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WASHINGTON, D.C. March 29, 2021 – The following statement is from Efrén Olivares, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Project. 

Recent national discourse around immigration has largely ignored the real issue at hand: the rights, dignity, and humanity of families, children, and other people seeking protection. Many lawmakers and pundits have failed even to acknowledge the United States’ domestic and international legal obligations to guarantee the rights of unaccompanied children and to allow those fleeing danger to access the U.S. asylum process.

We must not be deterred by the bad faith efforts to demonize immigrants of color and frame immigration as a problem from the same disgraced former officials who designed vile policy like family separation and spokespersons of anti-immigrant hate groups. Failing to provide accurate information and neglecting to place recent developments in proper context does a disservice to all. Those with large platforms cannot continue to so carelessly mislead the public on policy that directly impacts the safety and livelihoods of people seeking asylum. 

People don’t flee their homes because there is a new president. They flee their homes because they have no other choice, and often because their home country has deteriorated as a result of decades of U.S. interventionalist policy. 

Black and Brown immigrants and children seeking asylum are not political bargaining chips. Their voices and the voices of our local communities must be heard. Our call is clear: It’s time for a bold reimagining of our immigration system, and the creation of an asylum system that respects the human rights of all.

BACKGROUND

There is not a sudden increase in the number of immigrants at the border. Current numbers are predictable and comparable to 2019, and are much lower than numbers from the early 2000s. 

  • Both the number of Title 42 expulsions and the number of apprehensions of adults, families, and unaccompanied children have been steadily increasing since nearly a year ago when Title 42 was invoked. The data shows a consistent trend, not a sudden increase. Data also shows that migration patterns are seasonal. Moreover, the use of Title 42 has likely inflated border crossing figures, as the same individual may attempt to enter and be expelled multiple times.  
  • Steps taken by the Biden-Harris administration to undo restrictive, inhumane, and unlawful policies like “Remain in Mexico” and to transition to a more welcoming posture do not explain recent migration patterns, and there is no evidence to suggest that messaging from the White House alone influences migration one way or the other. The previous administration was rabidly anti-immigrant, but people nonetheless arrived at the border seeking protection in numbers comparable to what we are seeing now.
  • Decades of U.S. foreign policy has contributed to the conditions in Central America that force people to leave their homes. And over the past year, the economic fallout of the pandemic and recent climate disasters are among the drivers of migration from Central America and other countries.

The Biden-Harris administration has not implemented a new policy to allow unaccompanied children to enter the country; the government is enforcing the law that was already on the books, but still failing to meet its obligations to welcome children safely and humanely.

  • The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 does not allow the government to expel or turn back unaccompanied children at the border. This law was adopted in recognition of the unique needs of unaccompanied children, and their vulnerability to trafficking and smuggling networks.
  • The Trump administration used Title 42 to prevent thousands of children from accessing the asylum system, until a federal court halted the practice in November 2020. The Biden-Harris administration has asserted that it will not restart this unlawful policy even if the courts allow it. 
  • The Biden-Harris administration can move away from the failed model of migrant child detention by implementing alternatives to detention – dignified policies that prioritize children’s wellbeing and family unity. Unaccompanied children must stay in government custody until family members or other sponsors come forward to claim a child and are vetted by the government. As the government estimates that 80 percent of arriving children already have family in the U.S., the Biden-Harris administration and Congress can invest in programs that expeditiously and safely transport children directly to safe sponsor homes – not detention. 

Over the past four years, the U.S. abandoned its domestic and international obligations to provide access to the asylum process to those seeking it, and to guarantee the rights of children. Most of the restrictive asylum policies enacted by the previous administration remain in place. 

  • The Biden administration has continued to use Title 42 to unlawfully and summarily expel thousands of people, denying most people seeking refuge in the U.S. access to the asylum system altogether. 
  • Expelling asylum seekers to danger does not protect public health. The use of Title 42 has been roundly denounced by public health experts, including CDC scientists, as both unnecessary and ineffective. Senior CDC medical experts, epidemiologists, and public health experts all agree: there is no public health rationale for denying people their right to seek asylum at the U.S. border. 
  • A myriad of restrictive policies that abdicate the U.S.’s legal responsibility to provide asylum remain in place or have yet to be formally rescinded by the new administration. These include the Asylum Entry Ban, Asylum Transit Rule, expedited removal, and metering. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a catalyst for racial justice in the South and beyond, working in partnership with communities to dismantle white supremacy, strengthen intersectional movements, and advance the human rights of all people. For more information, visit www.splcenter.org.