The United States has been absorbed in the effort of mass evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable Afghans following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. It is a company that has demonstrated the ability of the U.S. government to bring tens of thousands of refugees to the safety of America and to mobilize local resources to help them resettle in their new homes.
Rather than bringing people to safety via transit centers and ultimately to countries like the United States, these flights return vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers at risk.
But at the same time, the Biden administration has quietly engaged in yet another round of “evacuation” flights, this time to our southern border. Rather than bringing people to safety via transit centers and, ultimately, to countries like the United States, these flights return vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers at risk – sending them back to the very places. where they flee.
As recently as last week, the United States expelled 86 Haitians who had fled the recent earthquake and political unrest, and flown them back to Haiti as part of that policy. Many other Haitians who try to avoid this fate are being held in Del Rio, Texas. U.S. officials are devoting additional resources to increasing the rate of thefts to remove them more quickly, saying six to eight flights a day will depart from Tuesday.
It is a continuation of the policy begun under the Trump administration known as Title 42, which essentially prohibits anyone from seeking asylum at the southern border of the United States on the pretext that concerns about the spread of Covid-19 mean she must be immediately deported. Since its first implementation in March 2020, more than a million migrants and asylum seekers have been turned away.
This means that asylum seekers have been deported in violation of the 1967 United Nations Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which prevents countries from returning people to places where they are threatened with their life or freedom without giving them the possibility of applying for asylum.
The UN refugee agency has expressed concern over these deportation flights, noting that those affected are being returned to “the very dangers they fled in their country of origin.” Rather, these asylum seekers should be welcomed as Afghans are welcomed – all refugees deserve protection, not just our allies.
The consequences are devastating, as reports of violence and insecurity in their countries of origin, along transit routes and in Mexico abound. A recent report by Human Rights First documented at least 6,356 reports of kidnappings and attacks on asylum seekers and migrants after they were returned from the United States under Title 42.
At the end of August, my colleagues from the Jesuit Refugee Service in Mexico traveled to the Mexican border with Guatemala to accompany people deported from the United States on one of these flights. They met a woman from Guatemala traveling with her two daughters. She said she told U.S. officers that she suffered violence in her home country and sought asylum at the U.S. border.
She told us that she shared the name of a family member in California, then boarded a plane, believing that she would soon be safe and with her family in the United States. As they began to land, she was shocked to learn from the pilot that their destination was instead Mexico. She and her daughters then got on a bus back to Guatemala, the place where they had fled the violence in the first place.
While a federal judge on Thursday prevented the Biden administration from applying Title 42 for migrant families, the administration still has 14 days to implement the court ruling and is appealing the decision in any case. The injunction also only applies to families, so single adults can continue to be removed.
But the United States can easily put in place measures that manage public health risks while protecting the right to legal asylum. The arrival of Afghan refugees, some whose status is not materially different from that of asylum seekers, proves this. Majority of Afghans evacuated to the United States arrive visa-free as “humanitarian parolees”, but have been admitted to the United States
While not in a position to help everyone, the United States has ensured that more than 123,000 people are safely evacuated from Afghanistan and has already accepted 64,000 evacuees. They have benefited from medical screening and have access to vaccinations upon arrival.
Those seeking security on our southern border should not be treated any differently. The US response to both crises should be guided by international law, our moral obligations, and our history. Since the adoption of the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States has admitted more than 3.1 million refugees, and since 1990 more than 700,000 people have been granted asylum.
Asylum seekers should not be forced to revert to the trauma and violence they so desperately flee. The Biden administration must immediately stop flights carrying asylum seekers to Mexico and Haiti and completely cancel Title 42 so that anyone seeking protection can seek safety. If the United States can orchestrate a historic airlift of Afghan refugees in the midst of a pandemic, we cannot use Covid as an excuse to turn back those seeking protection at our southern border.