WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

19 May 2020 | Press Release

Shutting Out Asylum Seekers at the U.S.-Mexico Border is Exacerbating the Spread of COVID-19

On May 20, temporary border restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, as part of the U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, are set to expire. According to the New York Times, a new government order may indefinitely extend the restrictions until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director orders them lifted. But so long as the United States implements border policies that involve a near-total shutdown of the asylum process, going against recommendations by public health experts and in defiance of U.S. and international law, the Trump administration is helping create conditions along the southern border and in Mexico that could facilitate the spread of the virus.

“Since the very beginning, the Trump administration has actively sought ways to enact a border agenda that would deter migrants through exceptional cruelty,” said Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight at WOLA. “It’s clear that the Trump administration isn’t basing its border security and immigration policy decisions on legitimate public health concerns. This is a push to implement an extreme anti-immigrant agenda, no matter what kind of humanitarian catastrophe it causes.”

Reports of an indefinite extension of the border shutdown to asylum seekers come as other Trump administration migration policies are creating new hotspots for COVID-19. Ongoing deportations to Central America and elsewhere are spreading the virus further. By failing to release the majority of people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody who do not have criminal histories, the U.S. government is facilitating widespread COVID-19 outbreaks in these detention centers, which have already resulted in the death of at least one detainee.

As outlined by the United Nations and public health experts, there are multiple measures that states can take to uphold the right to asylum while still protecting public health. Instead, by shutting the U.S.-Mexico border to asylum seekers, and suspending the immigration proceedings for asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico through the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program, the Trump administration is creating situations of chaos and uncertainty along the U.S.-Mexico border.

This approach is also creating potentially disastrous hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks, as expelled migrants and asylum-seekers remain in overcrowded camps in Mexican border towns. Additionally, the U.S. asylum shutdown is creating huge pressures on Mexico’s underfunded asylum system, where a record number of people requested protection in the first three months of the year before a sharp drop in April, due to pandemic-related border restrictions in Central America.

“Indefinitely closing the U.S. border to asylum seekers under the pretext of protecting public health is another example of the Trump administration’s disregard for U.S. and international law designed to protect the most vulnerable and save lives,” said Maureen Meyer, WOLA Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights. “Rather than implementing policies to safely process asylum cases at the border, the government is exposing those forced to flee in search of protection in the United States to ever more dangerous situations of exploitation and abuse.”

Join the Beyond the Wall Campaign