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On a beach on the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana, Mexico, a border wall extends into the ocean
Seeking asylum

What is happening at the U.S. southern border?

Last updated 
Photo: Tomas Castelazo/Wikimedia Commons

Violence, climate change, rising poverty, and COVID-19 are forcing thousands of people from northern Central America, Haiti, and other places in crisis to flee their homes. Many, including unaccompanied children, have undertaken a dangerous journey to the United States southern border to ask for asylum.

Seeking asylum is legal under both domestic and international law—even during a pandemic. People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to request asylum without being criminalized, turned back to danger or separated from their families.

Leer en español: ¿Qué está pasando en la frontera sur de Estados Unidos?

The U.S. asylum system can best be described as broken and brutal, a reality that was exacerbated by the previous administration. But while President Joe Biden has announced ambitious goals, his administration has shown little progress toward building a fair and humane asylum system. Instead, he has continued policies that criminalize asylum seekers and turn them away at the border, putting thousands of lives at risk.

Find out what’s happening, what the Biden Administration must do, and how you can help.

A mother sits on a red couch with her arm around her son sitting next to her. They are in a room with several chairs and a large rug.

"We were living a peaceful life,” says Angelina, 38, who fled Guatemala with her three children. “Then, when they [gang members] killed my brother, that's when everything was disrupted. Every two blocks sometimes you'd find a body. I decided [to leave] because of that situation and also to give [my children] a better life.”

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Who is crossing the U.S.-Mexico border? 

Asylum seekers are people who ask for protection in another country because they fear violence or persecution in their home country. Many of the people attempting to reach safety by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border have no choice but to flee. They are women escaping gender-based violence, LGBTQ people fleeing persecution, and families and children seeking protection from gang violence.

A substantial number of asylum seekers are fleeing violence, persecution, and natural disasters in Haiti and the northern Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Asylum seekers also come from Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, India, and African countries, such as Eritrea, Ghana, Ethiopia and Cameroon.

“People are usually displaced within their own countries first,” says Meghan Lopez, the IRC’s regional vice president for Latin America. “However, the vast majority encounter risks and deteriorating living conditions similar to the ones they fled, leaving them no choice but to seek safety elsewhere.”

Learn more about how the asylum system works.

Is seeking asylum legal during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Seeking asylum is always legal under both domestic and international law, including during a pandemic. 

Epidemiologists and other public health experts have made clear that asylum seekers and their children can be safely processed at the border using public health measures. Even Chief Medical Officer to the President Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that immigrants are not the driving force behind the spread of COVID-19.

Turning asylum seekers away not only violates U.S. law, it sends people, including families with children, back to places where they face persecution and threats to their lives.

Is the Biden Administration allowing asylum seekers into the U.S.?

Despite releasing plans and blueprints to reform the asylum system, the Biden Administration has continued policies that criminalize and turn away individuals and families seeking safety.

The Biden Administration has continued policies that criminalize and turn away individuals and families seeking safety.

The Trump Administration used COVID-19 as a justification to immediately expel asylum seekers under a public health code called Title 42. This code remains in effect today, meaning most asylum seekers still are quickly turned away without ever being able to present their case for asylum. The exceptions are unaccompanied children, some families, and those impacted by a Trump Administration policy called “Remain in Mexico” or the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).

MPP forces those who apply for asylum at the southern border to wait out their cases in dangerous conditions in Mexico with little access to legal counsel. The Biden Administration initially terminated the program before the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision to order its reinstatement. Although the administration claims to still want to find a way to end MPP, it has since worked with Mexico to continue and even expand the program.

The Biden Administration has also expanded immigration detention and is deporting Central American asylum seekers to unfamiliar areas of Mexico. People held in detention are at increased risk of COVID-19 in a system notorious for inhumane conditions and woefully insufficient medical care, while expulsions and deportations further the spread of COVID-19. Due to systemic racism and rampant racial profiling, Black immigrants are at disproportionate risk of ICE detention and deportation. 

“For every step forward the Biden Administration has taken on asylum, it takes two steps backward….” says IRC director of immigration Olga Byrne. “The Biden Administration has so far demonstrated a lack of will to dismantle a broken and brutal system exacerbated by the previous administration and replace it with a system centered on dignity and protection.”

