Politics of Poverty

We demand to know: Why deny COVID-19 vaccines to detained migrants?

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Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has confirmed that the US government has a legal obligation to provide medical care for those in custody, the US is currently refusing to provide COVID-19 vaccines to them. This move places them in danger, and prolongs the pandemic. Oxfam and RAICES are demanding to know more from the government about this decision. Photo: Fishman64

The border between Mexico and the US has become a nightmare of our own making. Thousands of refugees desperately seeking asylum are facing impossible odds: either detained in squalid and dangerous conditions on one side, or expelled back to Mexico, facing the likelihood of violent or even deadly assault. Now the US government is refusing to offer vaccines to all refugees in its custody, exacerbating the danger to them and prolonging the pandemic for all of us. We are working to shine a spotlight into the darker corners of our government’s operations, with a request for full information about this perverse decision.

Blog by Diana Kearney and Yvette Changuin*

We live in fear,” says Yorje Perez Morena, a refugee who fled persecution in Venezuela, journeying thousands of miles to seek asylum in the US. Rather than being welcomed to safety, however, American officers expelled him back to Mexico, leaving him to fend for himself in an area where he had already survived kidnapping and extortion by drug cartels.

Perez Morena represents the tip of the proverbial iceberg: as of August, advocates have documented more than 6,000 violent attacks-including kidnapping, rape, torture, human trafficking, and murder-targeting migrants that our government delivered into to a hotbed of cartel violence.

Why, one might ask, is the US is summarily denying asylum to refugees, and expelling them back to one of the world’s most perilous regions?

Because of the xenophobia that is running rampant throughout political discourse in the US. Our Executive branch has weaponized and misused an obscure public health law, Title 42, to illegally deny refugees the right to apply for asylum. The Trump administration pressured the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to draft a policy using COVID-19 as a pretext for denying migrants entry–a policy engineered by Stephen Miller and condemned by a DC federal court as violating our legal obligations.

Rather than reversing course–a promise repeated on the campaign trail–President Biden is instead doubling down, overriding the advice of public health officials and medical experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who reject the notion that expelling migrants back into danger will slow the spread of COVID.

The distorted logic behind a “public health” rationale punishes everyone

Despite the Biden administration’s use of Title 42 to expel migrants, some–including unaccompanied minors and other exempted refugees–are allowed into the country. The grim reality is that they now face dangerous and arduous conditions while they are detained in “custodial settings.”

The irony here is that while the US expels people claiming that they may spread COVID-19, it refuses to vaccinate people that it detains in US government custody.

It did not have to be this way. Earlier this summer, public health experts formulated a plan to vaccinate refugees in custodial settings; but that decision was allegedly overturned when former Ambassador Susan Rice and other political advisors reportedly decided that it could become fodder for xenophobic politicians and pundits.

This cynical political calculation not only endangers refugees, but jeopardizes American lives. All Americans–the vaccinated, the boosted, and otherwise–remain at risk of contracting COVID until everyone is vaccinated. The urgency of universal vaccination only grows in the face of new variants emerging. Officials seeking to suppress vaccine distribution efforts are gambling with our nation’s health.

And not only is such a decision dangerous–it is illegal: the Supreme Court has confirmed that the US government has a legal obligation to provide medical care for those in custody. Indeed, the UN special rapporteur commented that, if true, this decision to deny vaccines would also constitute a “gross human rights violation.”

Denial of medical care has also led to convictions in international criminal law as a “crime against humanity”–meaning the Biden administration is potentially committing international crimes. This is an alarming proposition that merits serious investigation.

In light of this, Oxfam and RAICES recently filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for records about the decision to deny COVID-19 vaccines to forcibly detained refugees.

We have an ethical and legal obligation to shine a spotlight into the darker corners of our government’s operations, and understand whether administration officials are violating the law, gambling with our health, and sacrificing the lives of children, women, and men who have risked everything to reach the “safety” of the United States.

Abuse must be identified as such, regardless of the perpetrator’s political party; being better than the Trump administration doesn’t cut it. We can and must hold this administration to account for this shocking act of moral and legal bankruptcy. We hope that these FOIA requests will do just that.


Take action: Sign the petition to demand that President Biden end cruel immigration policies, like Title 42.


Yvette Changuin is Litigation Staff Attorney at RAICES (The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), which provides legal and social services for immigrants in our communities, detention, and beyond.

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