable humanitarian crises that drive people from their homes, and bringing plentiful, federal resources to bear on asylum processing at ports of entry, the Biden administration is cowering behind the utterly inhumane policies of its predecessor. The cost of these policies is ultimately paid by asylum-seekers who are denied a pathway towards safety and freedom in the United States. We demand better and call on the Biden Administration to reestablish the legal asylum process by ending Title 42 expulsions and to build a system focused on protection and dignity.
“We had such high hopes that the Biden Administration was actually going to put people at the center of its policy and actions. We instead stand today in a worse situation than we did under Trump,” stated Laurie Benson, founder of Madres e Hijos. “It’s heartbreaking to speak with migrants who have been expelled to small towns in Sonora, Mexico, in the middle of the night, and hear of the treatment they receive at the hands of our government employees. Title 42 continues to provide an unquestioned opportunity for border patrol agents to mistreat migrants and turn away even the most vulnerable fleeing for their lives. The Biden Administration has to stop using this inhumane policy as a stop gap to address the flow of migrants at the border.”

“We stand in solidarity with migrants at the Arizona/Sonora border who have been advocating for their right to seek protection in the United States,” said Aaron Rippenkroeger of the International Rescue Committee in Arizona. “We have watched in distress as migrants have been systematically expelled to danger, all under the auspices of protecting public health. Continuing to use the pandemic to justify shutting out asylum seekers is indefensible, especially when the Arizona community stands at the ready to safely welcome those in need.” 

“At the Kino Border Initiative, we engage daily with hundreds of migrants who share their experience fleeing violence. Unable to return to their communities or countries of origin, they have no choice but to wait for months in uncertainty for this administration to end Title 42 and restore asylum,” said Pedro De Velasco of the Kino Border Initiative. “Although the Biden Administration has stated that their goal is to restore asylum for migrant individuals and families that approach our southern border fleeing violence and persecution, their actions could not be further from said intention. The U.S. Government has missed every opportunity it has had to treat people with humanity and dignity, and continues to implement policies that violate their rights under domestic and international law. Title 42 is nothing more than the use of the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to keep displaced people from the humanitarian assistance and protection they desperately seek and deserve.”

“We stand proudly with migrants seeking safety in the United States as they advocate for themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Laura St. John of the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project. “People seeking asylum have the right to do so, despite U.S. policies that have violated that right for the last several years. It has been heartbreaking and endlessly frustrating to watch the Biden administration continue to stand by Trump-era policies, such as Title 42 and MPP, proving that his campaign promises to restore a safe, orderly asylum system were empty ones. Even more alarmingly, through these policies, the U.S. government continues to subject countless asylum-seeking families and vulnerable individuals – including LGBTQ, black, and indigenous persons – to ongoing danger and violence while they are displaced at the U.S.-Mexico border. Public health officials and humanitarian advocates have been calling for the end of Title 42 for months now, and there is no justification to continue to slam the doors to the U.S. shut to asylum seekers. The Arizona Welcoming Task Force is ready to enthusiastically welcome those seeking refuge in the U.S.”

“We are extremely disappointed in the Biden’s administration’s refusal to repeal Title 42. By continuing this cruel and unnecessary policy, the Biden administration is furthering endangering the lives of asylum seekers who are already fleeing for their lives,” said Alba Jaramillo, Executive Director for Arizona Justice For Our Neighbors. “The asylum seekers have a legal right to access the asylum system and they have a human right to request refuge at our port of entry. The Biden administration has promised a safe and orderly process to allow asylum seekers into the United States, but it has failed and refused to create such a process. The administration has promised a humane approach to asylum, and what we have witnessed with continuance of Title 42, is the exact opposite. It is an indifference to human rights and a travesty of justice that the administration continues to deny migrants access to the asylum system.”

“We continue in our commitment to offer safe and welcoming services to these families and individuals seeking a brief respite in southern Arizona,” said Teresa Cavendish of Casa Alitas. “We uphold their basic human rights to be treated with respect and compassion, and support their journeys to seek renewed lives built on hope and dignity. As a community and as a country, we have demonstrated we can safely provide hospitality and humanitarian aid even during times of elevated health considerations.  We ask to be given the opportunity to do what we do best – welcome these families, ensure their well-being, and help them move forward to reconnect with their loved ones in the U.S.  They have waited too long already.”

The Arizona Welcoming Task Force is a coalition of humanitarian and legal service providers in the Arizona-Sonora border region, all of whom serve migrants seeking safety in the United States. AZWTF has met regularly with representatives from DHS and the White House since early 2021, fiercely advocating that the rights of asylum seekers be respected in U.S. border policies and practices.