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Restoring Access to Asylum: Safely Reopening Ports of Entry at the US-Mexico Border

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In recent years, many families, unaccompanied children, and adults have arrived at the US-Mexico border fleeing persecution and seeking safety. Many have left their homes desperate to escape life-threatening gender- or gang-based violence. Climate, public health, and political crises in Central America, Haiti, and other regions in the Americas and elsewhere have led people to the USMexico border in search of safety and protection. Yet instead of responding appropriately to this humanitarian situation in accordance with our laws, the Trump administration unlawfully and cruelly cut off access to asylum at the border. Nearly 10 months into its tenure, the Biden administration has incomprehensibly and unacceptably continued many Trump-era anti-asylum policies and has largely failed to restore access to protection. Currently, there is virtually no way to approach a port of entry and seek asylum.

This backgrounder explains why it is critical to restore access to asylum at ports of entry and steps the Biden administration should immediately take to do so.

CBP is required to facilitate trade and travel at ports of entry. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Field Operations (OFO) oversees the inspection and processing of goods and travelers at official US border crossings known as “ports of entry” at the USMexico border, as well as at the US-Canada border and at US international airports. On an average day in 2019, nearly one million people crossed into the US on foot or by car at ports of entry along the southern border for work, school, or travel. Although both US law and CBP’s mandate to facilitate trade and travel require the processing of migrants and individuals seeking asylum, ports of entry have largely remained closed to asylum seekers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Facilitating access to the asylum process is an essential component of CBP’s responsibility at ports of entry. Under domestic and international law, people have the right to request asylum and the right not to be sent back to a country where they were persecuted or fear persecution. However, since the Biden administration took office, people seeking asylum have been summarily expelled, without any opportunity to present their case to US officials or to undergo a protection screening, to Mexico or their countries of origin more than 600,000 times, including 76,000 expulsions of parents and children. These expulsions occur through the use of Title 42 of the US code, an archaic health law that the Trump administration unlawfully weaponized during the COVID-19 pandemic to deny all families, children, and single adults the opportunity to seek safety at or between ports of entry to the United States.