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#WelcomeWithDignity: DHS Enforcement Memo Undermines the Legal Right to Seek Asylum

Washington — Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a deeply concerning new memo outlining enforcement and removal priorities for immigration agents. The memo appears to categorically designate people who cross the border seeking protection as a “threat to border security” and prioritizes them for apprehension and removal in violation of U.S. treaty obligations barring the imposition of penalties on people seeking protection on account of unlawful entry or presence. The memo does not address past abuses by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents or the history of systemic racism and anti-Blackness in our nation’s immigration laws, and only mentions the word ‘asylum’ once, failing to acknowledge that asylum seekers arriving at the border have a legal right to request protection in the United States.

“The treatment of Haitian asylum seekers at the border in recent weeks is a devastating reminder of the racism and anti-Blackness in our nation’s immigration laws, and today’s enforcement memo fails to center racial justice and establish a policy that upholds the human rights of immigrants and asylum-seekers,” said Amy Fischer, Americas Advocacy Director at Amnesty International USA. “While we welcome the improvements to review cases holistically and embrace prosecutorial discretion, by continuing to place recent arrivals, including asylum-seekers, as enforcement priorities, this policy continues to rely on the United States’ racist criminal legal system to determine whether an individual is a threat to public safety. The United States must restore access to asylum and embrace a protection-based framework that upholds racial justice and dignity. Seeking asylum is a human right, regardless of how someone chooses to seek it.”

“Punishing recently arrived asylum seekers by designating them as enforcement priorities is cruel and inhumane. It inflicts further trauma on those who have left everything behind to find safety. It is also perverse in light of U.S. government policies that have deliberately forced asylum seekers to remain outside of the United States for months or years,” said Robyn Barnard, senior advocacy counsel at Human Rights First. “Treating people seeking refugee protection as priorities for arrest and deportation would moreover flout U.S. legal obligations under the Refugee Convention and Protocol, which makes clear that people seeking refuge should not be penalized.”

“After the seemingly all-out assault on immigrants and immigrant communities during the Trump years, these guidelines provide essential guidance for federal agencies. It is especially important that those who have asserted their legal rights should no longer be targets simply for doing so,” said Katrina Huber, Project Coordinator with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI). “With that said, while it is important to have clear parameters for federal agencies, especially ones notorious for their callous abuse of immigrants, it is clearer every day the real solution is true reform of the nation’s immigration laws with a pathway to citizenship.”

“Let us say this in no uncertain terms: while the person sitting in the oval office may have changed from Trump to Biden, this type of xenophobic policy-making is merely a revolving door of what we have seen over the last four years,” said Jonathan Goldman, Executive Director of the Student Clinic for Immigrant Justice. “DHS, Biden, Secretary Mayorkas, whoever it is, can change the laws all they want but one thing remains the same: people seeking asylum are not a threat, people seeking to be reunited with their families are not a threat, immigrants are not a threat, period. If even a small percentage of the thought that goes into coming up with these harmful policies went towards thinking about how we could be helping families versus hurting them, we would have a stronger, healthier, happier, and safer country.”

“Following the horrific mistreatment of Haitian migrants at the border this past month, we are especially appalled to see the Biden administration’s DHS label migrants who attempt to cross the border outside of ports of entry as ‘threats to border security.’ With Title 42 in place, asylum seekers have virtually no other way to enter the country, and these false labels further perpetuate the cruel treatment of migrants at the border. Lip service condemning the heinous treatment of migrants at the border will never be enough; the Biden administration must take decisive action to put an end to these harmful labels and restore access to asylum,” said Sirine Shebaya, Executive Director of the National Immigration Project.

“Women’s Refugee Commission is deeply disappointed to see people legally seeking asylum once again targeted as a top enforcement priority in the U.S. immigration system,” said Katharina Obser, director for Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “Seeking asylum is a legal and human right, and yet the administration has continued to make it almost impossible for those coming to ports of entry. At a time when the administration should be reversing course on deeply harmful anti-asylum policies, these new enforcement priorities will – like similar ones that preceded it – instead punish asylum seekers simply for having fled violence or harm and sought safety at the U.S. border.”

“By prioritizing recent border-crossers for enforcement without addressing the shutdown of asylum at our border, the Department of Homeland Security effectively prioritizes deporting some of the most vulnerable,” said Andrew Geibel, Policy Counsel at HIAS. “We welcome the use of prosecutorial discretion, but until the right to seek asylum at the border is fully restored, DHS’ approach will undermine the right of people to seek asylum.”


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The #WelcomeWithDignity Campaign is composed of more than 85 organizations committed to transforming the way the United States receives and protects people forced to flee their homes to ensure they are treated humanely and fairly. To learn more and join our campaign visit: welcomewithdignity.org