By Jamile Tellez Lieberman and Joe Amon
PHILADELPHIA, US, Oct 7 2021 – Last month, asylum-seeking families at the U.S.-Mexico border appeared to have won a victory, however temporary, in their last-ditch bid for safety in the United States. It was also a victory for evidence-based public health policy.
The 1,954-mile-long southern border has always been a magnet for debate, with deep political divides. Bolstered by Donald Trump during his presidency, long-simmering anti-immigrant rhetoric and xenophobia surrounding migration and immigration increased dramatically.
Starting in 2016, under the previous administration, thousands of migrant families who made it to the southern border were told by immigration officials that they must remain in Mexico to await their asylum decisions, rather than in the United States.
The CDC was once heralded for its apolitical, evidence-based public health policy. Sadly, this is no longer the case. The first step in restoring the CDC’s tarnished reputation is to repeal the CDC’s Title 42 order
With long waits for the processing of their asylum cases, families caught in this legal limbo were forced to make do in temporary settlements in Mexican border towns, many of which are controlled by cartels. Life in these settlements is violent, unstable and impoverished.
In March 2020, then Vice President Mike Pence directed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to use its emergency powers to effectively seal the southern border, overruling the agency’s scientists. The CDC invoked Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act which gives federal health officials the ability to take extraordinary measures to limit transmission of an infectious disease.
In practice, the “extraordinary measures,” however, did not apply equally to all travelers entering the United States, including travelers who may have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Nor were these measures calibrated to where COVID-19 cases were most prevalent.
These scattershot measures have no meaningful impact on the pandemic in this country. Instead, they victimize migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. from Mexico, including asylum seekers.
Despite promising that his administration would respect science, the CDC’s Title 42 order has been renewed under the Biden administration. Public health leaders, human rights advocates, and former CDC officials and academics have repeatedly called on the CDC to end the use of Title 42 in favor of evidence-based approaches that can protect migrants and the American public from COVID-19 transmission. United Nations officials have also raised concerns that the expulsions may violate the United States’ obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, weighed in on Title 42 and the recent COVID-19 surge on October 3, saying that migrants are “not the driving force of this, let’s face reality here.”
No matter the CDC’s reasoning, one thing is clear: this policy enables profound and irreparable harm to migrant families and single adults. If forced back to Mexico, they would be once again at the mercy of the violent Mexican cartels they were so desperate to escape.
Hope has come from the judiciary if not from the CDC. On September 16, 2021, a federal district court judge in the District of Columbia granted the motion to reject Title 42 and issued an order that prohibits the expulsion of migrant families, saying, “in view of the wide availability of testing, vaccines and other minimization measures, the Court is not convinced that the transmission of COVID-19 during border processing cannot be significantly mitigated.”
The CDC was once heralded for its apolitical, evidence-based public health policy. Sadly, this is no longer the case. The first step in restoring the CDC’s tarnished reputation is to repeal the CDC’s Title 42 order. This will jumpstart the overdue process of returning the CDC to its role as an exemplar in public health policy-making instead of providing cover for xenophobic immigration policies.
Beyond Title 42, the CDC must work to restore its reputation with the American public and regain our trust. This is urgent during the current public health emergency, as well as future crises. It will be a lengthy, painstaking process, but without it, the consequences to public health would be immeasurable.
The order to reject Title 42 was set to take effect on September 30, but an appeals court suspended the judge’s order on October 1, permitting border officials to expel migrants. Amidst this legal back and forth, the question we are left wondering is: Who are these measures meant to protect? The COVID pandemic in the U.S will advance and retreat regardless of immigration policy.
The CDC is turning its back on migrants, as well as science. More broadly, the Biden administration is not listening to scientists, despite his pledge to return to science-based, humanitarian, decision-making. It’s not too late to rebuild trust in science, migrants and their contribution to America, and the American people they hope to become part of.
Jamile Tellez Lieberman is a Doctor of Public Health candidate at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health and a Global Alliance for Training in Health Equity (GATHER) Fellow.
Joe Amon is the director of global health at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health and former director of health programs at Human Rights Watch.