• Press Release

Experts Remind DHS Secretary Seeking Asylum is a Human Right — Regardless of How You Arrive

July 14, 2021

Yesterday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Cubans and Haitians will not be allowed to reach the United States to seek asylum if traveling by boat. Secretary Mayorkas’s remarks come despite both Cubans and Haitians facing acute economic, political, and public health crises in their countries. Administrations in the United States have tried to use cruel deterrence-based policies since President Regan, and not only have they never worked, they often result in family separations. Experts also noted that the United States has a troubling history of interdicting people seeking protection at sea and of sending Haitians to Guantanamo Bay. Former asylum-seekers, advocates, and experts responded:

“This shameful message from the U.S. government to offshore its responsibilities for refugee protection is a horrible turning away from the administration’s promised commitment to human rights and racial justice,” said Denise Bell, Researcher for Refugee & Migrant Rights at Amnesty International USA. “At a time of acute crisis in Haiti and Cuba, the U.S. should be fully upholding the right to seek asylum, not curtailing access based on how people arrive, processing them offshore, and then resettling them in a third country. On the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, no less, we should be commemorating not spurning our human rights obligations.”

“For Secretary Mayorkas to respond to the once-in-a-century event of the assassination of Haiti’s president with such callous disregard in in these remarks, it begs the question as to how much Black lives actually matter to this administration” said Guerline Jozef Co-founder and Executive Director, Haitian Bridge Alliance. These comments are callous, heartbreaking, and most of all ineffective. We need to double down on our commitment to humanity and compassion, not default to Trumpian cruelty. The racial overtones of this message is not lost on our communities, particularly the Haitian community, which has time and time again been discriminated against–in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and again today.  How many lives must be lost before the U.S provides safety for asylum seekers? If they were coming from Norway would the US then welcome them with Dignity? We can not continue to repeat a history of cruelty and talk about ‘Build Back Better.’ We stand in solidarity with our Haitian brothers and sisters who are fleeing extreme political violence.”

“Yet again, advocates must remind this administration that seeking asylum is legal,” said Katharina Obser, Acting Director of the Migrant Rights & Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “WRC is gravely disappointed by Secretary Mayorkas’ repeated insistence on rejecting desperate families, children, and single adults from our borders, whether by foot or by sea. Using third countries to turn away people arriving at our shores will disproportionately harm Haitian and Cuban migrants, among many others, who already have families in the United States. Our country has a shameful and tragic history of interdicting people seeking protection at sea and of sending Haitians to Guantanamo Bay—it’s time we welcome with dignity instead of repeating past failures.” 

“Seeking asylum is legal,” said Conchita Cruz, Co-Executive Director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). “The Biden administration must stop telling asylum seekers not to come to the U.S. People who have taken to the sea out of desperation know they have no other choice, that their lives depend on it. This administration should welcome asylum seekers like the United States did my family and Secretary Mayorkas’ family in previous decades.” 

“Seeking asylum and protection is a human right protected by international and domestic laws,” said Efrén C. Olivares, Deputy Legal Director for Immigrant Justice at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It is disappointing to see Secretary Mayorkas, himself the son of Cuban refugees, attempting to foreclose that right for Cuban and Haitian nationals when they most need it. His office should instead be figuring out ways for those asylum seekers to safely apply for asylum. But his remarks are a reminder that, regardless of which party is in office, the fight for the human rights of immigrants and people seeking protection is as important as ever.”

“In saying the United States will refuse to provide refuge to Haitians and Cubans fleeing crises, what message is Secretary Mayorkas sending to countries of first asylum around the world?” asked Yael Schacher, Senior U.S. Advocate at Refugees International. “ As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Convention on the Status of Refugees, the United States should reaffirm its commitment to asylum. Saying that America is totally closed to those seeking refuge does not sound like building back better. It sounds like externalizing and off-loading our obligation to protect asylum seekers.” 

“By saying asylum seekers will not be given a hearing, Secretary Mayorkas is breaking our laws, our values and our country,” said Ronnate D. Asirwatham, Director, Government Relations, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. “The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act allows for anyone at our borders to apply for asylum. Offshore processing is not the answer and has proven to be inhumane. We as citizens and people of faith cannot accept this shameful proposal to turn the most vulnerable people away from our shores.”

“​​People are fleeing Haiti and Cuba because they cannot survive at home. It is their right to seek asylum, and the Biden administration should provide them a fair asylum process here in the United States,” said Kate Jastram, Policy and Advocacy Director at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS). “This is an opportunity to live up to our values and uphold our treaty commitments. Instead the administration is reverting to past mistakes, turning its back on Haitians and Cubans and abdicating its commitment to protect refugees. That’s not building back better.”

“Secretary Mayorkas’ statement is simply unconscionable and unacceptable, in addition to violating both U.S and international law- as well as universal standards of common decency. This is yet another step on the Biden administration’s slide towards expediency over principle, at a crucial moment in our region and globally. Hospitality and solidarity are our shared obligation and responsibility towards those fleeing current circumstances in Haiti and Cuba, and similar conditions throughout this region and the world,” said Camilo Pérez-Bustillo, on behalf of Witness at the Border.

“Everyone deserves a safe place to call home,” said Meredith Owen, Director of Policy and Advocacy for Church World Service. “As an ecumenical organization, we look first to our common values rooted in our sacred texts that remind us to love our neighbor and welcome the sojourner among us. We believe in a just, humane approach that recognizes the dignity of all people. No matter how you arrive here, faith communities remain resolute in offering our time and resources to welcome immigrants, asylum seekers, and unaccompanied children.”

“U.S. interception of people fleeing persecution by sea, and the Secretary’s rhetoric, undermine refugee law globally and set a terrible example for the rest of the world. Instead of working so hard to discourage and intercept people fleeing for their lives, the Biden administration should be upholding our values and saving lives,” said Eleanor Acer, Senior Director, Refugee Protection, Human Rights First.

“It is important to understand that no one chooses to risk their life, unless that is the only choice they have at that time,” said Dr. Jessica Hernandez, Climate Justice Policy Strategist, International Mayan League. “The U.S. government continues to turn a blind eye to the reality our Haitian and Cuban relatives are currently facing in part due to U.S. political interference (both past and present). Everyone deserves the opportunity to find a new home in the diaspora, especially when it comes to forced displacement, relocation, and escaping violence. Refugee laws were created to help all global citizens, not a selective few.”

“Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas’ comment telling Haitians and Cubans not to risk boat travel does not exist in a vacuum, it is part of a larger policy narrative that deprives migrants of any safe opportunities to come to the United States. We need to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Haiti and Cuba seeking refuge; as an attack on one community is an attack on ALL of us as immigrants,” said Basma Alawee, Campaign Manager for We Are All America. “Make no mistake- the issue here is that we need to expedite asylum processes for those seeking refuge – we are standing by as a field to be partners in proposing policy to restore and revamp our asylum process and provide alternative pathways for people to find their way to safety and freedom.”

“It is deeply upsetting to hear, again, messages from the US government telling people who are seeking refugee not to come,” said Nili Sarit Yossinger, Executive Director for Refugee Congress. “It runs contrary to our values, particularly during a year when we should be leaning into our values to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. We don’t have time to waste with people’s lives at stake. We must remain a place of welcome and insist on humane and equitable policies for people arriving at our shores.”