Editor’s Note: Alice Driver is a writer who divides her time between Mexico and the US. She is working on a book about labor rights and immigration, “The Life and Death of the American Worker.” Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Oxford American. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Former President Donald Trump redefined the nature of asylum in the United States, ushering in a raft of cruel initiatives on immigration, including a diabolical family separation policy that wrenched children and infants away from their parents as they waited to be granted asylum or deported.
As his successor arrived Sunday in El Paso, Texas – the border town that has become the epicenter of America’s immigration debate – one question continues to trouble me and others who closely follow the issue: Why hasn’t President Joe Biden made a decisive, 180-degree turn away from Trump’s reprehensible policies?
As a journalist reporting on the US-Mexico border, I saw firsthand how the Trump administration used family separation to punish undocumented families who crossed the border.
By the time he left office, the Trump administration had separated more than 5,000 migrant children from their parents. Images of children left alone and wailing seared into our collective conscience – including, apparently, Biden’s. In June 2018, he criticized Trump’s family separation policy as “unconscionable.” Midway through his presidential term, more than 500 children have been reunified – prior to the launch of Biden’s Family Reunification Task Force 2,291 children had been reunited, which brings the total up to 2,837.
Trump’s cruelty on the issue of immigration was not limited to family separation. He also put in place the reprehensible Title 42 policy, purportedly a Covid prevention policy, that was used as justification to expel thousands of migrants, many of them asylum seekers, to Mexico.
I witnessed how they lived for months or even years in tents on the Mexican side of the border, often facing threats from organized crime. With crossings in 2022 exceeding two million – a new record – Biden is under attack from Republicans who accuse him of exacerbating the immigration crisis by not acting aggressively enough on the border. It remains an open question whether the Supreme Court will decide to keep the controversial Title 42 policy.
Since March 2020, there have been nearly 2.5 million expulsions under Title 42 provisions, most of which have occurred during Biden’s presidency. The policy remains in place, despite Biden saying he wants to end it. As recently as last week, the White House vowed to “expand and expedite legal pathways for orderly migration.”
The road that got the Biden administration to its current immigration policy has been a long and winding one. The administration tried to wind down the Title 42 program last year, but a coalition of mostly GOP-led states successfully sued to block the Department of Homeland Security from ending enforcement. Some states appealed to the Supreme Court, which has ordered that it must remain in place while legal challenges play out.
But despite avowedly wanting to end the program, Biden has actually imposed stricter immigration measures on nationals from certain countries who hope to enter the United States. The Department of Homeland Security proposed restrictions to asylum more stringent than Trump’s policies by requiring people fleeing Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua who cross the border from Mexico to have previously applied for in a country they traveled through on their way to the US.
This policy shows a lack of understanding of the nature of asylum. Those most in need of asylum are fleeing for their lives. People at risk for assassination are unlikely to survive an asylum process that sends them back into harm’s way. Asylum exists to help the most vulnerable among us.
The Biden administration announced Friday it would expand a program allowing 30,000 migrants per month from Venezuela to Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua to enter the US. But Biden’s new policies – requiring that asylum applicants have a sponsor in the US and submit to a background check – seem likely to ensure that only the most privileged – those with family or friends already in the US – can access it.
In a speech on January 5, the President said, addressing migrants from the above-mentioned countries who hoped to make the arduous journey to the US, “Do not just show up at the border. Stay where you are and apply legally from there.” This goes against decades of established asylum policy that has extended the right to request asylum to all migrants at ports of entry along the US-Mexico border. Biden said the new process “is orderly, it’s safe and humane, and it works.”
When I reported from the town of Reynosa, Mexico in April 2021, I met a mother from San Pedro Sula, Honduras – a climate change migrant who had fled the destruction of hurricanes Eta and Iota. She lived among hundreds of asylum seekers in a public park littered with tents and where laundry hung from the branches of trees to dry.
The woman, who did not want her name to be made public for fear of legal repercussions, told me that she had crossed the border into the US with her 12-year-old son requesting asylum. An immigration official separated them, and when US authorities later deported her, they did so without her child, whom she still has not been able to locate.
She wrote her son a message, which she gave to me in the hope that I might someday be able to get the note to him: “I love you, son. You know it wasn’t my intention to leave you. It was a trick. Take care, son.”
Immigration advocates tell me that reuniting families that have been torn apart is among the top issues the administration needs to address. “We get calls or emails at least several times a week from families who have been separated from a child at the border,” Julie Schwietert Collazo, the co-founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit group Immigrant Families Together, told me, speaking about the continuing family separations.
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For some people, immigration to the United States is mostly about making up a shortfall in low-wage labor, and indeed, many people who come here are eager to contribute their hard work and to pull their weight. But above all else, comprehensive immigration policies need to recognize the respect, dignity and humanity of everyone who is forced to flee danger and who finds themselves within our borders.