Politics, Not Public Health, is Responsible for Refugees’ Suffering

Human Rights First received a response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that made one thing clear: blocking refugees from seeking safety in the U.S. is not, and was never, about protecting public health.

This news may not be revelatory, but it is certainly damning for the Biden administration, which continues to use the Trump-era Title 42 order to expel thousands of refugees to danger in Mexico and in the countries they fled.

The FOIA unearthed an email exchange between former CDC Chief of Staff Kyle McGowan and former CDC Director Robert Redfield.

By way of background:  McGowan was the first-ever political appointee to the CDC Chief of Staff role, and one of the youngest political appointees in the agency’s history. Under his tenure, The New York Times reports, “an agency created to protect the nation against a public health catastrophe like the coronavirus was largely stifled by the Trump administration.”

In his email to Redfield, McGowan writes that he has been “working on” the Title 42 public health order’s near “final version” for “days.” Hours after this email was sent, Redfield signed the order that has denied thousands of refugees an opportunity to request protection and caused immeasurable human suffering.

Human Rights First’s initial FOIA request was met with an outrageous $222,226 fee for what the CDC claimed would be 4,833 hours of work. We appealed the fee, and the CDC eventually granted us the fee waiver we’d originally requested but provided only this email and dozens of pages of fully redacted text.

Title 42’s political origins are no surprise, considering it was drafted by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lawyer Brian Stimson, a political appointee (as reported by CBS’ Camilo Montoya-Galvez). It was issued over the objection of top CDC officials, where the lead doctor overseeing such orders said there was “no valid public health reason to issue it.” Since March 2020, public health experts have continued to advocate for the order’s removal.

Rather than safeguarding Americans’ public health, Title 42 was issued at the behest of known xenophobes former President Trump and Stephen Miller, who aggressively pressured the CDC to implement the order, and political operatives like McGowan.

Journalists, advocates, and public health experts have all long known that Title 42 was and remains a xenophobic, political calculation.

What the response to our FOIA makes clear is that every time the Biden administration uses TItle 42 to block refugees from safety and expel them to danger in the name of “public health,” they are knowingly wielding a politically motivated Trump administration policy that was clearly not driven by public health concerns. Yet even as President Biden faces increasing pressure to end Title 42, the Biden administration continues to make the false claim that the policy “protects” public health. Even as Human Rights First and other advocates report on the ongoing attacks against asylum seekers expelled to Mexico by the Biden administration, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas continues to defend the policy.

After living through four years of gaslighting and lies from an administration bent on ending immigration and gutting the U.S. asylum system, it’s disheartening to see more of the same from an administration that claims to respect science and human rights. The American people deserve honesty, and policies that uphold our values.

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