Fix the Asylum Process to Save Lives

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Mar 07, 2023

Multiple polls show that most people in the United States support protections for those who are fleeing persecution and torture in their homelands. In fact, 72 percent believe that accepting civilian refugees trying to escape violence and war from their home countries should be an important goal for immigration policy in the United States.

Yet, in recent years, people seeking safety in the United States have been imprisoned, separated from their children, treated as political props, and expelled to unsafe locations.

The United States is preparing to end the misuse of Title 42, a little-known provision of U.S. health law that the Trump administration exploited during the early pandemic to deny people their right to request asylum at the border. This creates an opportunity for President Biden to honor his early promise to build a “fair, orderly and humane” immigration system, including reasonable access to asylum.

Several troubling actions suggest that the Biden administration is moving in the opposite direction, however.

Asylum is a form of protection available to people who face serious danger in their homelands, including persecution because of their identity or political opinions. Under U.S. and international law, people who are threatened in their homelands have the right to go to other countries and have their requests for asylum considered.

In January, Biden announced that the United States would effectively expand Title 42-style restrictions, by expelling Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans who fail to meet certain criteria and obstructing them from accessing asylum under U.S. law. Biden coupled this new policy with the announcement of new legal pathways to the United States for a limited number of people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, so long as they have a sponsor in the United States with resources, and can clear other challenging hurdles. These barriers, which essentially increase access to safety for only a privileged group of people, fly both in the face of compassion and the purpose of asylum—to help those most in need. Asylum should not be granted based on access to privileged connections within a host nation.

It is deeply troubling that President Biden is pushing a “transit ban” that would take effect as Title 42 restrictions end this May. This policy would unjustly bar immigrants from seeking asylum if they passed through other countries before arriving in the United States without asking for asylum in those countries. Issues of violence and anti-Black racism in many western hemisphere countries make them unable to offer safe harbor to many migrants. In addition, this policy essentially shuts off asylum from those most in need of aid, including all people who are not rich enough to fly directly to the United States.

Also concerning are reports that the Biden administration is considering resuming fast-track asylum screenings for people in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody. Researchers have found many problems with these hasty screenings, which are supposed to determine whether a person has a credible fear of harm if returned to their home country and is, thus, eligible for asylum in the United States. Resuming the practice of conducting rushed screenings of people in CBP detention facilities—who have little to no access to attorneys—is likely to lead to further due process violations and rapid deportations of people who could have established a right to stay in the United States.

The Biden administration calls the immigration system, “fundamentally broken.” But closing the door on people who need help and rushing asylum screenings will not fix its problems. Instead of doubling down on flawed policies, the Biden administration should focus on ensuring that immigrants are afforded dignity, respect, and meaningful due process, by restoring access to asylum and ensuring that there are enough non–law enforcement personnel at the border to evaluate and quickly process asylum claims. Overinvestment in militarized policing of the border wastes resources that could be used to invest in the infrastructure, including legal representation, needed to help people move fairly through the immigration system.

Asylum saves lives. All people seeking safety in the United States deserve humane treatment and the right to request protection. The Biden administration and Congress should work to ensure that all asylum claims are fairly considered and that people are not returned to life-threatening danger.