Politics

Why Is the U.S. Supposed to Care About Human Rights in Ukraine, but Not at the Border?

Beltway media are being awfully selective about when America should live up to its humanitarian ideals.

Individuals covered in blankets, including what appears to be a small child, sleep against a concrete wall.
The Mexican side of the San Ysidro Crossing port in Tijuana on March 17. Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

Readers of D.C.-based media are, at the moment, under the impression that the situation at the United States-Mexico border is a very troubling one—for Joe Biden.

“Border politics worsen for Biden,” said the headline on ABC’s morning newsletter, the Note, on Monday. “Senate GOP to crank up the heat on Biden border crossings,” announced Politico’s Playbook newsletter last week, while the Washington Post wrote that Biden is “coping” with a border problem that has “rattled some Democrats.” Axios has described the president as both “troubled” and “plagued” by the issue, and the culminating takeaway in CNN’s most recent update about the border was that it will be difficult for the Biden administration to avoid taking responsibility for what’s happening there—with the implication being that what’s happening is some kind of damaging failure.

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What is the huge problem that is looming over this Democratic presidency? It’s the end of a two-year Southern border shutdown, known as Title 42, that was initially put in place by the Trump administration at the behest of adviser Stephen Miller before Biden’s choice to extend it.

Miller has a documented history of endorsing white supremacist ideas promoted by people who hold apocalyptic, extreme beliefs about race war and genetics. He was also the architect of the 2018-era Trump policy that separated Latin American immigrant children as young as 4 months old from their parents, without any apparent intent to reunite them. According to former colleagues of his who spoke to the New York Times, Miller was vocally obsessed with the idea that immigrants carry disease well before the COVID outbreak; “Title 42” refers to the section of U.S. law regarding public health.

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Specifically, the policy closes border ports of entry to “walk-up” asylum applicants, and authorizes the immediate expulsion of those who would otherwise be screened for potential asylum claims when apprehended during an unauthorized crossing attempt between ports. Its premise for doing so is that these individuals present a security risk to the U.S. because they may spread COVID.

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Under typical circumstances, asylum is available to all individuals who have a credible fear of being persecuted in their countries of origin because of their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or membership in a particular social group. As recently as fiscal year 2019—under Trump—about 46,500 asylum claims were granted by U.S. officials out of about 310,000 applications. (Some of these claims were made by individuals who were also acting on behalf of their spouses and minor children, so the actual number of admitted asylees was higher.)

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During Biden’s presidency, Title 42 has resulted in the immediate expulsion of more than half of apprehended border crossers. Potential asylum applicants who would otherwise be eligible for admission—or who would be rejected, but only after being housed for some time in U.S. facilities—are instead being immediately removed and, in many cases, left directly across the Mexican border. (Under Biden, unaccompanied minors are not subject to Title 42 and are processed in the “normal” way, as are some other individuals who for reasons related to logistics or their country of origin cannot be immediately expelled.)

The practical consequence of the policy has been to create an enormous new pool of migrants living in temporary circumstances on the Mexican side of the border. According to a Government Accountability Office report, some border guards believe Title 42 has even contributed to an increased number of attempted border crossings, because the expedited removal process limits their ability to gather information about smugglers’ movements and to disincentivize repeat crossing attempts via prosecution (which can be either civil or criminal).

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Axios says the Department of Homeland Security estimates there are 25,000 people waiting in northern Mexico to attempt further crossings. Many have clustered in dangerous and unsanitary conditions at a camp in the Mexican city of Reynosa, where individuals are subject to attack and extortion by groups including drug cartels and corrupt law enforcement officials. The Human Rights First organization has compiled almost 10,000 accounts of crimes—most of them robbery, rape, and kidnapping for profit—perpetrated against migrants in the area since Biden took office. The International Organization for Migration says at least 651 people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexican border died in 2021, more than in any year since 2014.