The IRC called on the previous administration and continues to call on the Biden Administration to end this use of Title 42 and to build a fair and humane asylum system.

Learn more about President Biden’s policies.

Why are Haitians seeking asylum? 

Haiti is facing political strife after the assasination of its president, a public health crisis with little to no infrastructure to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and the near-constant onslaught of natural disasters. This summer, Tropical Storm Grace hit Haiti just days after an earthquake devastated parts of the country and left over 2,000 people dead. 

Effective in August, the Biden Administration announced that Haitians already in the U.S. would be eligible for temporary protected status, or TPS. TPS allows people from designated countries to live and work in the U.S. because their own country is suffering from armed conflict or natural disaster.

In a makeshift encampment in Mexico, a Haitian family--a mom, dad and young daughter--look straight at the camera while sitting on the ground next to their suitcases and blankets.

A Haitian family in a makeshift encampment in Mexico where they have been waiting to claim asylum in the U.S. The Biden Administration has used Title 42 to turn away Haitians and other asylum seekers at the border.

Photo: Getty

However, despite its recognition of Haiti’s crisis, the administration continues to turn away Haitian asylum seekers. U.S. Border Patrol were documented pursuing Haitian asylum-seekers on horseback armed with whips, abuse that is the direct result of an immigration system that criminalizes—rather than protects—people seeking safety. 

The obstacles Haitians face on their way to safety start long before reaching the US-Mexico border. There have been reports of Mexican security forces being deployed to the South of the country--specifically in the state of Chiapas—to block the way of asylum seekers.

Why are people fleeing Central America? 

People are facing worsening conditions in a region that has for years suffered from extreme poverty and some of the world’s highest murder rates outside of warzones.

In the final months of 2020, CuéntaNos, part of the International Rescue Committee's global information platform for refugees and migrants, saw a 1,500% increase in questions from Central Americans about immigration.

Why is this? First, the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have worsened conditions in the region, with an estimated 45.4 million people forced into poverty in 2020 alone. Struggling communities faced another blow in November when hurricanes Eta and Iota struck within three weeks of one another, leaving 3.4 million people in need of urgent assistance.

Gender-based violence is also pervasive in the region. Requests for women’s services and protection information doubled on CuéntaNos from October to November last year. Women and girls seeking safety are stuck in shelters filled beyond capacity with families who lost their homes to the hurricanes. Privacy is limited in these shelters and reports of sexual violence are on the rise.

All of these conditions are exacerbating the violence already plaguing the region. 

“The hardest part about living in El Salvador is the violence,” says 23-year-old Valentina*, who fled to the U.S. after her family was threatened by gangs. “This is what makes life hard, because you leave your house and you don’t know if you’ll return. So, yes, this is a war.”

Honduras, considered the most dangerous country in the region, sees 38 murders per 100,000 people, even after a drop in homicides in recent years. A woman is murdered every 36 hours, mostly by an intimate partner. 

Valentina, a refugee from El Salvador, stands on a bridge in Dallas, TX, and looks out over the water.

"In El Salvador, you don’t know if you’ll make it home alive at the end of the day," Valentina, a refugee resettled in Dallas, Texas, told the IRC.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Why is there a problem with unaccompanied children crossing the border? 

Like other asylum seekers, unaccompanied children are crossing the border to escape violence and persecution. 

Escalating crises are forcing families to make impossible decisions and to send teenagers—or even young children—on a journey fraught with its own dangers, including human trafficking. Many of these children are trying to reunify with parents or other legal guardians already living in the U.S.

A close up of a father and son holding hands in an IRC welcome center for asylum seekers in Arizona.

Children who are crossing the border unaccompanied were sent by families who had to make an impossible choice between a risky journey to America and intensifying gang violence at home.

Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Are more people attempting to cross the U.S. southern border under the Biden Administration? 

The U.S. Border Patrol came in contact with more than 213,000 migrants attempting to cross the border in July, up from 189,000 in June. It’s critical to put these numbers in perspective: 1.7 million people attempted to cross between ports of entry (official border crossings) in 2000, for instance. 

Why are more people asking for asylum now? 

Worsening living conditions across Latin America and other regions, including those caused by the recent hurricanes and the earthquake that devastated Haiti, are contributing to an increase in the number of people who are forced to leave their homes to seek safety.

