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A U.S. border agent detains asylum seekers

A United States Border Patrol agent detains a family attempting to request asylum in the United States on April 30, 2021 outside of Yuma, Arizona. (Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Physicians Group Documents 'Severe' Health and Human Rights Impacts of US Expulsion Policy

"With each passing day, the Biden administration is trampling on its professed commitment to science-based policymaking and a humane immigration system."

Jake Johnson

A detailed investigation released Wednesday by Physicians for Human Rights documents the "profound" physical and mental health harms that a U.S. expulsion policy has inflicted on asylum-seeking adults and children, thousands of whom have been forcibly removed in recent months under a Trump-era order that the Biden administration has left largely intact.

"U.S. policy is ensnaring people in a deadly dilemma, where they are unsafe in their home country, unsafe in Mexico, and yet unable to seek safety at the U.S. border."
—Michele Heisler, Physicians for Human Rights

In March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a directive that closed the southern U.S. border to most asylum seekers, citing the coronavirus pandemic as a justification. The so-called Title 42 order—which one former White House official credited to former President Donald Trump's xenophobic senior adviser Stephen Miller—has drawn widespread criticism from human rights and immigration experts, who say the policy is both illegal and morally unconscionable.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) echoes those critiques in its new report and details how the policy—under Trump and his successor, President Joe Biden—has expelled "families and adults to countries where they face severe harm and persecution, violating their rights and failing to safeguard public health."

"U.S. policy is ensnaring people in a deadly dilemma, where they are unsafe in their home country, unsafe in Mexico, and yet unable to seek safety at the U.S. border," said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, medical director at PHR and co-author of the report. "From a public health perspective, the Title 42 order was junk science from the moment it began. Rather than protect anyone's health, these expulsions accelerate a health and human rights emergency in Mexican border cities."

“Since the beginning of the pandemic and with the rise of new Covid-19 variants," Heisler added, "the best way to protect public health remains vaccines, masking, and social distancing—not a targeted and unscientific ban on asylum seekers."

Based on May interviews with dozens of asylum seekers who were forcibly removed under Title 42 as well as healthcare workers who provided services to migrants, PHR found that "the conditions reported in U.S. custody are abusive, with detainees being given small amounts of inedible food and being held in very cold temperatures without access to showers, while U.S. officials confiscate any medication, food, or other clothing that asylum seekers might have with them."

"Almost all the asylum seekers we interviewed reported poor mental health outcomes due to expulsion and family separation under the Title 42 order," PHR said. "Of the 28 asylum seekers interviewed, 26 participants were administered validated screening tools for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Twenty-five participants screened positive for at least one mental health diagnosis; 25 screened positive for at least two mental health conditions; and 23 screened positive for all three mental health conditions (PTSD, depression, and anxiety)."

The report continued:

Migrants reported that they and their children became sick due to these practices, and PHR researchers also found high levels of psychological trauma and resulting psychological symptoms among the asylum seekers interviewed. The trauma caused by the U.S. government blocking people from applying for asylum and brutally expelling and separating families was exacerbated by the arbitrary and capricious practice of actively deceiving people about expulsion and separation, while denying them access to basic information, such as where they were being transported and what was happening to them...

Every day that the Title 42 order continues to expel asylum seekers is another day that the U.S. government is harming people’s health and violating their human rights.

One woman interviewed for the PHR investigation recalls that after telling U.S. immigration officials her story and asking for asylum, an agent responded: "No. There is no asylum."

"Title 42 expulsions are a flagrant violation of people's rights under both the U.S. Constitution and multiple international treaties."
—Kathryn Hampton, PHR

Another woman provided a similar account. "I told them that I was seeking asylum," she said, "but they told me that there was no asylum because of the pandemic."

Kathryn Hampton, report co-author and senior asylum officer at PHR, said in a statement that “U.S. officials actively deceived people about their expulsion and family separation, while denying them access to basic information, such as where they were being transported, where their family members were, and what was happening to them."

"Title 42 expulsions are a flagrant violation of people's rights under both the U.S. Constitution and multiple international treaties," said Hampton. "With each passing day, the Biden administration is trampling on its professed commitment to science-based policymaking and a humane immigration system. The administration must stop playing politics and start saving lives: Revoke the Title 42 order now."

While the Biden administration says it has stopped applying the Title 42 order to unaccompanied children who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, it has yet to fully lift the directive despite the president's campaign-trail vow to reverse Trump's inhumane immigration policies.

As NBC News reported last week, White House officials and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "had previously targeted July 31 as the date" to revoke the Title 42 order, but the administration is now "rethinking" its plans.

On Monday, as Common Dreams reported, the Biden DHS announced it will soon return to a so-called "expedited removal" policy that allows the administration to quickly expel migrants deemed to lack adequate qualifications for asylum status.

"The announcement we had been hoping for was about an end to Title 42," Linda Rivas, executive director of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said in response to the move. "This administration continues to seek efficiency over safety and due process for migrant families."

Hampton of PHR warned Wednesday that "our findings make it clear that the Biden administration's recent announcement that it will expedite removal of some asylum-seeking families from the United States without a hearing in front of a judge will only increase the vulnerability and risks of harm for children and adults."

"This change will result in wrongful removals and undermines efforts to create a humane, safe, rights-respecting asylum system," Hampton added.


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