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Biden DHS May Exempt Vulnerable Asylum-Seekers from COVID ‘Turn Back’ Policy

Migrants are detained by a U.S. Border Patrol agent after crossing the Rio Bravo river to request asylum in El Paso, Texas, March 27, 2021. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

The Biden administration is considering creating a formal system that issues exceptions to a Trump-era policy which allows border patrol agents to immediately turn back asylum-seekers who arrive at the southern border.

The proposal comes amid backlash over Biden’s decision to continue a Trump-era public health measure, implemented in response to COVID-19, which allows border patrol to immediately turn away immigrants who show up to the border claiming asylum. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is deliberating a new process to except certain vulnerable asylum-seekers from the public health measure, according to documents acquired by BuzzFeed News.

Border officials have been applying the Title 42 section of the public health code to dismiss migrant cases at the border to curb COVID-19 transmission since March 2020. The Trump administration started invoking the Title 42 policy to protect border patrol agents and U.S. communities along the border from the coronavirus.

The new DHS plan would maintain connections in Mexico to identify individuals with qualifying vulnerable situations. The background information and biometric data of selected people would be forwarded to U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel for review.

Border patrol reported more than 350,000 encounters with illegal immigrants on the Southwest border in the first three months of the year alone. More than 34,000 of those encounters have been with unaccompanied minors, predominantly from the Northern Triangle region of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

The massive influx of migrants has overwhelmed under-resourced border patrol officials and detention facilities in recent months. Undocumented migrant children have already been treated as exceptions to the public health provision by the Biden administration, exacerbating the accommodation issues and processing delays.

Immigration attorneys have already been exercising work arounds in the existing restrictions to provide exceptions to migrants from the turn-back policy.

An ACLU attorney named Lee Gelernt has filed lawsuits against the government disputing the policy. Gelernt told BuzzFeed News that the advocacy organization has been sending 35 cases a day for government processing to stop expulsions and allow migrants with humanitarian cases into the country.

“We are hoping to see a more formal, expanded program ramp up quickly. Any formal NGO process, to be meaningful, will need to allow a significant number of people in each day at multiple ports,” Gelernt reported.

A DHS spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that “DHS is continually working, in consultation with the CDC, to improve the process for humanitarian exception requests under Title 42 as part of our efforts to restore safe, humane, and orderly processing at our borders.”

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