Title 42: A rule based on COVID-19 or deterrence?

“They told me I was going with my family in California, so I could start my asylum process there,” said a Honduran mother, as she stared disoriented. She was with her two children and holding her toddler who was inconsolably crying.

This scene is repeated in countless occasions at the parking lot of the National Institute of Migration, or INM, in Ciudad Juárez; where local and international organizations receive expelled migrants and asylum seekers, including families. They are expelled in what are known as ‘lateral flights’ from Reynosa, Mexico/McAllen, Texas, to Juárez, Mexico/El Paso, Texas, under the Title 42 public health rule. The rule, which allows the quick expulsion of migrants and asylum seekers at the border, entered into effect in March 2020 as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and continues today.

The majority of asylum seekers and migrants go through many obstacles and dangers to finally arrive at the U.S. southern border. Many of them are victims of organized crime and abuse during their journey. Once they enter the United States, some people are detained for days — experiencing overcrowded facilities and other inhumane conditions. Others are separated from their families without any knowledge of their whereabouts.

It is jarring to witness hundreds of people and families being deceived by U.S. immigration authorities. Many have mentioned that before boarding a plane to El Paso, Texas, U.S. migration officers would tell them — and sometimes even promise — they would be taken to their families who were already in the United States to start the asylum process. People are forced to board planes without knowing where they are being taken.

“They told us we were going to a shelter within the U.S, then we would contact our relatives to go with them, they double-checked with me my relative’s information to make sure it was correct.” — A Mexican parent describing what Immigration and Customs Enforcement told him prior to being expelled to Ciudad Juárez.

When asylum seekers and migrants arrive in El Paso, Texas, — prior to being escorted by U.S. immigration officers across the international bridge which leads to Mexico — people are told they are going to be transferred to another U.S. city. They are told that they will find support and shelter in these other cities. That they will be able to contact their relatives and friends to organize travel to their final destinations. Once they are expelled to Mexico and we receive them at the INM parking lot, the feelings of confusion and denial are evident.

The groups of newly expelled asylum seekers and migrants sit in folding chairs under an improvised tent that does not quite protect from the dessert heat or cold. Staff from various humanitarian organizations and the Mexican government hand them bottles of water, food and shoelaces.

You can see children throwing up out of hunger. They said they were barely given food while detained, and when they were given food, it was expired. Others are struggling with visible symptoms of flu. Adults are incessantly using their phones, trying to make phone calls, or searching for a plug to charge them, asking whoever is near “Where am I?”

Then they are informed — they are in; Ciudad Juárez, México.

After finding out, some are in shock and others just gaze at the floor. Parents ask if they will be taken to a shelter, but the truth is, there is not enough shelter space for the hundreds that are expelled almost every day.

Since late March 2021 lateral flights under the Title 42 rule have taken place at the U.S.-Mexico border. What alarms me the most are the details of the expulsions, the dishonesty in the process, and what I define as psychological torture, which is used as a deterrence method to prevent asylum seekers from exercising their right to seek asylum in the United States.

There have been recent reports of expulsion flights to Central and South Mexico, even to the southern Mexican border where people are expelled to Guatemala with no official process.

The U.S. government continues to expel asylum seekers and migrants due to public health concerns. However, the United States receives foreign tourists every day, in many cities people are barely wearing masks, and public health experts have called Title 42 “scientifically baseless and politically motivated.” All this makes me question: is the Title 42 rule really about public health or has it become another inhumane practice of deterrence?