“They should not come,” Biden said at a CNN town-hall-style meeting Thursday, echoing what Vice President Kamala Harris told migrants during a trip to Guatemala last month.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas repeated the message to Haitians and Cubans earlier this month ― just days after Haiti’s president was assassinated and Cubans staged the largest anti-government protests in decades.
Refugee groups blasted the administration for what they say is an insensitive, ineffective and misleading message. It is legal under international and U.S. law for those fleeing their home country to ask for asylum at a port of entry ― no matter how they enter the country.
“President Biden promised to build a fair and humane immigration system, and by denying people full access to asylum, he’s breaking that promise,” said Denise Bell, a researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA. “Seeking asylum is a legal right and a human right.”
In his CNN appearance, Biden described his administration’s intention to set up a system for migrants and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to apply for asylum from their home countries, but immigration advocates said that plan on its own isn’t practical.
“You can’t say that you’re going to create a fair and compassionate system, and then tell people that they can’t actually access safety. You can’t trap them when their house is on fire, which is effectively what we’re doing when we say don’t come,” Bell said.
The White House’s attempted deterrence is not only impractical but also ineffective as a policy, said Katharina Obser, the acting director of the migrant rights and justice program at Women’s Refugee Commission.
“It is important that whatever we’re proposing does not leave people in more danger or does not set up dangerous situations for people as they’re figuring out how to access safety. But even if they are safe and appropriate additional pathways to migration, they can never be an alternative to asylum ― they should just be additional,” Obser said.
Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance and a member of the #WelcomeWithDignity campaign, a coalition of more than 80 groups that advocates for the restoration of asylum rights in the United States, said those who are fleeing simply don’t have a choice.
“Do you think they have the luxury of setting up an appointment with the U.S. Embassy while they are running for their lives, literally with the clothes on their backs?” Jozef said.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) toured a Catholic Charities shelter and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility Friday in Laredo, Texas, and met with local activists and Border Patrol staff. Bowman told HuffPost he saw 10 adult men crammed in a single room and a lack of COVID-19 testing at the ICE-run facility, a stark contrast with the volunteer-run shelter.
Bowman said the lack of resources to help immigrants at the border was dire and that demand is likely to increase if and when the Biden administration revokes Title 42, the public health order that currently allows border agents to expel migrants under the coronavirus pandemic excuse.
“We are funding law enforcement, and the carceral system and deportation system, but we’re not funding the care system here at the border,” he added.
And though Bowman doesn’t agree with the White House’s attempt to dissuade migrants, he acknowledges the Biden administration has taken strides to undo many of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
“If people are coming to our borders to escape the pain and threats of violence and lack of opportunity, we should welcome them with open arms, in my opinion,” Bowman said. “We should not be telling them not to come.”