Less than one month into the new administration, there has been a flurry of policies issued that impact immigrant survivors of gender-based violence and the immigration system at large. Here are what the changes have been and their impact on immigrant survivors.
THE IMMEDIATE IMPACTS
- Suspension of the “Remain in Mexico” Program
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) paused the “Remain in Mexico” program, which has forced more than 70,000 people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico as their cases are processed in the U.S. No new individuals will be added to this cruel program, but thousands of people seeking asylum who were already sent to Mexico since 2019 are still living in limbo. There is very limited access to trauma-informed legal counsel or secure shelter, and survivors are at high risk of exploitation and assault by perpetrators as they continue to wait for their day in court. Through executive order, the White House directed DHS to review the program and consider how to process the cases of those currently stranded on the other side of the border.
- Update: On February 11, 2021, DHS announced that they will begin to process the cases of some individuals in the “Remain in Mexico” program. We will continue to monitor the progress of this phased process.
- Ending Illegal Processes to Fast Track Asylum at the Border
The new administration effectively ended two secretive programs at the border, the Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP) and the Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR). Under these inhumane programs, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers held survivors of violence in extended custody while haphazardly rushing the “credible fear” interview—a critical first step in the process to determine whether a person seeking asylum can continue in their journey to access life-saving protection in the U.S. or instead be turned away. The expedited process made it nearly impossible for people seeking asylum to access legal counsel for these interviews. The end of these programs is a step in the right direction to help bring due process and justice to our asylum system.
- Repeal of Harsh Deportation Measures
The administration announced a repeal of policies from 2017 that increased arrests and deportations of all immigrants, which instilled fear in immigrant communities and deepened distrust of legal systems. With the intensified climate of fear, immigrant survivors in need of safety have been hesitant to reach out for critical legal and social services. The repeal of 2017 policies offers some temporary respite, but more comprehensive action is needed to meaningfully address the climate of fear that deters immigrant survivors from seeking support.
- Suspension of the So-Called “Safe Third Country” Agreements
Under “safe third country” agreements with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras (the Northern Triangle countries), people approaching the U.S. border in search of refuge were at risk of deportation to the Northern Triangle to seek asylum there—even if they have no ties to the region and lack institutional protection from further violence and harm. The administration announced an immediate suspension, with the eventual termination, of these agreements, which allowed the U.S. government to outsource our responsibility to extend refuge to victims of persecution.
POLICIES UNDER REVIEW
The administration announced the review of several policies that harm immigrant survivors by cutting off avenues to justice, stoking the climate of fear, and adding undue barriers to the legal process. The revision of these policies does not stop their implementation, and the results of the review are still to be seen. The policies under review include:
- Exorbitant fees for immigration court and applications for humanitarian aid, which create unjust barriers for survivors, who are slammed with roadblocks before they even begin the process to find refuge.
- The Title 42 policy that shuttered the border due to the pandemic under the guise of unfounded public health concerns and that DHS has used to illegally deny refugees their right to seek asylum. The administration stated that they will not apply this policy to unaccompanied children as they continue to review it.
- The transit ban, which bars all non-Mexican nationals approaching the U.S. southern border from applying for asylum, with limited exceptions.
- The expansion of expedited removal, a policy that gives federal immigration officers the discretion to swiftly deport anyone who cannot convince the agent that they have been in the U.S. continuously for two years.
- The public charge rule, which makes it harder for certain immigrants to obtain a Green Card if they have used a range of public benefits, like food stamps, non-emergency Medicaid, certain prescription drug subsidies, and housing vouchers.
- Asylum policies that govern whether survivors of gender-based violence can qualify for asylum, including regulations that aim to eliminate gender-based asylum.
MONITORING FOR THE FUTURE
The administration began to take action in key areas to address other harmful policies of the past. We will continue to monitor the progress of these initiatives and how they impact immigrant survivors.
- The administration proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a sweeping immigration bill that includes provisions to restore asylum and humanitarian protections for survivors of gender-based violence. Key provisions include the elimination of a stringent one-year deadline to file asylum claims and funding to tackle asylum application backlogs. The bill will also raise the cap for U visas, a visa for victims of crime, from 10,000 to 30,000.
- Family Separation Task Force
Through executive order, the administration created a task force charged with identifying families who were separated during the enforcement of the “zero-tolerance policy,” which separated and prosecuted families arriving at the southern border to seek asylum. More than 600 families are still separated.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
The new administration’s first actions are moving us in the right direction to undo the damaging policies of the previous administration and help rebuild bridges to justice for immigrant survivors. There is still a long road ahead of us, however, as many of the harmful policies under review will require significant, coordinated action to repeal.
We will continue to monitor updates from the administration and hold them accountable to ensure that immigrant survivors are protected.