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Border activists worry how the omicron variant could affect asylum

The U.S. and other countries are instating new travel bans as the omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to spread. As the new restrictions take hold, rights activists and advocacy groups at the border are wondering how the new changes will affect asylum.

The U.S.-Mexico border reopened this month for vaccinated travelers. But that wasn’t the case for asylum seekers waiting to make their claims in border cities like Nogales, Sonora, even those who are vaccinated. 

That’s because of Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control policy that allows border officers to quickly turn away most migrants on public health grounds.

Chelsea Sachau, a lawyer with the legal aid group Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, has been working in Nogales for months offering counsel to migrants trying to navigate the asylum process amid the pandemic. She says Title 42 has all but shut down asylum at the border, and Biden administration has kept the policy in place despite not being supported by public health experts. 

"Dr. Fauci himself has said that immigrants are absolutely not driving the spread of COVID-19, so Title 42 is using this idea of public health to hide behind that veil, what it’s really about is controlling movement," she said. "A new COVID variant is never a good thing, obviously for public health, but definitely from a perspective that it can be weaponized and used as an excuse by the government to extend Title 42 and other border policies." 

The CDC first enacted Title 42 at the onset of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 and is slated to review the use of the policy again in December. Sachau says she's not sure whether or if new omicron restrictions will affect that, but even before the variant, she and other were not confident it would be removed.



Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.