Per media reports, the White House is considering requiring migrants 5 and older to receive COVID vaccines as a condition to cross the border for court hearings. This is likely to impact individuals placed in Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) or exempted from Title 42 expulsions. This follows a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announcement that travelers would need to present proof of vaccination at ports of entry. The CDC has a list of FDA-approved vaccines that excludes vaccines available around the world, including the Sputnik and CanSino vaccines broadly used in Mexico. This fact sheet breaks down some glaring issues with only allowing vaccinated migrants in.
Vaccine requirements do not comply with U.S. and international asylum law.
Requiring proof of vaccination to seek protection is fundamentally at odds with the right to seek asylum under domestic and international law. The Trump and Biden administrations have expelled a million and a half people, many of whom tried to seek protection at U.S. borders, under a 1940s quarantine law commonly referred to as “Title 42.” As a senior counselor in the Department of Justice previously unpacked, there is no lawful justification for Title 42 expulsions in the immigration context. Nonetheless, the Biden administration continues to defend it in court and expel hundreds of thousands of people, returning many to harm. Layering a vaccine requirement to carve out some people from this unlawful policy will all but ensure its continued use, rather than end it altogether.
Allowing exemptions based on vaccination will merely breathe new air into the continued use of Title 42 expulsions, which were implemented over the objections of senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) experts and widely discredited by epidemiologists and public health experts who have confirmed it has “no scientific basis as a public health measure.”
Requiring vaccines to seek protection might make sense if vaccines were equally available across the world to everyone. That is not the world we live in.
Huge parts of the world, including many neighboring nations to the south of the U.S., are still struggling to make vaccines widely accessible. As Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization recently pointed out, racial and economic inequities prevail over vaccine access, including only seven percent of people in Africa and less than one percent of Haitians gaining access to vaccines. To make matters worse, not all vaccines are treated equal under the FDA. A fully vaccinated person, privileged as they may be in certain parts of the world, would have the same status as an unvaccinated person if they simply didn’t get the “right” vaccine.
Public health experts have called on the administration to ensure equal vaccine access to asylum seekers upon arrival to the United States, NOT as a condition of entry.
On January 28, 2022, six leading public health experts wrote a letter to the Secretaries of the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services and the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, stating in unequivocal terms that “asylum seekers and refugees should under no circumstances be required to be vaccinated as a condition for entering the United States.” The letter addresses the role of vaccination as “one element of a layered and integrated approach to safeguarding public health,” including timely testing, accessible and high-quality masks, and social distancing. The experts recommend that vaccines should be “offered to asylum seekers and migrants without discrimination, safely, and in a timely manner after their arrival or entry to the United States.” But vaccination status, they conclude, “must not be used to deny individuals their right to seek asylum, itself a life-saving measure that is protected under U.S. and international law.”
This is not the first time that the administration has looked at vaccines, a keystone for public health, as a tool for restraining migration.
Vaccines should never be about border enforcement. However, hardliners in the Biden administration, who continue to see people seeking protection as mere numbers to quash, have spoken up against offering vaccines to noncitizens. While pressuring Mexico to act as a proxy for U.S. border enforcement, the Biden administration has shipped vaccines to its southern neighbor, who pledged to take back expelled families. In other words, vaccines have been viewed through a deterrence and externalization lens long before the announcement that asylum seekers may now need to show proof of vaccination.
The U.S. has a history of using public health to restrain migration and the right to asylum.
This proposed policy would further a dark history of associating migration with disease, without public health justification. The racist premise that migration brings disease or contagion is, unfortunately, not new for the U.S. In the 1980s, the U.S. imposed a ban on individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Like today, the government ignored the elephant in the room: that the U.S. had the largest outbreak anywhere in the world. Instead, the U.S. began jailing Haitian asylum seekers in an HIV prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, where some refugees were told they could be detained for 10 to 20 years, or until a “cure” for HIV/AIDS was discovered. Like President Clinton before him, President Biden decried the cruel, anti-asylum policies piloted by his predecessor.
What should the administration do to provide equitable, safe access for people seeking protection?
The Biden administration should reopen ports of entry to people seeking asylum and end the presumptive use of detention. A tiered asylum system, where only some enter if they present valid proof of vaccination, will inevitably leave people in danger. Detention is neither necessary nor effective: more than 90 percent of asylum seekers have family or close friends in the U.S. with whom they can shelter-in-place, and experts call decarceration a public health imperative. The administration must remove all barriers to the processing of asylum seekers, offer equal access to vaccines for migrants after arrival, and refrain from policies that fuel a tiered system by creating new carve-outs under the specious claims of public health. The administration must – and can – take measures towards processing asylum seekers without exception.