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From "Day One" to We Will "Need Time," Team Biden Walks Back Vow to End Trump Attack on Asylum Seekers

"It appears that the inclusion of a policy in a campaign platform, or a promise by a candidate trying to win votes, doesn't actually mean that's what will be done once the person is in power."

A migrant boy walks amid tents at the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on December 17, 2020. The Covid-17 pandemic has left migrants seeking for asylum in the United States stranded along the U.S.-Mexico border for almost a year. (Photo: Guillermo Arias / AFP via Getty Images)

Two of President-elect Joe Biden's top incoming advisers on Tuesday appeared intent on lowering expectations about Biden's plans to roll back President Donald Trump's anti-immigration rules, which have been condemned internationally as violating human rights. 

Susan Rice, who Biden has named as his domestic policy adviser, and incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan told Spanish wire service EFE that policies including "Remain in Mexico," officially known as Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), will not be immediately suspended, contrary to Biden's campaign promise to "end the MPP program" on "day one" of his presidency.

Saying Biden will "need time" to undo Trump's immigration policies, Sullivan acknowledged that the Remain in Mexico policy—under which more than 66,000 asylum-seekers have been turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border and forced to live in tent cities without access to sufficient medical care, suitable shelter, or legal aid—"has led to a humanitarian crisis in northern Mexico" as people wait for their asylum claims to be processed in U.S. courts.

"But putting the new policy into practice will take time," he added, saying Biden will end the program "early in his administration."

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) accused the incoming administration of "a classic bait and switch."

The interview came days after national advocacy group Mi Familia Vota tweeted that Biden must prioritize his commitments to the immigrant and Latinx communities. 

Journalist Glenn Greenwald tweeted Tuesday that Sullivan and Rice's statements confirm the president-elect's pledges regarding immigration policy, including specific statements about what will be done immediately after he takes office, "doesn't actually mean that's what will be done once [Biden] is in power."

Rice cited public health concerns in explaining why the policy will continue for an unspecified period of time under the Biden administration, but on Monday public health experts issued a statement urging the incoming Biden administration to use "effective, evidence-based public health measures" to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 at the southern border—not "bans, expulsions, and asylum denials."

"The Trump administration has misused public health authority as a ploy to attempt to justify expulsions that endanger human lives. The Biden administration should end this abuse of public health authority."
—Monette Zard, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

"The Trump administration has misused public health authority as a ploy to attempt to justify expulsions that endanger human lives," said Monette Zard, associate professor and director of the Program on Forced Migration and Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. "The Biden administration should end this abuse of public health authority, ensure public health decisions are made by public health officials without pressure to advance migration policy or other political objectives and use public health measures to safely process the cases of families, adults and children seeking protection at our borders."

Human rights organizations have also denounced the Trump administration's claims this year that asylum-seekers should be turned away at the border due to the coronavirus pandemic. In May, Human Rights First accused Trump of using the "pandemic as pretext" in order to carry out "its long-held ambition to eliminate humanitarian protections for asylum-seekers."

"Remain in Mexico and CDC expulsions join a long list of other illegal and dangerous Trump administration policies aimed at curtailing asylum," said the group. "These policies are both immoral and illegal. Not only do they spurn the country's tradition of providing safe haven to refugees, they violate U.S. asylum, immigration, and anti-trafficking laws, due process protections, and binding treaty obligations."

In July, the International Rescue Committee issued its own report saying the administration was using the pandemic as an excuse to turn away asylum seekers, and wrote that the U.S. government is capable of meeting its humanitarian obligations while mitigating the risk of spreading Covid-19. 

"The administration can and should implement public health measures, including screenings carried out by public health officials, to mitigate risks to asylum seekers, and must increase access to health facilities at the border. But current policies merely compound the danger both at home and abroad," said the group.

That report was released soon after the Trump administration issued a new proposal called "Security Bars and Processing," under which the Department of Homeland Security could turn away asylum seekers whose entry "would pose a risk of further spreading infectious or highly contagious illnesses or diseases," such as nurses, doctors, and other frontline workers who have come into contact with Covid-19 patients, or people coming from a country where Covid-19 is prevalent. 

According to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council, the Department of Justice sent the regulation to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs last week to be finalized. 

Rice and Sullivan's interview with EFE did not address Biden's plans for continuing or ending the Security Bars and Processing rule. 

Rice indicated that the Biden administration may focus on changing immigration policy through legislative steps rather than executive authority.

While "there are areas that can be addressed administratively, and the president-elect has plans to begin tackling those areas right away," Rice said, "the Biden administration will not be able to fix everything on our own."

"We need legislative changes to make enduring repairs to our immigration system, and the president-elect will share his vision with Congress," she added. "He is committed to working collaboratively with Members of Congress to achieve the needed reform that has long eluded the country."

The Washington Post noted Tuesday that Biden's immigration reform proposals, including a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. "will face long odds in a divided Congress."

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