Though President Trump has not yet officially conceded, the U.S. election is finally over, and Joe Biden will become the 46th president. On the campaign trail, Biden has pledged to make immigration a top priority. He has already announced that Antony Blinken, former deputy director of state during the Obama administration, is his choice for Secretary of State, and Alejandro Mayorkas as his pick to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Biden says he is committed to reversing the unprecedented cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies. He promised higher admissions caps for refugees. speedier processing of asylum cases and a road map to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the country without legal status. The president-elect has even acknowledged regret over immigration policies under the Obama administration, calling them a “big mistake.” Now, however, as Biden fills his cabinet with the same people who presided over the 2 million deportations carried out during the Obama administration, many are worried that he will forget his promises to create just and humane immigration policies.
My organization, the American Friends Service Committee, has been working with civil society groups to provide humanitarian relief and track human rights violations along the U.S. southern border. And we are anxiously waiting to see if the Biden administration will fulfill its promise to repeal the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy.
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The MPP, which the Trump administration instituted last January, forces tens of thousands of Central Americans and other refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico until their claims are processed. Today, thousands continue to wait — in Nogales, Piedras Negras, Tijuana, Mexicali, Ciudad Juárez, Reynosa, Matamoros, Monterrey and elsewhere — many left vulnerable with limited humanitarian support for months or years for the legal proceedings to unfold. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government has indefinitely postponed all immigration court hearings, effectively stranding asylum seekers in Mexico.
Before the pandemic began, I was in Mexico visiting with people from one of the migrant caravans traveling from Central America to seek refuge in the U.S. I think often of the women I met, and wonder if they are still waiting. I remember talking to Maria, who had left Guatemala after she had lost one of her four children to gang violence and was terrified that she couldn’t earn enough money to protect her surviving children. When a migrant caravan came through her town, she realized it was her best chance to safely travel to the United States and seek asylum. However, Maria spent months in Mexico waiting for her application to be processed by the U.S. government. She may still be there today, among countless others subjected to violent, unsafe conditions while they wait in limbo for their proceedings.
In less than four years, Trump’s administration has effectively dismantled the U.S. immigration system and upended our asylum processes. He separated more than 2,800 children from their parents under a cruel, zero-tolerance deportation policy. In addition to MPP, he has barred people who entered the U.S. between ports of entry and dismantled benefits like work permits and timely employment authorizations for asylum seekers. He has also passed a “safe third country” agreement with Central American countries requiring migrants to seek asylum in the first country they come to, regardless of whether the country has the infrastructure in place to provide humanitarian support and safety to asylum seekers. The agreements in essence shuts down our longstanding asylum process in the U.S.
As the region lining the southern border reels from massive budget deficits due to cuts from President Trump, severe weather driven by climate change and the continued spread of COVID-19, we need humane and responsible intervention from President-elect Biden the moment he is sworn into office.
The Biden administration has a big job ahead of it. Biden must, as quickly as possible, roll back the MPP and all the devastating changes to asylum and immigration policies instituted under President Trump.
But simply returning to Obama-era immigration policies is unacceptable. In addition to deporting more than 2 million people, the Obama administration increased the use of family detention, oversaw large increases in the budgets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as Customs and Border Protection, and detained around 400,000 people a year.
We need the president of the United States to reaffirm our commitment to U.S. and international legal mechanisms to protect the vulnerable from persecution. But we also need a new normal.
We need policies that respect human rights and dignity, are responsive to the needs of our communities, and are accountable and transparent. We need to dismantle the U.S.’s detention and deportation machine, and instead build systems that welcome migrants. We need to reckon with the historical debt that we owe to the peoples of Latin America for the suffering they have experienced due to U.S. policies.
The trauma caused by Trump-era policies will last decades. But if the Biden administration acts with courage and conviction, we can become a country that believes in the sanctity of human rights.