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Broken Promises: Assessing the Humanitarian Impact of the Biden Administration’s Asylum Ban

We don’t sleep. You have to keep one eye open. We use a cable wire to tie ourselves together at night and tie shut our tent. I’m afraid they’ll take my girls.”

Ecuadorian family with two teenage children and a six-year-old daughter living in the Matamoros camp

“The terror I felt that night was the worst in my life. They [the cartel] don’t respect if you’re an older woman, a child, a pregnant woman. People are taken from the camp and disappeared, and no one can say anything”

Elderly Colombian woman living alone in the Matamoros camp

These are testimonies from displaced people recorded by Human Rights First researchers at the Matamoros and Reynosa migrant camps in Northern Mexico. These stories illustrate the human impact of the Biden administration’s asylum ban. After the lifting of Title 42 in May 2023, a Trump-era policy that effectively allowed immigration authorities to expel migrants without the ability to apply for asylum, the Biden administration implemented the new “Circumvention of Lawful Pathways” rule — an asylum ban in everything but name.

This rule requires asylum seekers at the border, with narrow exceptions, to have already been denied asylum in a transit country before requesting asylum in the United States. Otherwise, they must schedule an appointment through the unreliable and inequitable CBP One app before they can even present at the border to request asylum. A federal court recently determined this rule violates U.S. law, although that decision is stayed pending the government’s appeal of the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Because of the stay of the decision, the rule is expected to remain in place into the fall. 

For many people, obtaining a CBP One appointment — which requires lottery-like odds to secure a limited slot to present at an official port of entry — or being granted an exemption is nearly impossible, but their journey to safety can’t wait. The extreme restrictions on asylum access at the border lead people to undertake riskier journeys across more hostile terrain and through deeper, faster-moving waters — all increasingly weaponized with razor wire, underwater barriers, and buoys armed with saw blades. For those who manage to survive the journey, making it to the other side of the border is not a guarantee of safety, with people being forced back into the Rio Grande or having to rely on more narrow legal protections that could put them at elevated risk of deportation.

In the first two months since it was put in place, the asylum ban has caused immense physical, psychological, and emotional harm to people seeking safety. There are tens of thousands of people waiting for a CBP One appointment in precarious conditions, putting them in danger of extortion, exploitation, and other harm by bad actors. 

“The situation exceeds us,” says IRAP and Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción (DHIA) Case Manager Victor Flores, recounting the increase in kidnappings, torture, and extortion of migrants waiting in Juárez carried out by cartels and the Mexican municipal police — a trend in border cities across the country. For Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ people who are actively persecuted and discriminated against, the risk of harm is even higher.

The Biden administration has taken another page out of Trump’s immigration playbook by reviving the practice of subjecting people to credible fear interviews (CFIs) while they are detained by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), instead of with asylum officers from the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS). The results of these interviews determine whether a person can move forward in the asylum process, and when conducted in CBP custody, asylum seekers’ access to legal assistance is severely limited. People in CBP custody report being denied resources as basic as phone calls to an attorney or access to pen and paper, and all of these restrictions prevent asylum seekers from being as prepared as possible to pass their CFIs and potentially push them back into danger. 

In an attempt to offset the negative effects of the asylum ban, the Biden administration has also announced a range of new and expanded pathways, including family-based parole programs, a nationality-based parole program for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans, and broader access to refugee resettlement in Central America through Safe Mobility Offices in the region. However, these more narrow pathways are not a substitute for broad access to asylum for those in need of protection.

The asylum ban must end. It is not only a moral imperative, but the United States’ legal responsibility to uphold the rights of people fleeing violence and persecution. Rather than continued investment in deterrence and militarization, the Biden administration should put resources toward ensuring due process by hiring more immigration judges and funding universal access to counsel, which are some ways to efficiently guarantee that people with asylum claims are heard. Investment should also be redirected towards expanding the processing infrastructure at ports of entry and supporting non-profits, community shelters, and faith-based organizations who provide vital resources and services to all migrants — no matter who they are, or where they’re from

Asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, like those who spent sleepless nights in makeshift camps in Matamoros, already faced incredible hardships in their home countries and countries of transit; they should not be put in even more harm on their journeys towards safety. While the courts decide the fate of the asylum ban, we must continue to understand the impacts of this policy on people seeking safety and advocate for its reversal. It’s time for the Biden administration to stand by its promises to restore a more humane immigration system and repeal its asylum ban. 

Isabel López is the 2023 Policy and Communications Intern at IRAP. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and International Studies from Rhodes College.