A Ukrainian mother and her three children have been allowed to enter the United States after being returned to Mexico under a highly criticized pandemic measure that bars entry to most asylum seekers arriving at the US border, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed.
The San Diego Union-Tribune first reported late Wednesday that the 34-year-old woman and her children were turned away at the southern US border under Title 42, a controversial policy first invoked by former President Donald Trump in March 2020 due to the coronavirus.
In a statement to Al Jazeera on Thursday night, the Department of Homeland Security said the Ukrainian family was allowed to enter the country after a review of the facts of their case. “DHS continues to exempt particularly vulnerable people from Title 42 on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
More than 1.6 million Title 42 removals have taken place to date, according to the US government. data. Rights groups have repeated denounced the policy as a violation of international law that puts people who are already vulnerable at risk of violence, rape, extortion and other threats in Mexico or in other countries to which they are sent.
“I’m not asking for anything from the United States, just to let me in,” the Ukrainian woman, who used the name Sofia, told the Union-Tribune after being turned away. “All we need is to be safe. All we want is to keep our lives safe.”
‘Terrible and inhumane’
The case comes as the bombing of Ukrainian cities by Russia and Russia intensifies troop advance to the capital, Kiev. The conflict has forced more than 2.5 million people flee the country, according to the United Nations, with most refugees heading to neighboring European nations.
The Associated Press news agency reported that the woman and her children left Ukraine on February 27, just days after Russia launched its all-out invasion, going first to Moldova and Romania before arriving in Mexico this week. The family was seeking to reunite with relatives in the United States, the AP and Union-Tribune said.
Rights groups have urged Biden to do more to help ensure safe passage for all those seeking to leave, as well as protect Ukrainians already in the US. Last week, the US administration Announced would extend what is known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians in the country, saying the conflict made it unsafe for them to return to Ukraine.
While refugee advocates and US lawmakers welcomed that decision, some also called on Biden to take similarly swift action to protect citizens of countries also experiencing armed conflict or struggling after environmental disasters, such as Cameroon, Guatemala and Honduras.
Similarly, calls for Biden to end the use of Title 42 for all asylum seekers arriving at US borders are growing louder, especially as coronavirus restrictions are lifted. in the US amid declining infection rates.
The administration has justified its continued use of the policy by saying that Title 42 is a public health order, not an immigration directive, intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “It is a public health imperative for the benefit of migrants, the communities they enter and our workforce to continue enforcing Title 42 and that is the decision of the [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]”, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in late January, reported by the local media. “It’s not our decision.”
But even top lawmakers from Biden’s own Democratic Party are now speaking out. During a virtual news conference Thursday alongside immigrant rights advocates, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer urged the president to end what he described as a policy “ terrible and inhumane”.
“Title 42 has been nothing short of disastrous for … families seeking asylum from the horrors in their home countries,” Schumer told reporters. “Now, more than a year since the Biden administration took office, it is unacceptable that this policy continues to be used indiscriminately to expel migrants with valid refugee claims from our southern border.”
Citing two officials familiar with the matter, Reuters said this week that the Biden administration is leaning toward ending Title 42. The news outlet reported that another official said a decision could come within weeks as the policy settles. was “actively debating.”
Increase in refugee arrivals
Erika Pinheiro, director of policy and litigation at Al Otro Lado, a legal support group for refugees and migrants, tweeted about the Ukrainian woman and her children, ages 14, 12 and six, who were turned away at the port of entry in San Ysidro between California and Mexico this week.
“This woman doesn’t have a phone and she can’t stay safe in Tijuana. How can the United States say that it supports Ukraine while rejecting its refugees from our borders? she wrote on Twitter Wednesday night.
Pinheiro, who arrived at the border crossing as the situation unfolded, told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview the next day that a growing number of Ukrainian and Russian nationals have tried to seek asylum in the US through Mexico during the past year.
“The political crisis there did not start with the bombs, it started before. So there has been an increase in refugee flows through Mexico. There has been an increase in asylum seekers from Russia, Ukraine and other Eastern European countries,” Pinheiro said.
HAPPENING NOW: @CBP is turning away a Ukrainian woman and her minor children at the San Ysidro port of entry. This woman does not have a phone and cannot remain safe in Tijuana. How can the United States say that it supports Ukraine while rejecting its refugees from our borders?
– Erika Pinheiro (@eeerox) March 10, 2022
Pinheiro added that as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in the US, the Biden administration does not have a valid argument to continue using Title 42. The policy was always “a political decision,” he said, which has resulted in death and suffering for more than a million people.
“Even the states that had the strictest COVID restrictions are lifting them,” Pinheiro said. “If all of that is going on and we still have the border closed to refugees, even those who are vaccinated and tested for COVID, it really doesn’t make any sense.”
Recent court decisions
That was echoed by Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance advocacy group.
He said that more than 20,000 people, including pregnant women and babies, had been sent back to Haiti as a result of the policy, despite the Caribbean nation’s struggle against widespread violence and poverty, and a entrenched politician crisis.
“We are asking to repeal Title 42 and to provide support and welcome people, whether they come from Ukraine, Haiti, Cameroon, Central America,” Jozef said during Thursday’s press conference.
Separate US courts, meanwhile, issued vastly different rulings this month on the ways the Biden administration can enforce Title 42 in the future.
A US appeals court last week said the Biden administration could continue to remove Title 42 asylum seekers, but should not send them “to places where they will be persecuted or tortured.” However, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the administration could not exempt unaccompanied minors from the policy.
Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who is involved in legal challenges to the policy, said: “The way the administration could deal with both cases is simply to end to Title 42”. He added: “The writing is on the wall about the legality of Title 42 right now.”