This week, the Centers for Disease Control will decide whether or not to finally end a policy that has shut down asylum at the Southern border for two years.
The Trump White House reportedly pushed the CDC to use its public health authorities — Title 42 — to enact the shutdown, over CDC experts’ objections. Since taking office, the Biden administration has kept the policy in place, despite increasing condemnation from public health officials as well as the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions across the country.
Under the Title 42 order, the Biden administration has repeatedly denied people fleeing violence and persecution the right to seek protection and has sent them directly back into harm’s way, subjecting Black and LGBTQ+ asylum seekers to particular risks. Human rights organizations have documented nearly ten thousand heartbreaking instances of people being kidnapped, tortured, sexually assaulted, and murdered as a result.
These mass expulsions to danger fly in the face of American values and U.S. legal commitments. They are also an affront to the basic humanity of people seeking safe sanctuary and lack a public health rationale.
In early March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit court issued a unanimous ruling in a case brought by the ACLU and partners challenging Title 42 expulsions. The filings detail horrific experiences suffered by people seeking protection, including the account of a Honduran woman who was expelled with her young daughter by border officials at night. After she exited the international bridge into Reynosa, several armed men grabbed her and covered her face with a black hat and forced her into a car. While being held, she was raped multiple times as she begged her captors not to harm her daughter. Tragically, their experience mirrors those of countless other people expelled under Title 42.
The D.C. Appeals Court recognized the grave dangers faced by those subject to Title 42, and ruled that it is unlawful for the government to expel people without first ensuring they will not be returned to torture or persecution. The court also questioned the policy’s public health justification, noting that it “looks in certain respects like a relic from an era with no vaccines, scarce testing, few therapeutics, and little certainty.”
Though Title 42 has been misused as a border enforcement tool, it actually falls under the authority of the CDC. Senior Trump officials reportedly pushed the agency to implement the policy, and Biden White House officials are thought to be far more involved in decisions over its continuation than they let on.
To date, no career CDC scientist has publicly expressed public support for the use of Title 42 — we have heard only from political appointees.
The CDC recently issued an order terminating Title 42 as it applies to children who arrive at the border alone. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky correctly found no public health justification for expelling unaccompanied children from the U.S.
Dr. Walensky said the CDC will complete a new review of Title 42 by March 30 to decide whether to end it entirely. Public health experts have demanded it does so. Indeed, the core of Dr. Walensky’s analysis — that we have entered a “different phase” of the pandemic — applies equally to unaccompanied children, families, and adults. She cited widespread vaccination and infection-induced immunity, the availability of other mitigation tools (such as testing and treatments), dramatically higher vaccination rates around the world, and new plans to detect and quickly combat future variants. Accordingly, COVID-related restrictions have been lifted in most U.S. jurisdictions, including border communities.
Keeping this extraordinary policy in place as so many other restrictions are eliminated would lay bare the truth of Title 42: It was always a way to illegally restrict access to asylum, and not about public health.
Our government has the tools it needs to safely screen people at the border, as our laws require, to determine whether they qualify for asylum or other humanitarian protections. The CDC should resist any political interference from the White House and end Title 42 in its entirety.
If the agency continues a policy that lacks a public health rationale, it will signal to the American public that the CDC cannot maintain scientific integrity and independence in the face of political pressure and further erode trust in the agency. It also risks that its legacy will be sending vulnerable people into danger, rather than saving lives as it was created to do.