Title 42 has, in sum, created a humanitarian crisis. According to both public health officials and common sense, it is also difficult to justify from a public health standpoint. There is no evidence that asylum applicants carry a higher risk of spreading COVID than individuals in groups who are still permitted to cross the border, like students and those who’ve been granted work visas, nor that immigrants in general are more liable to spread COVID than U.S. residents.

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The premise, if it was ever justified, has become even more flimsy as time has passed. Resources for mitigating and treating COVID have become widely available, while at the same time U.S. government bodies at all levels have eliminated safety requirements for residents. Which is to say, if one were require all asylum seekers to wear masks indoors and receive vaccinations, they would be less likely to spread COVID than the current general population of Texas.

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Title 42 has also always appeared to violate both U.S. law and international laws to which the U.S. is a party—the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the UN Convention Against Torture. Those laws guarantee certain human rights to asylum seekers, and in the words of then-Sen. Kamala Harris and a number of other Democratic senators in an April 2020 letter, summarily suspending their application in the U.S. is “a move with no known precedent or legal rationale” that suggests the executive branch is attempting to “to operate outside of the law.” Indeed, Title 42 was one of the programs that Biden seemed to refer to when he called Trump’s immigration policies “a moral and national shame” during the 2020 campaign.

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In early March, the federal circuit court in D.C. confirmed these suspicions, ruling that the Title 42 program violates laws against returning individuals into situations in which they may be tortured or otherwise persecuted. The court said it would enjoin the expulsion of migrants who were at risk of persecution if the government didn’t respond to its ruling within 45 days.

Last Friday, as predicted by other reporting, the Biden administration announced it would dump Title 42 altogether. This is presumed to mean that there will be a surge in asylum applications because of pent-up demand. The outlets quoted at the beginning of this story consider this a problem for Biden because polls indicate that that majorities of Americans believe Biden is handling immigration poorly and would like to limit border crossings.

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Indeed, the mainstream press has been covering Biden’s immigration policies as a political liability from the outset of his administration, even when the only actions he had taken were to eliminate or repair harms created by a number of Donald Trump’s other initiatives, including several (like the “Muslim ban” and family separation) that the same media outlets had largely (and accurately) reported on as broadly unpopular attacks on human rights. But the reflex of the mainstream political press is to apply adversarial, both-sides scrutiny equally to each party regardless of the underlying merits of the issue involved, which is how Biden’s grudging decision to follow a court order instructing him to extend basic, internationally mandated rights to tens of thousands of people gets reported as a major win for the Republican Party.

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There is a striking contrast at hand in the way that Beltway media outlets such as Politico have rallied around a consensus that America ought to show its commitment to a values-based humanitarian world order when it comes to defending Ukraine. The press has presented Biden’s decision to admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees as essentially uncontroversial, and if anything pressured the administration to admit even larger numbers, if not to commit to a global nuclear war on Ukraine’s behalf.

There are reasons for that contrast: While the conditions that cause people to leave central America and Mexico are localized, long-standing, intractable, and seemingly remote, the plight of Ukrainians is easily understood. Their country has been invaded by Russia, one of the the United States’ chief geopolitical rivals, which is destroying its major cities and, in many cases, targeting and even executing civilians. That story has been captured extensively in words and images by the press. More than two-thirds of the public supports asylum for Ukrainian refugees, according to Pew.

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Those aren’t necessarily good reasons, though, particularly given how many members of the media and political class have celebrated the U.S. interventions in Ukraine as a manifestation of idealism. Ideals are supposed to apply regardless of circumstance and political convenience. What’s more, by swamping Biden’s attempts to rectify human rights violations at the border with overwhelmingly negative coverage refracted mostly through the lens of partisan politics, Beltway media are creating a strong disincentive for the administration to take action, making it less likely that the U.S. will try to live up to its stated humanitarian values.

Living in a camp, at risk of rape and kidnapping because a global superpower has decided its domestic concerns override your rights: Isn’t that something journalism should treat as a problem, regardless of which superpower is responsible?

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