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‘Migrant Buses’: The Crudest Face of a System Built to Exclude

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2 people in front of a crowd with masks on, holding a banner. A sign behind them reads "TITLE 42 = RACISM"

Racism lies at the heart of the restrictive US immigration system. Asylum offers one of the few narrow exceptions for entry—but asylum seekers now find themselves props for GOP political stunts.

In April of this year, Gov. Greg Abbot of Texas began sending migrant individuals and families on buses from Texas to Washington DC, in a political stunt to highlight his criticism of the Biden administration’s border security policies. Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Gov, Ron DeSantis of Florida soon followed suit by sending their own buses and planes. So far this year Republican governors have shipped more than 12,000 newly arrived immigrants on 270 charter buses to the interior sanctuary cities of Washington DC, New York, and Chicago, and to Martha’s Vineyard. They promised that there would be jobs and housing waiting for them, but in reality, it was all political theater designed to use immigrants, catch sanctuary cities off guard, and win votes for the midterm elections. 

The majority of families and immigrants arriving at the US-Mexico border are seeking asylum, a form of protection from persecution established by the United Nations in 1951 in the aftermath of WWII and later adopted into US law in the Refugee Act of 1980. Asylum is one of the few narrow exceptions for entry that exist in a highly restrictive US legal immigration system.

As a whole, legal immigration to the US is limited to the wealthy, certain highly skilled workers, and a limited number of people who have immediate US citizen family members who can sponsor them. For everyone else, a legal way to immigrate to the US does not exist. But every year, millions of people, often the most vulnerable, are forced to flee their countries due to war, extreme poverty, violence, forced displacement, environmental devastation, and persecution. Seeking asylum protection in another country is an act of desperation for safety and protection.

Seeking safety, finding terror

Asylum seekers in the US are up against a most well-funded immigration border enforcement system, devoted to terrorizing and deterring people from coming, including those exercising their human right to seek asylum. In the last decade, the US has extended its immigration enforcement beyond its borders, paying and incentivizing countries like Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico to deter and detain migrants from countries like Cameroon, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and Haiti, who are heading to the US. Those who eventually make it to the US border face confusing and arbitrary exclusion policies like MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols- Remain in Mexico policy) and Title 42 which has been used since 2020 to expel two million people on sight, primarily Black and brown people from the Caribbean and Central America.

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The few migrants who are currently allowed to enter the United States are the rare exceptions permitted to pursue their asylum claims. They face incredible structural barriers to winning their cases. First, they face an immigration legal system trying to deport them. In order to stay, they must navigate a complex and arduous process to prove that they meet the narrow definition of a refugee, someone who is persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. This is impossible to do without an attorney. An asylum seeker has to find one and be able to pay their fees.

Secondly, they must figure out a way to survive day to day: where they will live, how they will eat, pay for their lawyer, and care for their family and children without being allowed to work legally. They can apply for a work permit, but that can take months or even years to come through because of slowdowns and backlogs. There is no coordinated system of welcome to ensure asylum seekers have access to due process and the stability they need to win their asylum case and thrive. The success rate of asylum under Trump was 29% and it has only increased to 37% under Biden.

Take the case of Sergio. Sergio fled political violence in his hometown in Nicaragua, leaving behind his pregnant wife and one-year-old child. While traveling through Mexico, he was arrested by Mexican immigration officers and detained in an immigration prison for several weeks. After being released and facing more danger and violence in Mexico as a migrant, he continued his journey to the US. At the US border in Tijuana, he was eventually able to present himself to immigration officials and state his intention to apply for asylum, but due to the MPP policy, he was forced to remain in Mexico for the duration of his US immigration court hearings.

During that time, he slept in a shelter and on the streets and was bused across the border every few weeks to attend immigration court in San Diego. On one of the trips, for reasons he does not know, the Mexican government decided not to let him return to Mexico. So US officials detained him at a US immigration detention center in San Diego.

It was the beginning of the pandemic and a frightening time. Anger and violence were erupting as prison guards denied people masks unless they signed liability contracts. Sergio got COVID and was there when another detainee, Carlos Mejia, died of the virus. The US government refused to allow him to leave detention unless he paid a $10,000 cash bond, which was impossible for his family. He wrote letters to dozens of organizations for legal help and worked in the kitchen seven days a week, earning just $5 a week. This money he used to call his family in Nicaragua. Through someone he had met in Tijuana, he was finally able to access legal support from an organization that paid the bond so he could be released. He was one of the lucky ones.

A system set up so people fail

But upon release, as an asylum-seeker, he was on his own. He faced a government system designed to make it so difficult that people will give up or fail before they can access their due process and asylum rights. He had the address of a friend in San Francisco who allowed him to stay for a short while. He had to find an attorney. He applied for a work permit in order to be able to work legally so that he could find a place to rent—but his work permit was not granted until two years later. When he was released from detention, even though he had paid his bond ICE required him to wear a GPS surveillance monitor on his ankle, which creates a constant sense of anxiety and being criminalized. Three years later he is still wearing it. Through accompaniment volunteers and community organizations like the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, Sergio could find odd jobs and housing to keep him going until his work permit arrived. His asylum case was finally heard a few months ago.

