When Fernando* and his family arrived in Texas after a harrowing journey from El Salvador, they cried with relief. They’d left home when gang members had threatened them after a family member had disappeared, and they’d had to pack quickly. “I left behind my job as a banker where I was making a good living, our house, our vehicle, our life.” En route to the U.S. border, the family was kidnapped in Mexico and held captive in a dark, crowded, foul-smelling room for two days until their relatives managed to pay the ransom. Fernando’s traumatized daughters, ages three and six, nearly drowned crossing the Rio Grande. But in March 2021, they made it to the United States. At last, Fernando believed, his family would be safe and could begin the asylum process.
Fernando was wrong. Instead of helping the family to safety, the U.S. government expelled them back to Mexico under the Trump administration’s Title 42 policy that uses public health as a pretext to block and expel asylum seekers at the U.S. border without a chance to apply for asylum or even a fear screening interview. Far from protecting public health, however, expulsions under Title 42 subject families seeking asylum to untold psychological and physical harm. The Biden administration continues to use Title 42 to pack families into small holding cells, transport them hundreds of miles, and expel them to crowded shelters in Mexico without COVID-19 tests.
Before expelling Fernando and his family, Border Patrol agents detained them for three days in a freezing cold cell (known by Spanish speakers as the hielera, or icebox) where bright fluorescent lights shone twenty-four hours a day and the family never knew if it was day or night. With air conditioning units on full blast, Border Patrol provided the family with only a small foil blanket to keep warm. The girls became sick from the cold, shivering, and vomiting with fevers for days. They were only allowed a single layer of clothing; officers seized the rest and threw it in the trash in front of them, along with everything else they’d brought with them. “They threw away everything,” Fernando said. “Absolutely everything. My backpack with clothing, shoes, jewelry, medications for the children…everything went in the trash.” Border Patrol agents had even thrown out his youngest daughter’s asthma medication.
As Border Patrol agents transported Fernando and his family in a van, they refused to answer his questions. When the family was escorted onto an airplane, they still believed they were being transferred to be released in another part of the United States. The airplane ride was three and a half hours. Officers forbade them from opening the window shades, so they had no idea where they were going. The plane landed in San Diego, California. The family boarded a bus with other migrants. Still, U.S. officers ignored Fernando’s questions about their destination. But when he saw a Mexican flag in the distance, he knew they were being expelled. Fernando’s wife cried and begged the U.S. officers not to send them back. “We told them our lives were in danger in El Salvador. We said we had been kidnapped in Mexico. It’s not safe for us. It’s not safe for our children.” They didn’t listen. Without a fear screening interview, Fernando and his family were expelled to Tijuana, a city they’d never been to, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, their documents, and their cell phones. They’d never had a chance to ask for asylum.
This family’s story is far from unique. Fernando is one of some 48,000 asylum seekers, all families with young children, the Biden administration has expelled under Title 42. During the three weeks I spent conducting interviews in Tijuana in March and April 2021 as part of Human Rights First’s ongoing research on the impact of Title 42 expulsions on asylum seekers, I spoke with more than 50 families who had been expelled to Mexico after entering the United States to seek asylum. Many had entered near ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where the Mexican government is generally not accepting families with children under seven expelled by the U.S. government. Rather than welcoming these families and processing their asylum claims, the Biden administration has been transporting them to other parts of the border to expel them in unfamiliar cities, where they face danger and lack resources to survive. The administration stopped family expulsion flights in mid-May under pressure from advocates (including a joint report issued by Human Rights First in April 2021) after the issue garnered extensive media attention. However, the administration continues to transport asylum-seeking families hundreds of miles by bus for expulsion without the opportunity to request protection.
Many of those expelled to Tijuana were living in a shelter I visited in early April 2021 that was receiving 50 to 100 asylum seekers each day, all families with young children who the U.S. government had transferred from other parts of the border. One afternoon, I happened to arrive just as Mexican government vans were delivering a group of about forty migrants to the shelter. Newly arrived, disoriented asylum seekers shuffled out of the vans. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had taken their shoelaces so the tongues of their shoes flopped out. They sat in auditorium-style chairs set up inside the church while the pastor addressed them. He began by explaining that they were in Tijuana, Mexico. According to the pastor, asylum seekers often arrive at the shelter believing they are still in the United States. Many arrive without having eaten for several days. “Those who are fleeing persecution can’t go home. I tell them they can stay here for as long as they need to. Some leave to try to enter the United States again. Many stay with the hope the border will open. But the government keeps bringing new families every day and we are running out of space.” The cots and bunk beds lining the sides of the shelter had long been full, and at night, hundreds of migrants slept on gym mats on the floor.
