President Joe Biden’s election was a hopeful sign to asylum-seekers that the previous administration’s asylum ban would be lifted. Nearly four months after his inauguration, those hopes have collapsed. Biden still hasn’t restored pre-Trump asylum practices, and thousands of people have been deported and expelled under the ban since he took office.
Prior to inauguration, many immigrants and immigrant advocates hoped that a Biden administration would mean a chance to rebuild the U.S. immigration and refugee systems after suffering four years of the most vehemently anti-immigrant president in modern U.S. history. Biden seemed committed to doing the hard work of “offering hope and safe haven to refugees is part of who we are as a country.” On his first day in office, Biden took encouraging steps, rescinding Trump’s “Muslim Ban” on visas for travelers from a collection of majority-Muslim countries. Asylum-seekers forced to remain in Mexico for months and even years under Trump’s “Migrant Protection Protocols” are now slowly allowed into the U.S.
However, Biden has left some of Trump’s most draconian immigration policies in place—chief among them is an order that allows immigration agents to summarily expel any asylum-seeker. Seeking asylum in the U.S. never been easy, but in March 2020, it became nearly impossible when using the pandemic as a pretense, Trump declared a ban on asylum. In the months that followed, asylum advocates saw parents, children, and even babies forced onto flights back to their home countries. These flights were not even deportations—which come at the end of a legal process—but simply expulsions: Asylum-seekers were being summarily returned to the places they had fled, before they even had their chance to argue their case in court.
Under former President Donald Trump, Guerline Jozef, president of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, felt like she was trying to do her work in a house that was on fire. Jozef worked tirelessly to aid Haitian and Black asylum-seekers and initially hoped for Biden to win the election because she had no other options. Jozef said that while she felt wary of Biden’s immigration record (as part of the Obama White House, Biden was part of the administration that deported a record number of people), she felt that a Biden victory was the only way to restore asylum in the U.S. Deportation flights were leaving for Haiti almost every week, and during the pandemic it felt like a matter of life and death—a country of 11 million, Haiti has less than 100 working ventilators.
“The only hope we have is for a new administration to take over,” Jozef said. She voted for Biden.
Now that Biden is president, Jozef says the rate of deportations to the island feels worse than ever. In February, three different Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flights took off to Haiti in a single day, and rather than slowing down, the rate of deportations and expulsions of asylum-seekers seems to be increasing. According to Jozef, since Feb. 1, 29 different deportation flights have taken off to Haiti, and more Haitians have been expelled in Biden’s first 90 days than were deported by Trump in the entire 2019-2020 fiscal year. Jozef, an immigrant from Haiti herself, says she feels betrayed.
“The former administration was trying to deport as many people as possible,” Jozef said in February. “And what we are seeing right now is the same thing as we saw right before the election.
Jozef and other advocates had hoped things would be different without the Trump administration in power. They understood that Biden was inheriting a complicated and difficult situation, and were prepared for an uphill battle, but did not expect to face the same if not worse level of callousness toward asylum seekers they had seen under Trump.
“What we did not prepare for—and what is the hardest part—is the intensity of the deportations under Biden, and the lack of regard for life,” Jozef said.
The rate at which asylum-seekers are being turned away is especially desperate under the pandemic, which has further destabilized fragile governments, resulting in more political violence and economic upheaval. Unfortunately, that same pandemic provided the Trump administration with an excuse to intensify rejection and expulsion of people seeing asylum and refuge in the U.S. In March of 2020, the Trump White House strong-armed the Centers for Disease Control into issuing an order most the scientists and leadership at the CDC had rejected: Title 42, which effectively sealed the border to asylum-seekers and refugees.
The public health justifications for the order were dubious from the beginning: Besides meeting resistance in the CDC itself, the Trump administration’s decision to enact Title 42 was met with hundreds of doctors and epidemiologists signing letters of protest. Title 42 was clearly issued in such a way as to carry out Trump’s long-held dream to end the U.S. asylum system, rather than as an effective measure of protection for American’s health. While travelers, business people, vacationers, and Sen. Ted Cruz were allowed back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border with little trouble, asylum-seekers and refugees remain barred, and most who have managed to enter the U.S. face summary expulsion.
When Biden took office, many expected him to rescind Title 42 more or less immediately. Now, almost four months into Biden’s presidency, Trump’s unprecedented asylum ban remains in place. When questioned about its decision, the White House has claimed it is taking time to study and implement a new processing system before rescinding the order.
“It is surprising that he has not rescinded the order—he has the power to change it,” Jozef said. “They promised bold actions, and there is no excuse for why these expulsions have continued to happen.”
The expulsions to Haiti in particular have been heartbreaking for Jozef: Haiti is in the midst of a severe constitutional crisis, and political violence is widespread.
“These people have nowhere to go,” she said.
Other immigrant advocates like Patrice Lawrence, the co-director of the UndocuBlack Network, share Jozef’s outrage.
“How do you justify three flights a day to Haiti—to a country that is literally on fire?” Lawrence said. She did not mince words when it came to her opinion on Biden’s first months in office.
“He’s afraid of Border Patrol officers and ICE officers,” Lawrence said.
According to Lawrence, the country’s massive immigration enforcement apparatus, which was built up under Trump but also under his predecessors, still holds sway over the U.S. immigration system. That power hasn’t diminished even though voters indicated they wanted a change when they elected Biden.
Lawrence understands that the Biden administration is currently focusing much of its attention on the COVID-19 crisis, but it’s still not an excuse for failing to take action to aid the most vulnerable immigrants.
“Where you put your energy tells you where your heart is, and their heart is not in doing the right thing, and their heart is not in giving refuge to Black immigrants and other asylum-seekers,” Lawrence said. “Instead, they are continuing to demonize them and drop them off like refuse.”
Organizations like the Haitian Bridge and UndocuBlack continue to raise awareness and push the Biden administration to rescind Title 42. Jozef has frequently shared the hashtag #BAD—aka, #BidenAlsoDeports. However, Jozef and Lawrence both say that immigrant advocacy has taken on a new intensity with a Democrat in the White House. Lawrence noted that it’s been harder to run awareness campaigns now that the situation in ICE detention centers and on the border reflects back on a Democrat instead of a Republican.
“I don’t see white liberals caring [now that Trump is out of office],” Lawrence said. “We’ve been screaming from the rooftops that deportations are still happening, but I just don’t see people caring.”
Jozef believes the lack of public outrage can be traced to the fact that Black immigrants (Haitians, as well as asylum-seekers from Carribean and African countries) are among the most affected by the Title 42 expulsions.
“Where is the outcry?” Jozef said. “In that silence we hear that Black immigrant lives do not matter.”