Asylum seekers who arrive at the United States border have fled their home in search of safety, escaping conflict and violence. Many have been forced to take long and dangerous journeys to get there.

But new arrivals have been returned to danger under a policy by the Biden Administration bars many from finding safety in the U.S. 

Seeking asylum is legal and a human right, long recognized in both U.S. and international law. The Biden Administration's asylum ban runs contrary to this, robbing many asylum seekers of a fair chance to present their case to an immigration judge. It is similar to measures introduced by the Trump Administration that were repeatedly blocked by federal courts.

Update: On July 25, 2023, a federal judge blocked the Biden Administration's asylum ban, calling it "arbitrary and capricious." The International Rescue Committee welcomes the decision, and urges the administration not to appeal and to instead build a safe, humane, and orderly process at the border. Read on to learn more about the ban and why it is inconsistent with U.S. law. 

Where do most U.S. asylum seekers come from? 

Across the globe, in unprecedented numbers, people are being driven from their homes by conflict, natural disasters and persecution for their gender, sexuality or religion.

Asylum seekers have traveled from countries such as Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua and as far as Cameroon, Ethiopia and Ghana. A number of Afghans and Ukrainians have also crossed the border with Mexico to ask for asylum. Unfortunately, asylum seekers have faced a number of setbacks from the U.S. government through rules that curtail the right to seek asylum.

What is Title 42?

Title 42 was enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, allowing the U.S. to rapidly expel people crossing the U.S. – Mexico border without guaranteeing their right to seek asylum. This rule has led to the expulsion of nearly 3 million people. 

Many public health officials agree that Title 42 does not protect people from COVID-19 and the rule has faced a number of legal challenges since it was enacted. There is no public health rationale for denying people their legal right to claim asylum at the U.S. border.

Why did Title 42 end?

Title 42 ended on May 11th, 2023, coinciding with the end of the federal public health emergency for COVID-19. Any extension of Title 42 would continue to deny the legal rights of people fleeing violence to seek safety in the United States.

“The end of Title 42 is long overdue,” says Olga Byrne, IRC director of asylum and immigration legal services. “Seeking asylum is a human right, protected under both U.S. and international law.”

However, the new asylum plan proposed by the Biden Administration poses a new threat to asylum seekers at the U.S. – Mexico border.

What is President Biden’s asylum ban?

Despite promises made on the campaign trail to overhaul inhumane policies and stop forced deportations that violate due process, the Biden Administration implemented further restrictions on asylum.

The asylum ban bars asylum seekers who crossed through another country on their way to the southern U.S. border, unless they have previously applied for (and been denied) asylum elsewhere or managed to receive an appointment at a port of entry through a new U.S. government app for smartphones.

These requirements are unfeasible and impractical for many people in need of protection, as some asylum seekers cannot find safety in the countries where they first arrive because of violence or persecution similar to that in their native land. Most asylum seekers travel to the U.S. through Mexico, which is already one of the largest recipients of asylum applications. Although a viable country for some asylum seekers, the country faces record levels of violence and is not a safe place for many.

What is the CBP One app? 

CBP One is the name of the new U.S. government app migrants have to use to make an appointment at a port of entry. However, many have been unable to use it successfully. The app offers limited appointment slots and is available only in a few languages. Asylum seekers without smartphones are unable to access it at all.

“We go on the application to see if we can get an appointment but it is not working," said Natalia, 22, whose family were forced to flee their home in Honduras. "We got the date, time, but the information cannot be submitted. We are stressed, with headaches."

Read a letter by IRC Ambassadors Piper Perabo, Mandy Patinkin, Kathryn Grody, Morena Baccarin and others calling on the Biden Administration to rescind the proposed asylum ban

What happens to people turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border?

People are pushed toward more dangerous routes

U.S. attempts to deter migrants passing through Mexicofrom building walls to barring asylumhave not stopped people from arriving at the border. Instead, it has steered many toward dangerous, irregular routes, often guided by criminals who exploit them, and to increasingly dangerous crossings of the Rio Grande river and harsh desert terrain.

A potential revival of family detention could also push desperate parents to send their children unaccompanied to the border.

The journey asylum seekers take is often dangerous, but for many, better than the alternative.

“My process to reach the United States was approximately seven or eight months,” says Lincy, who had endured abuse, violence and persecution in Honduras for being transgender. She originally planned to settle in Mexico, where her brother and sister-in-law live, but she never felt safe in Ciudad Juárez, where vulnerable women are at risk of being kidnapped, raped and murdered.

“I left my country with 4,000 lempiras, which is like 200 dollars,” says Lincy. “There were places where we had to walk day and night. It was a terrifying experience, but necessary.”

Lincy sits at her desk, writing.
Lincy was granted asylum in the United States in May 2018 and is now building a new life as a fashion designer in Phoenix, Ariz., with the support of the IRC.
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for the IRC

Further strain is placed on Mexico’s asylum system

Mexico is one of the largest recipients of asylum applications in the world, putting enormous pressure on its still-developing asylum infrastructure to fulfill growing humanitarian needs as asylum seekers wait, sometimes for years, to seek safety in the U.S.