Most families I interviewed recalled near-identical experiences to what Fernando had described. After encountering Border Patrol agents, most were detained for days in the hielera, where their children became sick from the cold. One Honduran mother put extra layers on her three-year-old son, who had been sick from travel, before entering the hielera. The officer yelled at the boy to remove all but one layer, then threw his clothing in the trash in front of him. Some families did not eat for days while detained. One family went four days with only juice. Border Patrol agents ignored the children crying from hunger.
U.S. immigration officers show special disregard for asylum seekers with disabilities. A Honduran mother recalled spending five days in the hielera with her six-year-old epileptic daughter. Her daughter had a seizure, and immigration officers did “absolutely nothing” to help her. A Nicaraguan couple recalled their experience crossing the border in Mexicali to ask for asylum in February 2021. They had been traveling with a Honduran family and their teenage daughter, who had a cognitive and developmental disability that affected her motor skills. After struggling to walk, she became dehydrated and collapsed on the ground, her legs raw and bloody. The group yelled for help, and when Border Patrol agents eventually found them, the girl was crying and could not stand up. The officers had to roll her onto a blanket and carry her into the van. “They didn’t give us any food, water, nothing. They just said, ‘you don’t have authorization to pass,’ then drove us straight back to Mexico.”
A young Salvadoran couple who had crossed the border in Arizona with their baby recalled horrendous mistreatment in CBP custody. “They treated us like we weren’t even people. Like we weren’t equal to them.” When they asked for food, an officer replied, “We don’t have any food for animals.” Likewise, Border Patrol agents told a Honduran family who had entered in Texas to “shut up” when they asked questions, and called a Salvadoran family “imbeciles.” When a Honduran mother asked for food for her kids at a Texas Border Patrol station, the agents threw cookies on the floor and told the children to pick them up. “This really hurt. What have these innocent children done wrong?” Later, on the airplane from Texas to San Diego, CBP officers screamed in the face of a disabled child who failed to follow instructions, then pushed him into a seat far away from his mother. “Dogs are treated with more care,” the Honduran mother said.
Like Fernando’s family, nearly all expelled families reported that U.S. immigration officers disposed of their belongings. “They threw all of our things in a giant trash bag. They threw out food for babies, milk, everything. They searched us and threw away everything we had with us. They even threw away our coats. They only things they returned to us were our documents and cell phones,” a Honduran mother told me. Another woman told me, “I take medication for depression. They threw it out in front of me. I said please, I need my medication. They didn’t say anything. They just threw it out with everything else.”
Few families were provided any information about where they were going or what was happening to them until they were already back in Mexico. Border Patrol agents either refused to answer questions or outright lied to them, telling them they were being taken to family members inside the United States. Border Patrol agents asked a Honduran woman with a three-year-old daughter for her U.S.-based sister’s phone number and address, as if they’d planned to transport them there. “They lied to us.” A Salvadoran family said officers seemed to take pleasure in deceiving them, and that when their plane landed in San Diego, Border Patrol agents laughed and said, “Congratulations, you’re in the United States,” before expelling them to Tijuana. None of the families were asked about their fear to return to Mexico or provided the opportunity to request asylum. A Honduran mother recalled, “We said we wanted to ask for asylum. I told them I have the right to ask for asylum. I kept asking and asking. They didn’t listen to us.”
Families expelled to Mexico are left with few options. A Honduran father, clutching his two-year-old daughter, asked, “What can we do? We can’t go home and we can’t cross again while they still have this law, and we can’t survive here because we don’t have any money.” Another Honduran mother said, “We’ve been through so much. I thought it would be worth the pain, but now we are just stuck here. We’ve just been crying and crying and crying and crying. When we arrived here my husband cried too, and I’ve never seen him cry before.” She and her husband had owned a tortilla store in Honduras. When they had been unable to pay the gang’s extortion fees, they had to flee. “We don’t have anything here, but we can’t go back. They’ll kill us.”
Public health experts have concluded that the use of Title 42 to expel asylum seekers does not provide any public health benefit. Indeed, confining families to small, crowded spaces and transferring them around the country may exacerbate the spread of COVID-19. In April, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters the Biden administration would be “taking a close look” at its family expulsion policy, and it’s commendable that the administration has stopped lateral expulsion flights along the border. But as of the second week of May 2021, the shelter I visited in Tijuana continues to receive families expelled under Title 42, albeit fewer than before, including those transferred from Yuma, Arizona, according to the pastor. The Biden administration also continues to bus families from the Texas Rio Grande Valley to expel them in other Mexican cities, where many have been kidnapped and attacked. The administration is also expelling Haitian adults, families, and children, including asylum seekers, to danger in Haiti.
President Biden claimed he would “undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration.” Without any public health benefit from the Title 42 expulsion policy, and with the documented harm it inflicts on refugees, it is unclear why the Biden administration continues to expel asylum-seeking families and adults. The administration denies that their aim is to punish and deter people seeking protection at the border, and they bristle at any comparison to the preceding administration. But until the administration’s policies change to match their rhetoric, it is hard to arrive at any other conclusion.
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