After days of confusion about changes along the southern border, the Biden administration on Wednesday said immigrants should not try to enter the US because most will still be turned away under a Trump-era policy that has recently come under legal scrutiny.
Since March, border officials have used a section of the public health code known as Title 42 to immediately turn back immigrants at the border in order to halt the spread of the coronavirus. It was a massive shift in how the US treated immigrants and effectively sealed off the border to asylum-seekers.
Despite hopes among activists that President Joe Biden would change course, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday told reporters that "the vast majority" of immigrants will continue to be expelled at the border.
"Now is not the time to come," Psaki said. "There have been incredibly narrow and limited circumstances where individuals have come into the country awaiting for their hearing, but the vast majority have been turned away."
Confusion about who was being allowed into the US in recent days forced the administration to issue a stronger warning. Last week, reports of some families being allowed into the US after being apprehended at the border resulted in speculation that immigrants would no longer be immediately expelled and instead be allowed to fight their immigration cases from within the United States. In the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, immigration advocates have reported seeing about 100 people a day released by Customs and Border Protection. In other parts of Texas, shelters have also seen increasing numbers of immigrant families, but it is not clear why.
Attorneys and advocates who work with immigrants along the border have been bombarded with phone calls and texts about whether they should try their luck at getting into the US. Erika Pinheiro, policy and litigation director with the immigrant advocacy group Al Otro Lado, said it was “incredibly disappointing” that the Biden administration has continued to expel immigrants under the CDC order.
“We know now that the CDC order prohibiting asylum processing at the border did not arise from public health concerns but rather was part of Stephen Miller’s efforts to dismantle the US asylum system and was implemented despite opposition from CDC leadership,” Pinheiro said, referring to one of Trump's former senior advisers. “US expulsions of asylum-seekers, including infants, constitute plain violations of domestic and international laws meant to protect vulnerable refugees. CBP absolutely has the resources to process asylum-seekers in a safe and humane way.”
The turnbacks, known as expulsions, are legally different from deportations, which would mean an immigrant had actually undergone the immigration process and found to not be legally allowed to stay in the US. Critics say the government is using the public health orders as an excuse to turn back immigrants at the border.
The Biden administration, which has warned that it will take time to undo Trump’s immigration policies, has already directed a review of the policy to determine whether it's necessary. The administration, however, has said it will not use the sweeping public health powers to expel unaccompanied immigrant children at the southern border despite a federal appeals court clearing the path to do so.
“While we recognize that the Biden administration has been saddled with a lot of bad policy and structural problems, it cannot continue the Trump administration practice of turning away people in danger based on illegal policies, such as the notorious and pretextual Title 42 policy,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU.
Last week, CBP said families were recently released due to COVID-19 restrictions, which have caused some of its facilities to reach capacity. Mexico also recently passed a law prohibiting authorities from keeping undocumented immigrant children in detention centers. With no space to hold the families in US detention centers and Mexico refusing to take them, CBP started to release some.
Mexico's foreign ministry said the country continues to accept Central American nationals expelled by US border officers, but that there had been some changes at the local level in the last few days due to the child protection law.