American Immigration Policies Brutalize Vulnerable Migrants
World Refugee Day reminds us how the U.S. doesn’t follow its own immigration laws—and that race, gender, and class can mean the difference between life and death.
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Del Rio, Texas and Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila in Mexico are connected by an international bridge that enables thousands of people with the right documents to traverse back and forth each day for business and pleasure. Luisa decidedly does not have the right documents, and she can’t even use her real name for this reporting because it could lead to her death.
The Honduran migrant has been waylaid in Acuña with her husband and children since December 2021. She and her family fled Honduras after her mother was murdered by gang members for refusing to help transport drugs. Luisa feared for her own life, of course, but what really drove her and her husband to flee was the fear that their children would be murdered.
For six months, Luisa’s family has struggled to survive on the streets, relying on the kindness of strangers for bare necessities like food and clothing. “This is no way to live,” Luisa said, but there’s no end in sight because of Title 42.
Title 42 of the Public Health Services Act empowers federal health authorities to prohibit migrants from entering the country to prevent the spread of contagious diseases.
Pushed by white nationalist and former White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller—the man who was also behind the family separation policy—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invoked Title 42 in March 2020. The policy effectively demolishes the legal right to request asylum by allowing immigration authorities to swiftly expel migrants from the U.S. and indefinitely return asylum-seeking migrants to their most recent transit country. All of this is being done under the guise of public health. But Title 42 is scientifically baseless, according to epidemiologists and public health experts. There is plenty of evidence that the policy has actually aided in the transmission of the coronavirus.
The Biden administration set a May 23 deadline to reverse the order, but a lawsuit filed by mostly Republican-led states created additional complications, keeping the rule in place for now and leaving Luisa and tens of thousands of other migrants in deadly limbo.
Julia Neusner, an associate attorney with Human Rights First’s Refugee Protection program, has conducted hundreds of interviews with asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The attorney and researcher said there’s a cycle playing out in which people who fled their home countries because of violence are then brutalized in Mexico as they wait for their chance to be processed into the United States. This cycle of violence is very reminiscent of the U.S. asylum system. The most powerful country in the world directs its most harmful and unjust policies at the world’s most vulnerable people. These are the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and we are suffocating them.
The international human rights organization Human Rights First has recorded attacks on 10,250 asylum-seekers in the 16 months since the Biden administration took office. The details are hard to process.
Take, for example, one case Human Rights First documented in which a young woman was kidnapped in Mexico, held hostage for weeks, repeatedly raped and tortured by her captors, trafficked into the United States, and then dumped in Phoenix, Arizona. Authorities found that she did not have a fear of Mexico under the Title 42 torture screening, so they returned her to Mexico. Or the case of a trans woman who fled Honduras because of transphobic violence, only to be sexually assaulted, threatened with murder, and stalked in Mexico. One Salvadoran asylum-seeker who was expelled to Mexico by the United States was kidnapped, raped, and abandoned in the desert.
When she tried to report it, Mexican police told her that “migrants like to be raped.” Shortly after she learned she was pregnant as a result of the rape and according to a declaration from immigration attorney Taylor Levy, when the woman went to a public hospital for prenatal care, she was subjected to a “forced abortion.”
Luisa considers herself lucky—even though she is two months pregnant and living with her family in a makeshift camp in Acuña, a place where she says migrants from other countries are “discriminated against and suffer greatly.” Having her husband with her has “made a difference,” she said. While there have certainly been cases in which entire families are kidnapped and held for ransom, Luisa said the people targeted most often are women who are alone.
I exchanged an endless stream of WhatsApp messages with the 31-year-old in the days leading up to World Refugee Day, an international celebration of refugees that takes place each year on June 20. Luisa had never heard of it, and she wasn’t really feeling celebratory. When Luisa left Honduras six months ago, she also left her siblings behind. She hasn’t heard from them for about a month. This is the longest she’s gone without communicating with her brother and sister, and she fears the worst. Plus, Luisa said that most of the migrants she’s encountered have never even heard of applying for refugee status.
“Asylum-seeker” and “refugee” are often used interchangeably and while they overlap in significant ways, they are distinct categories under the law. Asylum-seekers request humanitarian protection at a port of entry or from within the United States; refugees request humanitarian protection from a third country. Both categories are the result of the Refugee Act of 1980, and both systems are for people who need protection due to persecution or fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
“The term refugee has just come to have a more expansive meaning, in large part because of misunderstanding about its legal meaning, but also just because of the way it’s been used in history,” Neusner said. “I also think ‘refugee’ tends to evoke a more sympathetic response from the public.”
