An incident last Wednesday at a Tijuana port of entry at the US-Mexico border exposes the federal government’s incoherence and hypocrisy when it comes to the treatment of migrants fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the United States.
A Ukrainian mother and her three children escaping the Russian invasion tried to apply for US asylum at the Tijuana port of entry but were turned away by border officials. The reason for the rejection was Title 42, the nearly two-year-old Trump-era policy that effectively closed the border to the vast majority of asylum applicants. The incident provoked outrage and dismay among immigration attorneys and advocates who were helping the family. Thanks to their advocacy and media spotlight, the family was admitted the next day on a humanitarian exception in California, where they reportedly have family who are US citizens.
HAPPENING NOW: @CBP is turning away a Ukrainian woman and her minor children at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. This woman does not have a phone and cannot safely stay in Tijuana. How can the US say it supports Ukraine while turning away its refugees from our borders?— Erika Pinheiro (@eeerox) March 10, 2022
Tragically, that family is not the only one from Ukraine trying to make it to the United States via Mexico. Reports on the ground from refugee advocates suggest a surge of Ukrainian asylum seekers is beginning and most of them are getting promptly rejected. (Some, like that Ukrainian family in Tijuana, are starting to get approvals for humanitarian exemptions after receiving help from local activists.)
With that backdrop, President Biden said on Friday that he “will welcome Ukrainian refugees — we should welcome them here with open arms if they need access.” But that is not happening at our southern border. Moreover, the arrival of Ukrainian refugees at the border also raises questions about disparate treatment of other asylum seekers from Haiti and Central America who have been systematically turned away for months at the same spot. Naturally, there are different levels of violence and hardship faced by people all over the world, but if border officials can process some Ukrainian families fleeing war, they can certainly begin processing all other migrants so they can apply for asylum.
Ultimately, the new and urgent dynamic at the border puts pressure on the Biden administration to finally end Title 42. The cost of keeping the policy, whose public health purpose was never justified by scientists and experts, is too high: The United States is neglecting its moral and legal international obligations and is putting migrants in danger by sending them back to harm.
Biden’s insistence on keeping the policy in place seems even more unconscionable in the face of his administration’s recent decision to end it for unaccompanied minors. Granted, the announcement about the exception for minors came Saturday, after a ruling from a Texas court essentially forced the government’s hand. And as reported by BuzzFeed last week, the Biden administration is apparently preparing to unwind Title 42 in April. It also may very well be that Biden is hoping the courts will make the decision to end the policy first, allowing him to save political face given hard-line Republicans’ support for maintaining the closed border — a position based on nothing more than fearmongering.
An exemption from Title 42 would not have been approved for that family of four in Tijuana had they not been from Ukraine, according to local advocates who for months have been watching border officials reject Haitian, African, and Central American refugees. In fact, the approval rate for Title 42 exemption requests is roughly 25 percent for all nationalities except Haitians, for which the approval rate is about 14 percent, according to data reported by Vice News and obtained from the border nonprofit Al Otro Lado.
So will it be the Ukrainian refugee crisis that finally puts the nail in the coffin of Title 42? Will it take the plight of white, European refugees for the government — and the American public — to care about what’s happening to asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border? Biden needs to restore the United States’ core humanitarian values to our asylum system, so cruelly corrupted and exploited by Donald Trump and his minions. The desperation of migrants fleeing violence knows no boundaries, skin color, nor place of origin.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.