Hill is a Distinguished Professor in the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health, and the director of the UC San Diego-San Diego State University General Preventive Medicine Residency. She lives in San Diego.
Since March 2020, the U.S. federal government has allowed border officials to turn back anyone seeking to claim asylum in the United States by using Title 42, an emergency “public health” order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Title 42 has cruelly and forcibly expelled asylum seekers to unsafe conditions without processing them under standard immigration laws. Officially dubbed a public health policy, this dubious edict was invoked by the Trump administration and perpetuated by the Biden administration to ostensibly mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Every day, Title 42 prevents thousands of migrants of color — whose nations of origin are primarily South and Central American countries — from seeking their human right to asylum, while those from predominantly White countries are allowed in. In practice, Title 42 is not a public health policy, but a racist anti-immigration scheme.
Under the auspices of the San Diego Rapid Response Network, UC San Diego Health has been involved with our region’s respite sheltering since December 2018, triaging and providing medical attention to all asylum seekers released into the shelter’s care by the Department of Homeland Security. Our stringent health screenings and comprehensive public health protocols work to minimize the spread of every type of communicable disease including COVID-19, which we immediately developed protocols for — and protocols we continue to employ — to protect the public’s health and provide the medical care new arrivals may need.
Prior to the pandemic, incoming migrants were examined for a variety of ailments, from chickenpox to scabies and lice. During the pre-COVID-19 days, those were our biggest worries. Today, the stakes are much higher, but the good news is we have a robust system in place where screening for infectious diseases has been expanded to include COVID-19, and with ongoing treatment for immediate needs such as chickenpox, influenza and more. From the beginning, we have treated everyone equally and with dignity and compassionate care.
Since the pandemic began two years ago, the more than 80,000 asylum seekers released to our care were all tested for COVID-19. If they tested positive, they were quarantined in hotel rooms, in accordance with public health guidelines, until a negative test result was confirmed. Individuals served also received COVID-19 vaccinations, if desired, before leaving for their destination cities to continue their immigration proceedings. These policies were put in place before Title 42 was adopted, and we will continue to operate in this manner because it is the right thing to do.
While effective COVID-19 prevention and mitigation strategies have been identified and implemented, including ongoing masking in high-risk situations, vaccine and anti-viral medication, policies like Title 42 remain in place — a clear disparity between the evidence-based and effective public health protocols and the immigration practices. Title 42 was never about public health, but was intended as a deterrent to certain populations, enabling the U.S. government to pick and choose who can come through based solely on their nation of origin.
The only thing Title 42 has done in the more than two years since its implementation is limit a vulnerable and underserved population from receiving safe haven. In fact, the CDC recently called for the termination of Title 42, stating that the “current public health conditions and an increased availability of tools to fight COVID-19” have rendered the policy unnecessary.
San Diego’s emergency shelter services — and the exacting health protocols in place — are the result of an extraordinary collaborative effort unprecedented in size and scale and are now seen as the model response for border cities across the country. The goal of this public-private partnership where dozens of agencies at all levels of government alongside nonprofit organizations are working together: to safely welcome and provide respite shelter to the vulnerable migrants arriving in our community while centering public health.
As we look to the future, we call on more of our community leaders to help grow our network of support and ensure all incoming asylum seekers receive the compassionate assistance they deserve.
The U.S. government must immediately repeal Title 42 and focus on mending our country’s broken asylum and immigration systems. In the meantime, we will continue to ensure that public health is guarded as it will remain our top priority at the migrant shelter services in San Diego.