Luisa said that applying for refugee status wasn’t an option for her; she and her family had to quickly flee Honduras because they feared for their lives. This is not uncommon. Neusner explained that among the hundreds of asylum-seekers she’s spoken to, the danger they are fleeing is so urgent that they can’t stick around to apply for refugee status. This is especially true for Central Americans, who according to the most recent available data, make up 34 percent of migrants who have been expelled under Title 42.
“A lot of the people we’ve encountered from El Salvador and other Central American countries are fleeing death threats by criminal organizations with ties all over the region and into Mexico,” Neusner said. “This makes their home country and the surrounding countries unsafe. These people have no other choice but to seek asylum at the border. But it’s important to say that anybody from any country has the same right to refugee and asylum protection—even if it doesn’t always look that way.”
And it often doesn’t play out that way. Just as former President Donald Trump annihilated the asylum system, his administration did equal damage to the refugee system. As global humanitarian crises have worsened, resulting in some of the highest levels of displacement in history, the Trump administration—seeing the refugee program as a security threat—reduced the annual refugee ceiling to 15,000, its lowest in history. President Joe Biden revised the refugee admissions cap to 62,500; however his administration only admitted 11,411 refugees to the U.S. in fiscal year 2021. Outside of the whims of whatever administration is in power, there are other significant factors at play that determine how a migrant is treated in the asylum and refugee systems: race, gender, and class.
I spoke to Ronald Claude, the policy and advocacy director at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), the same week he attended the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The gathering of world leaders led to a commitment from the U.S. and Latin American countries to receive more migrants, but would that commitment extend to Black migrants?
Claude said his primary goal at BAJI is to effectively communicate the needs of Black migrants with lawmakers and policymakers to ensure the humanity of Black migrants is protected, and that they receive equitable treatment under the law. This is not an easy task.
“Title 42 is a really good example of how Black migrants experience the wrath of the immigration system,” Claude said. “Americans are being told the pandemic is over and to move on with their lives, yet Title 42 remains in place and it is allowing the U.S. to expel Haitian and other Black asylum-seekers without giving them a chance to claim asylum.”
And this continues to be the reality on the ground. When I spoke to Blaine Bookey, she was in Reynosa, a border city in Mexico located in the northern part of the state of Tamaulipas. As the legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, Bookey was in Mexico to visit migrant shelters, interview asylum-seekers subjected to Title 42, and inform migrants of their rights. In early June, Bookey said the overwhelming majority of the asylum seekers in Reynosa she encountered were Haitian migrants, most of them women and children.
After the assassination last year of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse, the country is in a “political, constitutional, humanitarian, and security crisis,” according to Human Rights Watch. The ever-worsening conditions are pushing people to make the long trek to the United States via the jungles of South America and dangerous stretches of Northern Mexico. Increasingly, Haitian migrants are trying to reach the United States by boat, which can quickly turn deadly.
In response to these desperate pleas for humanitarian protection, the Biden administration is simply expelling Haitian migrants. This month, The New York Times reported that Haitians represented just six percent of migrants crossing the border, but they occupied 60 percent of expulsion flights. In May alone, the Biden administration expelled nearly 4,000 Haitians. This treatment is in stark comparison to the humanitarian protections the Biden administration quickly rolled out for Ukrainians escaping Russia’s invasion. The reason why is clear.
“The history of our immigration system was built on racism,” Bookey said. “If you look at how swiftly the U.S. responded to Ukranians, there is no other way to look at it than along racial lines. I was at the border when one of the first Ukrainians crossed and her case led to the Ukrainian unification program. This is yet another example of how the immigration system is deeply discriminatory.”
Claude explained it’s not that he doesn’t want Ukranians to be granted humanitarian protections; it’s that he wants all migrants to be treated with the same urgency and dignity. On World Refugee Day, Claude said it’s not particularly useful to ask what the United States could do to reform the asylum system or better protect refugees, especially in light of a new federal rule that denies asylum-seekers their due process rights. Right now, the focus needs to be on ensuring that the United States follows existing laws—and that these laws are applied equitably across migrant groups.
Until then, asylum-seekers like Luisa will continue to sleep on the streets of Acuña, where life becomes more precarious each day. On the morning of June 10, Luisa was awoken at dawn by authorities who told migrants they had to vacate the region because of the incoming caravan.
“They told us anyone who remained would be returned to their country,” Luisa said in a WhatsApp message. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where we will go. I need help.”
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