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Democratic lawmakers, civil liberties groups demand end to Title 42 border expulsions

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill on March 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Leading Senate Democrats demanded that the Biden administration immediately end a Trump-era policy that blocks asylum-seeking migrants from crossing land borders into the United States, after lawyers said U.S. Customs and Border Protection expelled a single mother of three who had traveled from Ukraine to Mexico seeking refuge.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) cited the “desperate” Ukrainian family at a news conference Thursday and said he was deeply disappointed that the Biden administration has dragged out the Trump-era policy, which a federal appeals court in D.C. last week called “questionable.” The Trump administration issued the order two years ago under Title 42, which is the public health code. Since then, officials have expelled more than 1.6 million migrants to countries such as Haiti and Mexico.

The United States is supposed to welcome refugees with open arms, not put them in additional danger by denying them a chance to plead their case and leaving them at the mercy of criminals and smugglers,” Schumer said, joined by advocates for immigrants. “Now’s the time to stop the madness.”

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Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, added that the policy “has created life-threatening conditions” for migrants. He called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued the order under President Donald Trump and has extended it under President Biden, to rescind it.

Biden had pledged during his campaign to restore asylum processing for migrants, particularly at the southwest border, where apprehensions have risen sharply since he took office. A CDC spokesman said officials considered the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus and the state of the pandemic when officials renewed the order this year and will review it again later this month.

Advocates for immigrants have repeatedly sued over the policy, saying it endangers migrants and violates federal law. A federal appeals court panel in D.C. said in a unanimous ruling Friday that the CDC had presented no evidence that the order prevented the coronavirus from spreading and told the Biden administration it can no longer send migrant families to countries where they may face persecution, citing reports that migrants have been raped, tortured and killed after being expelled. That decision is expected to take effect in coming weeks, after the court formally issues the mandate.

A separate ruling Friday, in a lawsuit filed by Republican officials in Texas who favor the expulsions, rejected the Biden administration’s policy of exempting migrant children traveling without a parent or guardian from Title 42. The order is not expected to have a major impact, advocates for immigrants said, because Mexico generally does not accept children traveling alone.

The Justice Department has not said whether it plans to appeal either ruling, and the Department of Homeland Security has not yet said how the decisions will affect its operations.

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DHS spokeswoman Marsha Espinosa said in a statement that the agency is continuing to expel migrants and exempts “particularly vulnerable individuals from Title 42 on a case by case basis.”

The Ukrainian family that lawmakers cited at the news conference Thursday attempted to enter the United States this week, after fleeing the Russian invasion and attempting to join a cousin who is a U.S. citizen and longtime resident of Northern California.

Sofiia, 34, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she has family sheltering in their basements in Ukraine, said in a telephone interview that her family had enjoyed a good life there. She worked as a Hebrew teacher and lived in her father’s house. They left as bombs grew closer.

“I was seriously afraid for my life and the life of my kids,” she said in English, one of four languages that she speaks.

She said she and her children — ages 6, 12 and 14 — flung suitcases stuffed with clothes and medicines into her old Citroen and drove straight to Moldova, the closest border, and then into Romania, where they traveled to Germany and caught a flight to Mexico. She said that they tried to enter legally twice, once by car and again by foot, and that officials rejected them both times, citing the Title 42 order.

“I was surprised that they don’t even want to listen,” she said. “I was trying to tell them that I have tests and I am vaccinated but they told me, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’”

She said she does not speak Spanish and was crying on the bridge in Mexico when lawyer Blaine Bookey spotted her. Bookey, the legal director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California’s Hastings law school, was there with her students to aid Haitian migrants facing similar troubles.

Bookey said Customs and Border Protection told her that they would consider admitting the Ukrainian family. They were planning to try again Thursday, she said, adding that shelters in Mexico are filled with other would-be refugees who are not eligible to enter.

“There’s families like this that are showing up at the border from all sorts of countries from similar levels of violence. They deserve process to apply for asylum,” Bookey said. “This case really brings it home for people how just problematic this policy is.”