Families are finding themselves at risk of murder, rape, extortion and other violence. Organized criminal networks and human smugglers have targeted desperate asylum seekers and profited from the border policies that deny them their rights.

“Here in Tijuana, we’re in exactly the same conditions that people are fleeing from, everything from cartels and violence to gang presence,” says Kathy Kruger, who worked for IRC-partner Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico. Local shelters and organizations like hers have made heroic efforts to help asylum seekers despite strained resources.

In late March 2023, a fire at a National Migration Institute detention center In Ciudad Juárez resulted in 39 deaths and left others severely injured. “This is proof of the extremely urgent need to ensure that there are systems in place to provide safety for people in need of international protection,” says the IRC’s Mexico country director, Rafael Velásquez. 

“As Mexico receives historic numbers of new asylum claims and the U.S. continues to implement policies that push asylum seekers back into Mexico, humanitarian infrastructure in the country is increasingly strained and more people are stuck in highly vulnerable situations.”

Watch below as John Oliver breaks down President Biden's asylum ban. 

How does the IRC help asylum seekers?

With over 100 million people displaced worldwide, the need for humanitarian assistance and protection are at record highs. Incongruously, countries with fewer resources face the brunt of welcoming the world’s displaced.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) works in partnership with governments in the Americas, including the U.S., and Europe to help displaced people by providing humanitarian reception, information services and legal advice, and supporting social integration of new arrivals.

At our welcome centers, we work with local partners to provide food, water and clothing, basic medical assistance and referrals to hospitals, and legal counseling, as well as child-friendly spaces, hygiene supplies, hot showers and overnight shelter.

Alex talks with Marta
Alex, an IRC specialist who assists families seeking asylum, speaks with Marta, a young mother from Mexico, at the IRC Welcome Center in Phoenix, Ariz. Since opening in July 2019, the center has helped more than 600 new arrivals.
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for the IRC

Marta fled southern Mexico with her husband, Julio, and three young children—10-year-old Miguel, 7-year-old Maria, and 1-year-old Luna—after she received anonymous death threats stemming from the growing gang violence in their community.

“I did it for my children’s safety,” she says. “I was so scared, I had no choice.”

“The IRC helped us get in touch with the people we know [in the U.S.], new clothes and shoes for the children, warmer coats...so many things,” says Marta. “It was overwhelming and it really meant so much to us. We are so thankful."

Marta, Julio and their children sit with their backs to the camera.
Marta, her husband, Julio, and their three young children. “They are really smart kids,” Marta says of her eldest son and daughter. “I want them to go back to school, because of what was happening, they missed some years.”
Photo: Andrew Oberstadt for the IRC

In partnership with Tech for Refugees, we also run the global Signpost project, powered by Zendesk—a community-led information displaced people can use to know their rights, access essential services, and make informed decisions. This includes InfoDigna in Mexico and ImportaMi, run in partnership with the Vera Institute, for unaccompanied children navigating life in the U.S.

How can we welcome asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border?

“A rule that denies people arriving at our borders asylum protection, and that will leave families separated, is antithetical to America’s nonpartisan spirit of welcome for refugees in need,” says Kennji Kizuka, asylum policy director at the IRC.

The IRC is urging the Biden administration to rescind these proposed regulations. The U.S. must recommit to its long-held values of providing refuge for people fleeing violence and persecution, while establishing safe, legal pathways for people seeking to migrate to the country.

We are also calling on Congress to do their part by appropriating robust funding to provide dignified reception at the border, case management services to ensure fair adjudications and a resolution to the years long backlog of asylum seeker cases.

A rule that denies people arriving at our borders asylum protection, and that will leave families separated, is antithetical to America’s nonpartisan spirit of welcome for refugees in need.

How can I help asylum seekers in the U.S.? 

Take action. Write to the White House today to ask the Biden Administration to rescind the asylum ban and uphold its legal obligations to welcome and protect asylum seekers. 

Buy an item from an IRC office's Amazon wishlist. The IRC in Arizona's Phoenix Welcome Center, for instance, helps parents and children seeking refuge in the United States to find safety and stability as they await their asylum hearings. 

Donate the IRC. The IRC provides critical support to asylum seekers on both sides of the U.S. southern border, including the IRC’s Asylum and Crossborder programs, which served nearly 50,000 people in need of protection in the U.S., with a warm welcome, case management and emergency assistance in fiscal year 2023 alone. In Latin America, the IRC serves individuals and families who are at risk of violence and displacement in northern Central America and along the main migration corridors in Mexico, from the southern to the northern borders. We deliver a variety of services across the region, including preventing and responding to gender-based violence, safe spaces for women and girls, economic recovery and development services, case management, psychosocial support and health care through our emergency mobile medical unit. We have also launched critical information services for asylum seekers and vulnerable communities: CúentaNos in northern Central America and InfoDigna in Mexico—both part of our global Signpost project.