Many were quick to oppose the Trump administration’s blatant anti-immigrant policies. In recent weeks, many leaders have scorned the cruelty and abusiveness of Republican governors busing migrants against their will. But Biden continues the same policies of exclusion, deterrence, detention, deportation, and abandonment of asylum seekers which, though exacerbated by Trump, were established long before him.

Immigrant rights organizations, faith groups, volunteers, and attorneys in Washington DC, New York, Chicago, Sacramento, and Martha’s Vineyard have made heroic efforts to respond with welcome and to provide food, clothing, short-term shelter, and travel assistance to help those bused to their cities reconnect with family members or sponsors. But those on the ground will tell you that their goodwill is not enough. I recently spoke with Abel Nuñez, the Executive Director of CARECEN, one of the community organizations in Washington DC, which has received over 7,000 migrants in the past few months.

“Beyond providing the three days of food, shelter, and medical attention, which already is a huge task, we are having to prepare people how to be homeless in the United States,” Nuñez told me. “The Mayor of New York says that one in five people in New York City’s overstrained homeless shelter system are asylum seekers. Individual community groups and cities can’t do it alone without revamping the way we receive immigrants. It is time that the US move from a policy of exclusion to one of welcome; from one of deterrence to one of support for asylum seekers to rebuild their lives in the United States.”  

A network of grassroots and faith accompaniment groups and advocacy organizations have come together in the #Welcome with Dignity campaign to transform the way the United States receives and protects people forced to flee their homes. Welcome with Dignity is calling for the Biden Administration to end Title 42, a Trump-era policy specifically designed to prevent Black and brown refugees and immigrants from entering the US under the pretext of the pandemic. Although Biden has declared the pandemic stage of COVID-19 to be over, Title 42 remains in place, closing the border and expelling most asylum seekers. In fact, recently, the Biden administration even expanded Title 42 to include all but a select number of Venezuelans.

What welcome would look like

Organizers and activists can help to articulate these demands to support new arrivals:

  • Provide for the ability to work so new arrivals can survive. The Federal government can eliminate the long delays in receiving work authorization approval that prevent them from obtaining employment and limit their ability to open bank accounts, enroll in job-training programs, find housing, and pay for legal representation.
  • Provide access to transitional or affordable housing to ensure stability and safety. Federal and state governments can commit funding for additional shelter capacity, transitional housing arrangements, and affordable housing assistance so that there is an overall net increase in accessibility for asylum seekers and unhoused populations.
  • Grant access to resources without discrimination based on status. Local and state governments can increase resources regardless of immigration status regarding healthcare, housing, transportation, medical care, legal and other services to help local residents and newcomers alike.
  • Offer legal orientation and information to ensure that asylum seekers begin to understand the asylum process and how to obtain legal representation. Ensure full legal representation for asylum seekers navigating removal proceedings to ensure fairness in a complex system.
  • Update our asylum system to include those fleeing other forms of violence, such as gender-based violence, climate-driven migration, extreme poverty, and abuse by non-state actors which currently are not recognized in asylum law; correcting issues of inequity in the treatment and granting of asylum from migrants of different countries, for example, from Ukraine versus Haiti and African countries.
  • Advocate for your local city to have a plan in place to receive an influx of newly arrived migrants and provide respite care and longer-term needs for immigrant integration.
  • Expand coordination and support to community-based groups welcoming asylum seekers in border and interior communities to ensure new arrivals have access to food, clothing, shelter, legal orientation, medical care, dignified transportation, and other case management services. These are human needs. Expanding them for asylum seekers is an opportunity to expand housing, resources, and community support to increase the well-being of all our communities.

One barrier that will be raised is the cost. This system will cost money. But we already spend $25 billion of our federal tax dollars each year for immigration and border enforcement to surveil, detain and deport migrants who are seeking safety and a better life. Our tax dollars can be redirected and better invested in supporting those seeking refuge to resettle, integrate and become part of US communities. Perhaps the deeper and more entrenched barrier is not money at all, but the racism inherent in wanting to keep non-white people out of this country, or to let them in, only as second-class citizens, who cannot work legally, cannot vote and are kept in a perpetual state of fear and uncertainty.

The heart of every immigration issue is race. Will the US move away from being a white supremacist nation to a multiracial democracy? Will those of us not native to here, but who live here, be able to see an immigrant or asylum seeker from Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Syria, or Nigeria as a neighbor and equal?

“My experience has been very frustrating,” Sergio told me recently. “The US government tried so many ways to keep me out, but I kept trying because I didn’t have any other option. The way the US treats people is not humane. It claims to be a model of human rights but it’s the opposite.” Three years later, Sergio has finally had his asylum hearing and is waiting for the answer from the judge. He now has his work permit and has a job in the county social service office, informing low-income and monolingual residents about services. He still holds on to the hope of being reunited—someday soon—with his family and his children who are now three and four years old…once he wins his asylum case.

Featured images: #WelcomeWithDignity rally in San Francisco calling for an end to Title 42. Photo by Brooke Anderson.

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