The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Migrants are surging into the U.S. and Europe. Western leaders are trying to stop them.

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On the Biden-Harris 2020 campaign website, the Democratic duo who would go on to occupy the White House pledged to “reassert America’s commitment to asylum seekers and refugees.” Liberal critics chastised the administration last year for seemingly violating that promise by indiscriminately deporting thousands of Haitian migrants back to their violence-plagued homeland. Now the administration is facing the same criticism again — this time for taking aim at a surge of Venezuelans funneling across the U.S. border.

The deportations happen as illegal immigration lurches back across the politically polarized West. From the U.S.-Mexico border to the Central Mediterranean, the early pandemic lull in irregular crossings has evaporated, leading to a rush of migrants. Irregular border crossings into the European Union last year climbed to nearly 200,000, jumping 57 percent over 2020 numbers and reaching levels not seen since 2017. U.S. officials apprehended 178,840 migrants at the southwest border in December, nearly two-and-a-half times the number recorded in the same month a year earlier.

Not all of those migrants are asylum seekers in search of sanctuary from persecution. But those who are have been caught up on both sides of the Atlantic by escalating rhetoric, disjointed asylum systems and controversial steps to contain their numbers.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron — ahead of a widely anticipated reelection bid against far-right rivals who have turned immigration into a national rallying cry — is staking out his own hard-line stance, calling for a strengthening of the European Union’s external borders. With France now occupying the bloc’s rotating presidency, he used that perch to push last week for the creation of a new European migration council to supervise regional policy, as well as a “rapid reaction force” to confront sudden migrant surges at Europe’s borders.

Several European nations — including Poland, which started work last month on a new $400 million border wall following a showdown with Belarus over thousands of Middle Eastern migrants — are calling for more restrictive rules governing asylum seekers. Amid a surge of migrants crossing the English Channel, Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel approved a plan last year to use patrols on Jet Skis to push migrants back toward France — an as-yet-undeployed step so polemic that border agents have threatened to strike and the Royal Navy rejected the tactic.

In the United States, meanwhile, critics say the pandemic is once again being wielded as a weapon against asylum seekers.

The Department of Homeland Security — and later the White House — confirmed last week that the United States will start returning Venezuelan migrants who had previously settled in Colombia back to that country, which is home to the single largest Venezuelan diaspora. The administration, as my colleague Nick Miroff reported, is expelling the Venezuelans under Title 42 — a controversial emergency provision previously used by the Trump administration that cites pandemic health concerns for deporting migrants without first giving them to chance to apply for asylum protection under U.S. law.

For some Venezuelans, Colombia amounts to a safe enough country given an extraordinary effort there to legalize more than 1.7 million migrants from its socialist neighbor. But last week, a report by Telemundo indicated the Biden administration may have gone even further by deporting Venezuelans back to brutal conditions in their authoritarian state via a third country — exactly the tactic Biden had personally blasted President Donald Trump for using ahead of the 2020 election.

“It’s abundantly clear he has no regard for the suffering of the Venezuelan people,” Biden said of Trump in 2020 after reports that Venezuelans were being deported back to their country via Trinidad and Tobago.

I reached out to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which said it was looking into the Telemundo report but could not provide further detail.

“The recent reports of the Biden administration removing Venezuelans through third countries is extremely disturbing,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) said in a statement last week. “By continuing to use a page from Trump’s immigration enforcement playbook, this administration is turning its back on the immigrants who need our protection the most.”

There is still reason to believe that Biden’s approach on asylum seekers remains more humane than that of the previous administration. The Post reported last week that the White House has carefully calibrated its response to a U.S. court decision compelling it to reinstate the Trump administration policy that forced asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while their claims were reviewed by U.S. officials. Despite widespread condemnation by immigration advocates who wanted Biden to push harder against the legal decision, the administration has reinstated the program “with a narrow scope and none of the zeal demonstrated by Trump officials.”

The Biden administration has also been, in some respects, a victim of its own kindness. The administration had largely refrained from using Title 42 on Haitians during the first part of 2021, allowing thousands to be processed on asylum claims and released into the United States, particularly families with children. As word of mouth spread to other Haitians living in countries like Chile and Brazil, the ranks of Haitians making a run for the United States from those countries swelled. It was only after thousands had crammed under bridges and roadsides in Del Rio, Tex., and President Biden was savaged on Fox News and other outlets over a narrative of a free-for-all at the border, that the administration resorted to summary deportations of the Haitians under Title 42.

A similar surge is happening now with Venezuelans. The United States stopped 24,819 Venezuelans in December, up from 206 the same month in 2020. That jump came after a year in which the administration had showed extreme restraint in using Title 42 against them, according to border agency data.

The administration has defended the use of Title 42, arguing large migrant waves pose pandemic risks. Its backers also insist the measure does not violate international law, in part because of an exemption for those who fear torture if returned. But reporting has suggested that only a small number of migrants are actually screened for protection needs, leading critics to argue it blocks access to the U.S. asylum system against international law.

Either way, the tactic seems largely crafted for one true purpose: as a looming threat — and hence deterrent — for migrants and asylum seekers.

“The reality is that while the administration is categorizing this as a health issue, Title 42 is being used to have effects on immigration,” Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, told me. Noting the administration had already reopened land borders to vaccinated travelers in November, she added, “it’s pretty hard to see any sort of public health justification at this point.”

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