The Trump Administration Must Not Use Pandemic as Excuse to Endanger Refugees

Over the past two years, the Trump administration has waged unrelenting attacks on people fleeing persecution, introducing a barrage of cruel and illegal border policies that have decimated access to asylum in the United States.

These policies have placed asylum seekers directly in the crosshairs of the COVID-19 pandemic, their health and safety at greater risk than ever.

The Trump administration wants to use this unprecedented moment to double down and gut our asylum system beyond recognition. We cannot allow that to happen. 

Asylum seekers arriving at our southern border already face a patchwork of draconian policies that have limited or completely denied them entry to the U.S. to seek protection here, leaving them vulnerable to myriad dangers.

Last fall, we wrote about the administration’s disastrous Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)—which force asylum seekers to await their U.S. court dates in Mexico.

Since this program launched last year, over 60,000 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico, where they struggle for safety and survival in some of that country’s most dangerous border cities. Thousands of asylum seekers awaiting MPP hearings are languishing in crowded and unsanitary refugee camps and migrant shelters where a COVID-19 outbreak would be utterly devastating.

Multiple courts have ruled that MPP violates U.S. law, as well as international obligations under the 1967 Refugee Protocol.

Our organization, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS), the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center won an injunction in our lawsuit against the policy nearly a year ago—which was upheld in large part by the Ninth Circuit last month.

But the Trump administration has fought us every step of the way and, in what is increasingly its strategy, it has asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.

On March 11, the Supreme Court did intervene, allowing MPP to continue until the high Court decides whether to review the case.

This has left asylum seekers in grievous harm’s way: Human rights watchdogs have now documented over 1,000 public reports of murder, rape, kidnapping and other violent assaults against asylum seekers returned to Mexico under MPP, a number that represents just the tip of the iceberg.

This disastrous situation has been made worse by the administration’s announcement on March 23 that it would be postponing all MPP hearings, indefinitely prolonging asylum seekers’ exposure to these dangers—which the threat of COVID-19 has compounded exponentially.

The Trump Administration’s Continual War on Asylum-Seekers

MPP is only one in a constellation of policies the Trump administration has implemented to restrict access to asylum.

For example, in late 2019, the administration entered into so-called Asylum “Cooperative” Agreements (ACAs) with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These agreements allow the administration to deny asylum seekers access to the U.S. immigration system and instead send them to one of these three countries—which are plagued with rampant violence, offer virtually no protection for refugees and are ill-equipped to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

March to welcome Honduran refugees and protest against troops on the border in Minneapolis, Minnesota on November 30, 2018. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

To date, over 900 asylum seekers—including more than 300 children—have been sent to Guatemala under the country’s ACA with the United States.

Facing criticism for its failed response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump Administration has ramped up its scapegoating of asylum seekers. It has used the pandemic as pretext to virtually eliminate the right to seek protection, announcing a complete shutdown of our northern and southern borders and halting all “nonessential” travel between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Many asylum seekers are now being turned away at the border or put on deportation flights without due process or baseline screening to ensure they would not be at risk in Mexico or their country of origin.

This new policy is plainly illegal: Both U.S. and international law require that our government provide asylum seekers with a fair opportunity to present their claims and explicitly forbid us from returning them to persecution in their home country or elsewhere.

Moreover, the U.N. Refugee Agency published legal guidance last week directly addressing the COVID-19 crisis and stating unequivocally that refusing to consider asylum seekers’ claims “cannot be justified on the grounds of any health risk.”

Mass Quarantines at the Border: Dangerous and Unnecessary

In another troubling development, on March 18 the Trump Administration asked Congress for nearly one billion dollars to construct dedicated “migrant quarantine facilities” along the southern border.

While this might seem like a reasonable course of action, our government has repeatedly proven itself incapable of providing adequate healthcare for those in immigration custody, and has a long and troubling history of mishandling infectious disease outbreaks in detention facilities.

Public health experts agree that allowing immigration enforcement agencies to mass quarantine people at the border could be a death sentence for many asylum seekers.

Immigrants seeking asylum or caught crossing the border have been detained, children separately from their families. Separation of children and detention camps for children have grown to record levels during the Trump years. Pictured: Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention Camps in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 12, 2019. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

If our government is serious about slowing the spread of COVID-19, it must reverse course and adopt sensible measures that protect the health of asylum seekers, immigration enforcement personnel, advocates and their families.

Instead of turning its back on those seeking refuge at our borders, the Trump administration should expeditiously parole asylum seekers—including those who have been subjected to MPP—into the U.S. The government can apply to asylum seekers the same health screening processes used for others conducting essential cross-border travel and work with social services organizations to facilitate safe transportation and housing for them here.

The administration should also take steps to dramatically reduce needless detention. The vast majority of immigrants and asylum seekers—including over 91 percent of those in MPP proceedings surveyed last fall—already have family or close friends in the United States with whom they can safely self-quarantine.

The Trump administration must also ensure that the United States does not inadvertently accelerate the spread of COVID-19 in other countries by putting a moratorium on all deportations, including removals under its ACAs with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Deporting people who may have been exposed to the virus in the United States or Mexico without first administering a COVID-19 test—a logistical impossibility at present—could have devastating public health consequences, particularly for under-resourced countries that are already struggling to respond to the pandemic.

The Trump administration and our leaders in Congress now have a clear choice to make: Whether to adopt commonsense public health measures that protect everyone—regardless of where they come from—or to embrace policies that endanger asylum seekers and jeopardize our collective health.

COVID-19 is a crisis that knows no borders, and this is a decision that will have life-or-death consequences for untold numbers of women, children, and families in the United States and throughout the region.

At this defining moment, we urge our leaders to reject politics of hate and exclusion and take immediate steps to protect us all.


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About and

Brianna Krong serves as Communications and Advocacy Coordinator at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, where she develops public education and advocacy strategies to advance the rights of women, children, and LGBTQ asylum seekers in the United States.
Karen Musalo is a law professor and director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She has litigated major landmark cases on behalf of women asylum seekers fleeing gender-based violence and published extensively on refugee issues and conditions in Central America which force women to flee and seek protection.