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ICE Deportation

A handcuffed and shackled undocumented Guatemalan immigrant in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody waits to board a deportation flight on June 24, 2011 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

UN Official Decries Biden's 'Troubling' Deportations Under Pretext of Pandemic

"Even where Covid-19 has surged at times, many countries have put in place effective protocols... that have simultaneously and successfully protected both public health and the human right to seek asylum."

Brett Wilkins

Citing the imperative for all governments to uphold applicable international law, the United Nations refugee agency on Wednesday expressed concern over the Biden administration's continued use of a Trump-era "expedited removal" process by which families seeking asylum in the U.S. are flown back to Mexico under pretext of mitigating the Covid-19 pandemic.

"These expulsion flights of non-Mexicans to the deep interior of Mexico constitute a troubling new dimension in enforcement of the Covid-related public health order known as Title 42."
—Matthew Reynolds, UNHCR

The Biden administration has deported hundreds of thousands of migrants since January, largely under Title 42, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) policy (pdf) first invoked in March 2020 during the tenure of former President Donald Trump in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights said Title 42 expulsions are causing "profound" physical and mental health harms, with the organization's medical director, Dr. Michele Heisler, reporting that the 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."

On Wednesday, Matthew Reynolds, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative to the United States and the Caribbean, accused the Biden administration of denying refugees and asylum-seekers—many of them people from Central American countries who have endured violence and poverty partially attributable to U.S. policies and actions—access to protection screening before flying them to southern Mexico.

"These expulsion flights of non-Mexicans to the deep interior of Mexico constitute a troubling new dimension in enforcement of the Covid-related public health order known as Title 42," said Reynolds.

"Even where Covid-19 has surged at times, many countries have put in place effective protocols such as systematic health screenings, testing, and quarantine measures that have simultaneously and successfully protected both public health and the human right to seek asylum," he asserted.

Reynolds added that "removal from the U.S. to southern Mexico, outside any official transfer agreement with appropriate legal safeguards, increases the risk of chain refoulement."

Non-refoulement, which according to UNHCR "asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom," is a core principle of the 1951 Refugee Convention, as well as its 1967 Protocol, which was ratified unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 1968.

"The consequences of returning asylum seekers to danger can be catastrophic—resulting in sexual assault, torture, and death," Human Rights Watch recently warned.

Reynolds stressed that "all governments have the obligation to uphold these laws and principles at all times."

Last week, several human rights groups including the ACLU, Oxfam, and RAICES resumed a lawsuit first filed against the Trump administration over its use of Title 42.

"We warned the Biden administration that we'd see them in court if they continued to misuse Title 42 to unlawfully expel people seeking protection at the southern border," the ACLU explained. "We meant it."


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