February 16, 2022

Chairman Menendez Remarks at Cornell University Panel on Migration in the Age of Pandemics

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today participated in Cornell University’s Einaudi Center Lund Critical Debate event entitled “Migration in the Age of Pandemics.” Joined by Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organization, Chairman Menendez discussed migration policy, the COVID-19 pandemic, human rights, and humanitarian need.

“The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically compounded the vulnerability of displaced people around the world. Millions had already been driven from their homes by violent conflict, climate-related disasters, and rising authoritarianism which eroded respect for basic human rights. With the onset of the pandemic, many refugees and migrants found it even harder to meet their basic needs by securing jobs, and accessing vaccines and healthcare,” Chairman Menendez said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has also fueled the rise of authoritarians whose grave human rights violations drive forced migration. These dictators are stifling dissent, demolishing democratic institutions, restricting economic growth, and dividing communities.”

Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s remarks as delivered below.

“Good morning everyone, I am honored to be here with you today. I want to thank Cornell University for providing this venue to exchange ideas on this critical and timely topic. I also would like to thank Dr. Kaur for moderating the discussion, and Dr. Jakab for lending her expertise.

As a son to Cuban refugees, I understand the sacrifices millions make in the pursuit of safe refuge from life threatening crises, and the need for global solidarity and leadership to force attention and action.

In 2020, I released a comprehensive report on global forced migration. It called for urgent and sweeping action by the international community to address the plight of millions of forcibly displaced people worldwide. We know the scale of the current crisis is unprecedented in human history, and if unaddressed will only grow in size and complexity. Today, there are 84 million forcibly displaced people worldwide—the same number of people currently living in the large country of Turkey.

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically compounded the vulnerability of displaced people around the world. Millions had already been driven from their homes by violent conflict, climate-related disasters, and rising authoritarianism which eroded respect for basic human rights. With the onset of the pandemic, many refugees and migrants found it even harder to meet their basic needs by securing jobs, and accessing vaccines and healthcare. They were also met with increasing hostility as outsiders by host communities. And, too many children and young adults lost access to education services, deepening inequalities and increasing food insecurity among families who depended upon school feeding programs. As a result, many were forced to be on the move again.

Conflicts during the pandemic also became entrenched. And, the different approaches that nation states took in addressing the pandemic drove wedges between neighboring countries, increasing tensions when international solidarity was most needed.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, a region that I pay particularly close attention to, there have been blatant attempts by China and Russia to extort countries – offering vaccines in exchange for shifts in political alliances. We have also seen China and Russia double down on their support for authoritarian leaders in this hemisphere – strengthening their ties with the Diaz-Canel, Maduro, and the Ortega regimes. The recent moves by the Ortega regime to waive visa requirements for Cubans is a clear signal that Nicaragua intends to use the Russian playbook to instrumentalize migration.

Over the last year, I worked to secure COVID-19 vaccine donations for our allies in Latin America and the Caribbean. I led Congressional efforts to advocate for a capital increase for the Inter-American Development Bank, to enable their support for post-pandemic recovery, and I co-sponsored legislation designed to shore up our alliances with critical partners in the region, like Ecuador.

On a global scale, I co-authored and introduced legislation called the ‘International Pandemic Preparedness and COVID-19 Response Act’, which focuses on responding to COVID-19, and better preparing our government to prevent, respond, and detect future pandemics.  

I also consistently advocated for a principled and effective immigration policy—one that permanently discards inhumane Trump-era policies like the perversely named Migrant Protection Protocols and the Title 42 Public Health Order. Title 42 deprives legitimate asylum seekers of their legal right to seek asylum and pursue their protection claims in the U.S. For almost two years now, Title 42 has created unsafe conditions for vulnerable migrants, increased the total number of dangerous border crossings, and prevented the Biden administration from fulfilling its promise to restore access to asylum.

While I recognize the importance of carefully managing cross-border travel to facilitate our nation’s pandemic response, now that non-essential travel has resumed at our nation’s borders, it is time for the Biden administration to rip off the band aid, end these expulsions, and restore the regular processing of asylum claims.

Instead, I’m disappointed that the Administration recently expanded its use of Title 42 to expel Venezuelans back to Colombia. Venezuela is suffering a refugee crisis as the result of a brutal dictatorship and urgent humanitarian conditions. Using Title 42 or any authority to expel Venezuelan refugees back to Colombia, without any sort of protection screening, is unconscionable and has to stop. I will continue to urge President Biden to correct course immediately and will call on the CDC to phase out of the use of this cruel policy immediately.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also fueled the rise of authoritarians whose grave human rights violations drive forced migration. These dictators are stifling dissent, demolishing democratic institutions, restricting economic growth, and dividing communities. This is shockingly evidenced by the Lukashenka regime’s trafficking of vulnerable migrants and refugees to the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia to instigate a political and humanitarian crisis. This weaponization of desperation demonstrated how cynical dictators will stoop to any level to advance their own political interests.

Ruthless crackdowns against opposition leaders, brutal attacks against peaceful protesters, and misinformation campaigns peddling propaganda have been commonplace from Caracas to Khartoum, and Damascus to Naypyidaw. We cannot and will not cede space to those who terrorize their citizens to preserve their positions of power.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Our allies and partners have taken vital steps over the past few years to fight the pandemic, and the United States reversed course after the destructive years of the Trump administration. More is needed, but we are also more clear-eyed about the path ahead. I am also pleased and eager to hear more from Dr. Jakab about her thoughts on the role the World Health Organization will play in pushing for collaboration and coordination on these topics.

I thank you all for having me here today to speak on this important topic and look forward to your questions.”

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