Ashley Feasley is director of policy for Migration and Refugee Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Prior to working at USCCB, Ashley worked as director of advocacy for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. She has taught at Fordham University School of Law and at the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University of America.
The election of Joseph R. Biden offers a moment of hope but also of caution in the area of migration policy. There is much hope that after four years of continuous attacks on legal immigration, as well as humanitarian protection systems, the United States will move forward with again welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees. There is also simultaneously, caution, given what President-elect Biden inherits when he takes office, namely over 400 migration policy changes in the last four years and all-time low levels of legal immigration. One area that experts, impacted communities, and the country itself will be looking towards is how the President-elect and his team will handle the U.S.-Mexico border. It is an area that presents some of the thorniest challenges and also one of the greatest opportunities for systemic change and humane policy implementation.
The obstacles and opportunities at the U.S.-Mexico border are quite expansive. President-elect Biden has publicly stated that he will end construction of the wall between United States and Mexico immediately upon assuming office. This is positive and a welcome outcome for a divisive symbol and an admittedly controversial use of taxpayer money.
Other changes will not come so easy. One such challenge will be how to address the humanitarian suffering that has occurred due to the creation and implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). The MPP policy, created by the Trump administration in January 2019, led the U.S. government to return certain asylum seekers to Mexico and force them to wait throughout the duration of their cases pending in the U.S. immigration court system. As of October 2020, over 68,000 people had been processed through MPP. Currently, as a result of MPP, approximately 25,000 to 40,000 people wait in tents in open-air conditions at various points along the U.S.-Mexico border.
One such challenge will be how to address the humanitarian suffering that has occurred due to the creation and implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols.
The humanitarian and protection issues with the MPP policy are abundant: First, MPP has left thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers to wait in dangerous and unsafe circumstances in Mexico, in which their lives may be at risk due to gangs and cartels. Asylum seekers have difficulties accessing health services and humanitarian aid. MPP has impacted individuals who have shown that they have a credible fear of persecution; nonetheless, under MPP, they wait in Mexico without meaningful access to family, legal, or social support. Undoubtedly, waiting in Mexico has made it more difficult for asylum seekers to successfully assert their asylum claims and has retraumatized people in the unsafe conditions in which they are forced to wait. Direct service providers on the ground working along the U.S.-Mexico border worry about the ability of these asylum seekers to access safety and refuge in Mexico while they wait for their immigration cases to be heard. Rather than turn away the vulnerable, President-elect Biden must answer the call to act with compassion towards those in need and to work together to find humane solutions that honor the rule of law and respect human dignity.
What can the future Biden administration do in relation to the MPP policy and how can the lessons of Catholic social teaching apply to the human rights abuses at the U.S-Mexico border? President-elect Biden, a life-long Catholic, would be well-served to implement the concept of solidarity and subsidiarity to any and all efforts to address MPP and other border issues.
President-elect Biden, a life-long Catholic, would be well-served to implement the concept of solidarity and subsidiarity to any and all efforts to address MPP and other border issues.
Solidarity, a principle of Catholic social teaching, is the view that we are part of one human family, wherever we live. Solidarity calls us to see others as sisters and brothers, no matter how different or how far away they are. To this end, the Biden administration must look beyond viewing the asylum seekers waiting in Mexico as statistics but instead see them as human beings who need protection and compassion. One such idea of solidarity in practice would be for the new administration to do an on-the-ground canvassing of asylum seekers waiting in camps in Mexico and make efforts to identify the most vulnerable to assist immediately upon Biden taking office. This act of experiencing directly the human suffering generated by the MPP policy will help to humanize policy decisions and build solidarity for changing them.
Another principle of Catholic social teaching that should be considered is subsidiarity. Solidarity is complemented by the concept of subsidiarity, which defends the freedom of initiative of every member of society and affirms the essential role of various structures. In the words of John Paul II, subsidiarity asserts that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (no. 48).
Solidarity is complemented by the concept of subsidiarity, which defends the freedom of initiative of every member of society and affirms the essential role of various structures.
In the case of ending MPP, the Biden administration would be well served by engaging border communities and gathering their input in efforts to respond to MPP. Border communities are thriving unique places which and have borne the daily cost of enforcement policies made here in Washington. President-elect Biden would be well served to engage local leaders in the decision-making around MPP. Listening to the impacts of MPP on communities from leaders like Sister Norma Pimentel from the Rio Grande Valley and Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso will help ensure that the most affected members of the community are closest to the solution and response.
The work ahead for the Biden administration on migration will not be easy. But there is ample opportunity to make and implement transformative change. A continuing challenge will be to remember the human beings behind the policies at the border. The President-elect is well positioned to do that.