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Safety for all: Responding to the humanitarian crisis in Central America, restoring the U.S. asylum system, and protecting the most vulnerable

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Over the last four years, the Trump administration's increasingly restrictive immigration policies have drastically limited access to U.S. humanitarian protection pathways, blocked access to territory for asylum seekers, and deployed inhumane treatment as a mode of deterrence. Combined with the marked increase in forced displacement in Mexico and Central America and a reduction of U.S. aid to the region, these policies have severely exacerbated the preexisting humanitarian crisis.

Even in the face of draconian asylum policies, people in danger have continued to arrive to the U.S. seeking safety. Data shows that deterrence is not only inhumane, it is also ineffective. There is no virtue in separating children from families, disqualifying women fleeing femicide and gang violence, and returning political refugees to the hands of those they are fleeing.

The Biden administration will be faced with not only the existing humanitarian crisis at the southern border but should also anticipate an increase in the arrival of asylum seekers. It will thus face the triple challenge of unwinding inhumane policies, responding to the current humanitarian crisis, and competently and humanely addressing an increase in arrivals at the border---all during a pandemic.

The administration must be prepared to take bold action in the first 100 days by surging humanitarian assistance to both sides of the border, including COVID-19 response; rapidly restoring protections to vulnerable people seeking safety; and creating a credible rapid response infrastructure to process asylum seekers in an orderly manner that ensures dignity, safety, and recognition of rights for all. It must also expand processing from the region, work to protect migrants in transit, and address root causes of forced displacement throughout the Americas.

Failure to demonstrate a humane approach to these challenges will undermine the administration's campaign to rebuild values-based U.S. leadership and lay waste to a critical opportunity to renew global humanitarian leadership and halt the global retreat from humanitarian obligations. Failure to demonstrate competence will also undermine long-term immigration and humanitarian agendas, including a means to provide status and security to the 11 million undocumented immigrants living, working, paying taxes, and contributing to American communities and the restoration of the U.S.'s legacy as a place of refuge from those fleeing violence and persecution.

The U.S. is the greatest superpower in the world. It has the resources and technical expertise to provide refuge for the most vulnerable. Countries with far fewer resources are hosting far more refugees and asylum seekers, from Colombia to Uganda to Bangladesh. Germany alone received roughly half of the 3.1 million asylum applications submitted in the European Union between 2015 and 2017, yet it had only about 68,000 pending asylum cases at the end of that period. In surging resources to its asylum system, Germany turned a massive humanitarian crisis into an opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of lives and build a competent, expeditious, and credible asylum system in the process. Through the IRC's work supporting German organizations delivering education, employment, and psychosocial services to refugees, the IRC has also witnessed the country's success in ramping up long-term support to usher the successful integration of newcomers in their new communities.

A competent and protection-forward asylum system is a matter of political will and policy. If the Biden administration gets it right, the U.S. will be a beacon of hope and can credibly urge the international community to step up and share responsibility worldwide. If not, the consequences will be measured in lives lost and in regional and political instability.