SAN ANTONIO — For two years, American authorities have turned away asylum-seekers under a public health rule designed to stop viruses from spreading at the border.
President Donald Trump's administration instituted the so-called "Title 42" policy on March 21, 2020. The rule allows the government to deny refuge to a migrant if an infectious disease is spreading in their home country.
At the time, some experts argued the administration's interpretation of the law was flawed and its execution was illegal. It was not possible to "introduce" the virus to the U.S. since since COVID-19 was already present in the states, they said.
Still, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) sent hundreds of thousands of people back to their homes during the pandemic.
Advocates hoped President Joe Biden's administration would change the department's approach, especially as the pandemic waned.
But authorities still turn away most asylum-seekers. The Biden administration relaxed its application of Title 42 to benefit migrant children, but expelled more would-be refugees in Feb. 2022 than it did in Feb. 2021.
"We are letting in tourists. We are letting in business folks. We are letting in people who come for family reasons," said Sara Ramey, an attorney with the Migrant Center for Human Rights. "The only individuals who are being prevented from coming to the United States at this point in time are asylum-seekers."
CBP agents encountered more than 189,000 migrants in Feb. 2022. More than 92,000 of those encountered were denied entry under Title 42.
In Feb. 2021, agents encountered roughly 101,000 migrants and denied entry to more than 74,000 under Title 42.
"The fundamental problem with Title 42 is that we are not even looking at these cases," Ramey said. "We need to talk to individuals, figure out what their situation is, and say, 'Yes, this person needs protection' or 'no, this person doesn't need protection.'"
Advocates like Ramey expect more asylum-seekers to approach the border, since immigration numbers generally peak in the Spring months. The war in Ukraine may drive even more Europeans to the U.S., too.
The Biden administration recently made clear that border patrol agents can allow Ukrainians to seek asylum in the U.S., despite Title 42. The policy had reportedly created problems for some war refugees.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro says he supports allowing Ukrainians to seek asylum, but said the exception demonstrates the policy has little to do with stopping the spread of COVID-19.
"The Trump administration and then the Biden administration created its own problem by keeping this policy in place for two years," he said. "(Ukrainian refugees) should be able to come here... but there are also people from Central America who are experiencing a kind of slow burn in their nations."
He again called for the policy's end in San Antonio today.
"They're not coming to go to Disneyland. They're not coming to go to Fiesta Texas. Trekking a thousand miles is not just a fun thing for them to do," Castro continued. "They're living in very dangerous conditions down there and our asylum process has to be very respectful of that reality."