Lincy Sopall sits at a desk holding a pencil and looking at a sheet of paper. Her supplies for her fashion design studio are behind her.

Lincy Sopall, a transgender woman who faced abuse and persecution in Honduras, received asylum in the U.S. in 2018 and works as a fashion designer. She says of her decision to flee: "I had only two choices: leave Honduras and live or stay and die."

Photo: Photo: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

U.S. policy also plays a role: before leaving office, the previous administration unfairly and inhumanely barred asylum seekers by enforcing policies, such as family separation, that were often condemned by Americans. 

The Biden Administration faces the challenge of unwinding the Trump Administration’s disastrous decisions. While the administration has taken steps in this regard, its use of Title 42 and other damaging policies continue to put asylum seekers at risk. The U.S. must close this dark chapter in its history. 

Watch an Instagram story on the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and the IRC's work

Alma, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, with her toddler daughter at an IRC-supported shelter in Mexico. She is holding her daughter while laundry dries near them.

Alma, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, with her daughter at an IRC-supported shelter in Mexico. Though local communities have made valiant efforts to welcome turned-away asylum seekers, resources are stretched thin and already-vulnerable families are finding themselves in danger.

Photo: Hope Arcuri/IRC

What should the Biden Administration do to help asylum seekers? 

The U.S. has the resources and capability to treat asylum seekers with dignity. Here is what the Biden Administration should do: 

  • Urgently scale up partnerships with humanitarian organizations on both sides of the border that can meet the needs of asylum seekers.
  • Stop the use of Title 42 to turn away asylum seekers. 
  • Immediately end expulsion flights to Haiti, stop expulsions of Haitians at the U.S. southern border and end immigration authorities’ use of violence against asylum seekers.
  • Send more humanitarian aid to Central America, to address the crisis at its root and to protect and meet the basic needs of people undertaking the dangerous journey to the U.S.
  • End Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detentions, expulsions, and deportations during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Learn more about how the Biden Administration can create a humane asylum system.

What is the IRC doing to help?

The IRC provides critical support to asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, in northern Central America and in response to the Venezuela crisis. Additionally, the IRC announced an emergency response to support recovery efforts led by local organizations after the earthquake that hit Haiti in August.

A banner in Spanish promoting COVID-19 prevention, hanging off of a second floor railing in an old motel that serves as an IRC-supported "triage hotel" in Mexico
In the spring of 2020, the IRC set up a “triage hotel” in Mexico where asylum seekers can be tested for COVID-19 and can quarantine before moving into shelters. Photo: Edith Tapia/IRC

The IRC provides case management, humanitarian reception, and legal assistance to tens of thousands of asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, and other vulnerable people seeking protection in the U.S. each year. We have worked with partners to provide over 26,000 individuals with emergency humanitarian reception services at our Phoenix Welcome Center in 2021 alone. We are also working with partners to respond to asylum seekers’ urgent needs and to provide free legal assistance to migrants facing deportation.

In Mexico, the IRC is responding along the main migration corridors: from the southern to the northern borders and in Mexico City. The IRC’s programs offer a timely and comprehensive response to the most urgent needs of people on the move, including: prevention and response to gender-based violence; access to critical information through InfoDigna, a multi-channel information platform; prevention and mitigation of COVID-19; economic recovery and development; child protection services; cultural orientation for individuals that have chosen to stay in Mexico; as well as identifying needs and referring cases to local service providers. Additionally, the IRC launched a response to support Afghan evacuees arriving in the country's capital. 

In northern Central America, the IRC is supporting individuals and families in vulnerable situations or at increased risk for violence and displacement. The IRC’s programming includes multi-purpose cash transfers to satisfy basic needs; the creation of safe spaces for women, youth and the LGBTQ+ community; case management and psychosocial support; and CuéntaNos, a digital platform—part of the Global Signpost project—to provide people with critical, up-to-date information and two-way communication and support with trained moderators.

In Haiti, the IRC is supporting the critical work of local Haitian organizations FOSREF, Kay Fanm and FADHRIS to aid the recovery efforts from the earthquake and Hurricane Grace.

How can I help asylum seekers? 

Donate to help the IRC provide critical aid to refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. 

Tell the Biden Administration to protect the rights of Haitian asylum seekers.

Share this article with your friends and family on Facebook or Twitter to remind them that seeking asylum is a right.