This op-ed was originally published in Newsweek.
In recent weeks, a number of commentators have questioned whether the Biden administration can rescue people and implement humane asylum policies at the U.S. border with Mexico without creating a crisis. Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, pushed back on this narrative, calling the situation a challenge.
No one can deny the importance of effective border management. But whether it is Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar for Bangladesh, Venezuelans fleeing into Colombia, or Central Americans fleeing the Northern Triangle and living in fear in northern Mexico, asylum-seeking is a far less than orderly process. It will be difficult logistically and messy, resulting in overtaxed services and service-providers—even with generous provision of resources and effective management.
In fact, the Refugee Convention, to which the United States is a party, recognizes that asylum seekers in fear of persecution may need to cross borders in an unmanaged way and without authorization to seek protection, creating significant operational challenges for governments. Responsible governments do not let such challenges deter them from acting with decency.
Most importantly, this means that officials must be prepared to distinguish between a humanitarian crisis that puts at risk the lives of those fleeing persecution and violence, and a perceptual crisis that politicians stoke for political advantage.
Smart and humane public policy averts the first kind of crisis. Enlightened leadership that emphasizes our common humanity can help to avert the latter, perceptual crisis, even as officials seek to manage a situation that may be much less than orderly.
After all, lives are at stake. There have been widespread and credible reports of kidnappings, sexual abuse and killings of those denied access to protection at the U.S.-Mexico border. And horrifying Trump-era expulsions of children were predicated upon a blanket bar imposed by the Trump White House ostensibly because of the pandemic, but without a truly persuasive public health rationale and over opposition from CDC officials.
Thus, it can only be good news that the Biden administration has ended the expulsion of unaccompanied minors. And it is also good news that President Biden has begun to end the Remain in Mexico (MPP) policy, which has forced asylum seekers to wait in unsafe conditions in northern Mexico.
COVID-19 does not preclude humane policies. As commercial truckers and vacation travelers (including the junior senator from Texas) can attest, travel between Mexico and the United States has continued during the pandemic for far less compelling reasons than flight from persecution.
With federal government support, COVID concerns can be managed effectively. In the Rio Grande Valley, for example, families have been spared from expulsion and obtain COVID-19 tests supported by a grant from FEMA and administered by local authorities, with appropriate quarantine arranged for by non-profit organizations if need be. The federal government must mobilize significant additional resources so that families fleeing persecution can be welcomed in Texas and in Arizona.
Service providers on the U.S. side of the border are ready to serve as implementing partners of the federal government and have been planning for the reception of those subject to the MPP program. Some state and local officials have also offered to help.
California has recently made funding available for testing and temporary housing for asylum seekers, as well as for non-profits providing them with services. Nathan Fletcher, a former marine and chair of the county board of supervisors in San Diego, recently told Refugees International that “we are ready and willing” to work with local non-profits.
“Having served in many war-torn environments, I saw what asylum seekers go through,” he said. “When asylum seekers come to America, they are our own, they’re a part of our community. … We’re a big country with a lot of resources.”
Over the next several weeks, we will see the Biden administration test a number of experiments to humanely handle asylum seekers. This will likely include expansion of temporary facilities, new transportation arrangements, increased use of release to sponsors and non-profit organizations rather than detention and close coordination with the U.N. Refugee Agency.
There will be problems and mistakes will be made.
To be sure, politicians who reject the idea that the United States has the responsibility to protect people fleeing persecution will seek to stoke public fear and undermine the administration’s resolve to reverse the hateful policies of the past.
As he marshals the resources to manage this issue competently and humanely, it will be critical for President Biden and all in his administration to respond to fear-mongering with a strong public narrative of compassion. A humane reception process must be, and can be, made available to those seeking asylum at the southern U.S. border.
PHOTO CAPTION: Migrants from Guatemala who are seeking asylum rest in a shelter on May 15, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images.