On May 11, the Biden administration ended a set of immigration restrictions known as Title 42, a section of federal public-health law that the Trump administration used at the onset of the pandemic to restrict immigration to the United States.
Based on the premise that migration would spread the COVID-19 virus, the policy denied migrants the right to seek asylum. Since March 2020, the policy was used to expel asylum seekers at the border more than 2.8 million times.
Now that Title 42 has ended, migrants are hoping to enter the U.S. and request asylum as they did prior to 2020. However, the Department of Homeland Security recently announced a new regulation that will present new and unnecessary obstacles.
We need to consider the new regulation through the eyes of Jesus, who asks his followers to welcome the stranger, love their neighbors and take care of the physical needs of the most vulnerable. We need to oppose key aspects of these changes on humanitarian and faith-based grounds.
The new policy is built on the premise that migrants are ineligible for asylum unless they meet one of three criteria. The first way to become eligible is to apply for and be denied asylum in a country they have passed through.
Applying for asylum in a country such as Mexico is problematic: The government does not have the capacity to process large numbers of asylum seekers; migrants may not have family to stay with as they do in the U.S.; they are likely to have difficulty accessing legal counsel; their lives may still be in danger due to insecurity in Mexico.
The U.S. Department of State’s country summary on Mexico says, “Violent crime — such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery — is widespread and common in Mexico.” Recent incidents like the death of nearly 40 people in a Juarez immigrant detention center fire highlight the inability of officials in Mexico to humanely process migrants.
If migrants do not first apply for asylum in another country, the new regulation stipulates a second option: Use a smartphone app called CBP One to request entrance to the United States and a screening appointment with U.S. immigration officials. If migrants have reliable access to a smartphone and know how to navigate digital technology, they still enter an asylum equivalent of the lottery, hoping their request is chosen for one of a limited number of appointments.
According to Abraham Díaz Alonso, Mennonite Central Committee Central States immigration program coordinator in Texas, those who are not able to obtain an appointment will continue waiting in one of the many migrant encampments, often sleeping in makeshift sheds and tents until they are granted an interview where they can state their case for asylum.
Díaz Alonso recounted the testimony of Moisés, a husband and father whose real name has been changed for his protection: “We’ve waited months in this encampment to apply for asylum. We have traveled miles and months to get here. We cannot just give up and turn back. It just isn’t a real option. We return and we face persecution and even death. Who would expose their children to these options?”
Those who get an appointment for a screening will have to show that they are in danger of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion and that they followed the new rules for eligibility.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the screenings will occur rapidly in a process known as expedited removal. This accelerated process, also used by previous administrations, can result in inaccurate assessments of asylum eligibility and decrease the likelihood that migrants will have time to consult with legal counsel. Migrants who fail to meet the burden of proof will be subject to removal and unable to re-enter the country for a minimum of five years.
These arduous burdens will prevent otherwise eligible people from finding safe refuge. Many will be sent back to communities where they are unsafe.
The third way to gain eligibility for asylum is a new “humanitarian parole” program for migrants from Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela that will allow 30,000 people per month up to two years of lawful status in the U.S. if they are able to acquire a sponsor, submit the required documents and fly to the interior of the United States. Communities of faith, working with refugee resettlement agencies, are looking at ways to assist migrants who qualify for the program.
One important way to get involved is to pray, says Rachel Diaz, an immigration attorney who works with MCC, providing legal assistance to immigrants in South Florida.
“Pray for God to work in miraculous ways for each person and family at the border,” she said. “He is the God of the brokenhearted and the repairer of broken systems.”
We can also pray for policymakers in Washington and appeal to members of Congress and to the White House to show compassion toward migrants.
The following policy changes could make a big difference for asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. government should:
- Expand staffing and increase access to trauma-informed asylum processing at ports of entry.
- Communicate with faith-based and other nonprofit organizations at the border regarding planned or recent changes, offering grants to support their financial needs.
- Increase legal pathways for migration, including humanitarian parole, visa access and refugee capacity, thus reducing the need for crossing without documentation.
- Shift resources away from inhumane, for-profit detention and instead invest in community-based asylum case management, adjudicating cases in a timely manner.
- Address the root causes of migration throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and other countries where immigrants originate.
While we have a long way to go in reforming the U.S. immigration system, there is hope that public awareness is higher than ever. People of faith are aware of the extreme needs of migrants as well as their own ability to call for positive change.