By Kristina Cooke and Ted Hesson
WASHINGTON – Jasibi says she fled her hometown in Honduras after a gang killed her parents and gave her 24 hours to leave the country.
The 37-year-old headed north, hoping to seek asylum in the United States, but earlier this year was blocked by a Trump-era health order left in place by President Joe Biden. The order enables U.S. officials to rapidly expel migrants at both the southern and northern borders during the COVID-19 pandemic, essentially cutting off access to asylum for most migrants.
In Mexico, with nowhere to go and few funds, she slept on the street and was kidnapped, according to a request to the U.S. government for a humanitarian exception to the order seen by Reuters. The kidnappers wanted to extort money from her family, Jasibi said.
Jasibi – who asked Reuters not to publish her surname for fear of reprisals – called migrant advocate Ariana Sawyer at Human Rights Watch daily to check on her application for the exemption. But when Sawyer tried to call her last month with the good news that she would be allowed into the United States, she couldn’t reach her – Jasibi had been kidnapped again.
Biden, who took office on Jan. 20, is under growing pressure from migrant advocates, health experts and fellow Democrats to end the policy, known as Title 42, as more evidence emerges that migrants are being expelled into danger in Mexico.
Publicly, the Biden administration insists the order remains necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus, although it has not provided scientific data to support that rationale and many public health experts have opposed it.
Internally, however, some officials characterize the restrictions not as a health measure but as a politically expedient tool to control the border at a time when the administration is facing the most border crossers in 20 years, according to five sources familiar with the deliberations.
Even some more liberal Biden officials are apprehensive that any further spike in migration after lifting the order could erode public support for Biden’s more welcoming immigration agenda, two of the sources said.
While advocates for migrants have expressed skepticism over the administration’s stated reasons for maintaining Title 42, this internal view has not been previously reported.
A White House spokesperson said Title 42 was a public health directive, not an immigration enforcement tool, and was still necessary on health grounds, as only about 40% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated. The White House declined to comment on the reports of internal divisions in the administration.
Biden has filled many key immigration advisory positions with high-profile migrant advocates, including some opponents of the Title 42 border restrictions.
For instance, Andrea Flores, a former deputy director for immigration policy with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is now director for transborder security in Biden’s National Security Council. Flores criticized Title 42 last year while working for the ACLU, saying former President Donald Trump was “hellbent on exploiting a public health crisis to achieve his long-held goal of ending asylum at the border.”
Flores did not respond to a request for comment. The White House declined to comment.
Former advocates now in the administration are “all in a little bit of an identity crisis,” according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter, who spoke about the emotional difficulty of implementing policies that they would have fought against just months earlier.
The U.S. official also said that staff at the Department of Health and Human Services refugee office have urged the White House to end the expulsion policy, arguing that families are sending children across the border alone since unaccompanied children are being allowed in.
As with others, the official requested anonymity to discuss the internal debate.
Since Biden took office, U.S. border authorities have recorded more than 300,000 expulsions under Title 42. The vast majority of the expelled migrants are Mexicans and Central Americans pushed back across the border after attempting to cross illegally. Repeat crossings are common.
The Title 42 health order, issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March 2020, allows for rapid expulsion and effectively cuts off the ability of most single adults and many families to claim asylum in the United States.
Many medical experts are vocally opposed to the policy. Dozens of leaders of medical schools, hospitals and other institutions wrote in a May 2020 letter to U.S. health officials that it was not supported by scientific evidence.
Six health experts who signed that letter told Reuters that the argument against the restrictions was even stronger now that many Americans were vaccinated and COVID-19 caseloads were falling in the United States.
“I think every day that Title 42 remains on the books, the CDC’s credibility is tarnished,” said Joseph Amon, director of the office of global health at Drexel University.
The CDC did not respond to requests for comment. A DHS official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the department is working with the CDC to determine when the policy and other pandemic-related border restrictions could be safely lifted. The health agency would make the final decision, the official stressed.
U.S. officials have said the Title 42 border restrictions are partly needed to protect government workers. More than three quarters of frontline DHS workers have been vaccinated so far and all have been offered a vaccine, DHS said.
Another stated reason is to guard against infected migrants spreading the disease. While there are no overall figures on positive coronavirus rates for migrants caught at the U.S.-Mexico border, fewer than 0.5% of asylum seekers entering the United States legally through a separate program have tested positive.
Amid the internal debate over how and when to end Title 42 and the growing external pressure, the Biden administration has phased in a number of exceptions to the policy, allowing more migrants into the country.
In recent weeks the United States began admitting asylum seekers whom migrant advocates had identified as being especially vulnerable in Mexico.
“The number of people needing to go through this process is pretty overwhelming,” said Sawyer, the advocate with Human Rights Watch.
On June 1, Sawyer got a call from Jasibi, the Honduran woman who was granted a humanitarian exception to the order. She had been kidnapped while shopping at a market, she said, but escaped a few days later, after her kidnappers left her alone in a house.
Sawyer told her she would be allowed to enter the United States, but she would have to get to the Del Rio, Texas, port of entry – 56 miles (90 km) away – by the next day.
Jasibi got on a bus at 11 p.m. Without identity documents or legal permission to travel in Mexico, she risked being detained by Mexican police if stopped. Jasibi arrived in Ciudad Acuna, across the border from Del Rio, at 3 a.m.
A few hours and a negative COVID-19 test later, she was in the United States.