Newsweek: The U.S. Is Failing to Protect Pregnant Asylum Seekers

This op-ed was originally published in Newsweek.

In late March, after months of travel, a Honduran woman named Belkis attempted to cross the U.S. border while pregnant. While in U.S. border patrol custody, she went into labor.

Instead of receiving critical maternal health care, she was transported back to Mexico where she gave birth. Like many women who are refused entry to the United States, Belkis and her baby now have limited access to essential health services in Mexico. In fact, many pregnant asylum seekers in Mexico pay out of pocket for childbirth. They need better health care options. But first and foremost, they should be able to access safety in the United States, by being allowed across the border to present their asylum cases.

The Biden administration recently ended former President Donald Trump‘s cruel border policy that forced thousands of asylum seekers to wait in danger in Mexico for their asylum hearings. Yet asylum seekers are still barred from entering the United States under an unjustified COVID-related public health ban called Title 42. Pregnant people seeking safety are among those being turned away at our border. Some fled their homes because of rape or other forms of gender-based violence. The United States must do more to protect these women.

The U.S. asylum system itself has been a perpetrator of reproductive injustice. Some examples include hysterectomies performed on migrant detainees without consent. The Trump administration’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) banned asylum seekers from receiving legal abortions, including for pregnancies resulting from rape. Former ORR Director Scott Lloyd monitored girls’ menstrual periods to further an anti-abortion agenda, violating the rights of unaccompanied minors. The U.S. government abused pregnant migrants and asylum seekers through dismissal and denial of care, shackling and miscarriage mismanagement. In 2019, a 16-year-old pregnant asylum seeker detained by ORR lost 20 pounds in custody after being provided with limited food, rest and health care.

The situation at the U.S. border presents an opportunity for the United States to reverse this track record. It can do so be taking four key steps.

First, the Biden administration should rescind Title 42 immediately. While a newly announced policy allows entry for some 250 asylum seekers a day, it is not enough. And Vice President Kamala Harris‘ recent comments instructing people seeking safety not to come to the U.S. undermines the right to seek asylum under U.S. and international law. The administration should clarify and clearly communicate that the U.S. will respect people’s rights to seek asylum.

Second, Title 42 is further compounded by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions2019 directive that allows the United States to disregard gender-based persecution as a grounds for granting asylum—a decision with particular consequence given the increased rates of gender-based violence during the pandemic. Attorney General Merrick Garland must immediately vacate this directive. Pregnant and non-pregnant asylum seekers who have experienced gender-based violence should be able to access protection in the United States.

Third, the unmet need for maternal health care highlights the importance of prioritizing community case-management for asylum seekers. There is a long list of reasons why asylum seekers should not be detained or be forced to stay at the border for extended periods of time. The lack of capacity to provide adequate maternal and neonatal health care at the border is one of those reasons. The Biden administration must dedicate resources to evaluate asylum claims fairly, and while these proceedings are underway, asylum seekers should be released into U.S. communities where they can access this essential care.

Finally, the Biden administration should make federal policy changes that allow pregnant people and new mothers access to publicly funded, basic health care. Currently, asylum seekers cannot access any federally funded health care programs. This is against a basic principle of international protection––that people seeking asylum should have access to the same or similar health care as host populations, in this case, U.S. citizens. While newly appointed administration officials work toward that goal, states should also use their own funds to support the maternal and neonatal health care needs of asylum seekers in their jurisdictions, just as 18 states and the District of Columbia have already done.

To be sure, there are a multitude of competing needs that must be met for people seeking safety at the border. Due to systemic gender inequalities and limited funds, most countries around the world do not adequately prioritize the health and protection of women and girls in their responses to crises or emergencies. But the United States can begin to serve as an example.

If the Biden administration takes these steps, women and girls seeking safety will be much safer and healthier, and the so-called crisis at the border will be less of an emergency. Further, the administration can demonstrate that it is dedicated to ending the reproductive injustice that has harmed migrants in the United States in recent years. It will also send a strong––and much needed––message that when President Joe Biden says he is a champion of women, he is a champion of all women.

PHOTO CAPTION: An asylum seeker from Honduras, traveling with her three children while 8 months pregnant, pauses after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on March 23, 2021 near Mission, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)