Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas doubled down this week on the Biden administration’s use of a controversial Trump-era policy known as Title 42, dismissing recent criticism from a former senior State Department official who called the policy “illegal” and “inhumane.”
In a Tuesday interview aired at an international security conference hosted by the nonprofit Soufan Center in Doha, Qatar, Mayorkas told Yahoo News Chief Investigative Correspondent Michael Isikoff that Title 42 “is not an immigration policy that we in this administration would embrace.” Rather, he insisted, the policy is seen as a “public health imperative.”
Title 42, which has been used by the Trump and Biden administrations to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants who have crossed into the U.S. over the border with Mexico, refers to an obscure public health authority that allows the government to block noncitizens from entering the country during a pandemic. The Trump administration first invoked Title 42 in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, effectively sealing off the southern border. An emergency order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allowed immigration officials to quickly expel mostly Mexican and Central American migrants back to their home countries without giving them a chance to apply for asylum or other protections in the United States.
According to the Associated Press, the Trump White House pressured the CDC to issue its initial Title 42 order back in March 2020 over the objections of the agency’s top scientists. Those health experts argued there was no evidence that the policy would slow the spread of the coronavirus.
While human rights advocates and public health experts have called for the policy to be revoked, the Biden administration has instead defended it in federal court. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, 938,045 migrants were expelled from the U.S. under Title 42 between October 2020 and August 2021, including more than 7,000 Haitians who’d attempted to cross the border in Del Rio, Texas, in late September.
Last week Politico reported that Harold Koh, an outgoing senior adviser and the sole political appointee on the State Department’s legal team, had issued a scathing internal memo arguing that the Biden administration’s use of Title 42 to expel migrants, particularly those fleeing Haiti, violates U.S. and international laws against returning people to countries where they fear persecution, death or torture.
Koh wrote that expulsions to Haiti, which is suffering from widespread violence, food insecurity and political strife, are “inhumane” and “not worthy of this Administration that I so strongly support.” Koh’s harsh criticisms echo those of Daniel Foote, the administration’s special envoy to Haiti who resigned in protest of the mass expulsions last month, as well as several Democratic lawmakers who have called on Biden to halt deportations to Haiti.
Isikoff asked Mayorkas to respond to the Koh memo, noting that the secretary himself came to the United States as a refugee from Cuba. While Mayorkas said it is “heartbreaking” that a “material percentage” of Haitian migrants who recently arrived at the border will be expelled under Title 42, such action is “necessary as a matter of public health imperative.”
In the interview, Mayorkas also addressed the Biden administration’s efforts to combat domestic terrorism, as well as the recent testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who told lawmakers that the social network deliberately promoted harmful content, including conspiracy theories and misinformation about the 2020 presidential election. While Mayorkas said “it’s clear that we are seeing ideologies of hate, false narratives propagated through social media,” he declined to say whether Facebook and other social media companies have actively contributed to the rise in domestic extremism.
“I’m not prepared to say they are part of the problem,” Mayorkas said.
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