Title 42 has gone from a health measure to a method of exclusion keeping asylum seekers out, argues Laura Murchie. Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece contributed by Laura Murchie, the litigation staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta.

Laura Murchie

Like many Americans, I felt sick when I saw the recent news coverage about the 53 migrants found dead inside a tractor-trailer in San Antonio. The victims were people who left their homes, traveled hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in search of a better life. But because a Covid-era public health policy called Title 42 continues to turn away most asylum seekers, they likely felt that entering covertly was the only option. Now, their families are mourning, grappling with heartbreaking loss.

As an immigration attorney, I understand the desperation that these migrants feel. Current clients of mine, an 18-year-old Guatemalan woman named Eme and her younger brother, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in March 2021. (I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy.) They too avoided an official port of entry because of Title 42. But they were desperate to escape the socio-economic discrimination they’d faced as Indigenous Mayans from Guatemala’s Quiché province.

Eme and her brother braved treacherous conditions to cross between official ports. They arrived in Arizona hungry and dehydrated and were detained by border officials. When they learned Eme was only 18, they separated her from her brother. He was processed as an unaccompanied minor, and eventually released into the care of an older sibling. While Eme was sent alone to a remote adult detention facility in Louisiana, where she endured horrific conditions and harassment. After a few months, I was able to get Eme released and reunited with her two brothers. But she remains traumatized from the separation and lives in fear of being sent back to Guatemala.

Today, this is how our nation treats vulnerable people seeking safe haven. It’s part of the chaos that Title 42 has created—both at the border and beyond. Either people risk their lives and family separation crossing between ports. Or they’re stuck in a bottleneck and forced to languish in Mexico without access to housing, food and medical care.

In April, the CDC officially deemed Title 42 no longer necessary to curb the spread of Covid, and the Biden administration announced it would lift the policy. This would restore the old asylum process—one that started under President Carter’s administration, and continued under every other president. But soon after the announcement, Georgia and 20 other Republican-led states signed onto a lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s plans. A federal judge in Louisiana then ruled in their favor, at least temporarily. Now some in Congress, including U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., are considering extending the policy. That would be a terrible mistake.

When signing onto the lawsuit, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr claimed that revoking Title 42 would cause “unmitigated chaos and catastrophe.” In reality, the policy itself has created much of the chaos at our southern border. It has not meaningfully curbed migration, but actually encouraged desperate people to cross the border multiple times in dangerous locations. During the first nine months of fiscal year 2021, over 428,000 of the 1.1 million reported border encounters were repeat crossers, according to the American Immigration Council. If we genuinely want to solve our border problems, the solution isn’t to create a massive backup in Mexico. It’s to devote more resources to process asylum seekers in a timely and humane manner.

Once the CDC declared Title 42 unnecessary, it should have expired. Instead, Carr and other lawmakers argued that the policy must stay to protect Georgians from getting sick. But if Carr was truly concerned about the health of Georgia residents, he wouldn’t have sued the government to end other Covid health measures, like mask and vaccine mandates.

The people who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border to request asylum are scared for their lives. Like the victims in San Antonio, Eme and her brother left everything they’d ever known. They risked their lives rather than toil in poverty. Our asylum policy, which is rooted in both American and international law, doesn’t automatically grant them permanent residency here. But it allows them to come and make their case. As Americans, it’s our duty to hear them out. As a country, we’ve offered this promise since the end of World War II. By keeping Title 42 in place, we’re breaking it.

Laura Murchie is the litigation staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, a nonprofit legal organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in Georgia and the Southwest.