For the past three years, President Donald Trump has pursued a policy of effectively closing the asylum system on the southern border of the United States. Once the coronavirus hit, he was able to realize that vision.
The Trump administration did so amid the pandemic closed the US-Mexico border, issued an eviction order to quickly reject migrants at the border, and postponed all immigration hearings for migrants in Mexico awaiting a decision on their asylum applications in the United States. Border restrictions have been extended indefinitely until officials decide that immigration is no longer a public health risk for Americans, The New York Times reported Wednesday. These measures, combined with the existing restrictions on asylum seekers, have brought the asylum system to a near standstill.
Since February 2016, the Trump administration’s border policy has forced migrants to wait months in Mexico. U.S. customs and border protection officials have limited the number of asylum seekers who process in ports of entry daily, leaving migrants in Mexico waiting their turn. Even after migrants have been processed, they are quickly returned to Mexico under the administration of the Trump administration “Remain in Mexico”, known officially as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
More than 60,000 migrants have been returned pending decisions on their U.S. asylum applications. Thousands of them have been living in makeshift encampments for months, where they depend on volunteers for basic needs, are targeted by criminal gangs, and have few resources to deal with a major public health crisis.
Now Trump’s policy further restricts their access to security in the U.S. and risks exposing them to the virus in conditions where it is difficult to stay at a social distance, including shelters for migrants and informal encampments. Some migrants have already tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus: on April 20, the Mexican government reported 16 cases among migrants in the northern state of Tamaulipas.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has appealed to federal law to allow immigration officials to reject people who may pose a risk of the spread of communicable diseases, and to implement new emergency protocols to quickly return migrants to Mexico. Migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are processed in the field rather than at the U.S. Border Guard stations and are returned to Mexico, the Texas Tribune, in an average of 96 minutes without medical examination reported. Under the new system, approximately 20,000 migrants have been returned to Mexico Washington Post.
A pandemic requires governments to take extreme measures to protect public health and minimize the risk of infection, including restricting travel and free movement. But that doesn’t change the US’s obligation under international human rights law to continue to accept asylum seekers. Trump has nonetheless halted asylum processing on the U.S.-Mexico border – killing a system he’s been trying to dismantle for a long time.
The United Nations claims that the US is wrongfully denying people the right to apply for asylum and “refoulement” – by forcibly returning them to a place where they will be prosecuted, again in violation of international human rights law.
“We are concerned about the prompt, systematic expulsion of asylum seekers from the US, among others,” Sibylla Brodzinsky, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), told Vox. “It is clear that a pandemic of this nature justifies extraordinary measures at the borders, but the expulsion of asylum seekers, which in fact results in refoulement, is not among those measures.”
Migrants await the pandemic for their chance of asylum
Despite these new barriers, many asylum seekers living in Mexico are still waiting in turn for processing at the ports of entry and for their hearings at the Immigration Service during the pandemic.
In Tijuana, Nogales and San Luis Rio Colorado – the three largest entry points on the southern border – nearly 12,000 asylum seekers were on the waiting list to be processed from November, the most recent month for which data is available in judicial applications. Those who were already processed through the Remain in Mexico program will have to wait longer for a decision on their asylum applications, because the administration postponed all court dates before April 22.
Few of them have been lucky enough to find shelter in shelters, hotels or rooms for rent. Space in shelters was already limited, but since the pandemic in Mexico, many have stopped bringing in new entrants or closed completely. The UNHCR has tried to help them stay open by setting up handwashing stations and isolation areas in case someone tests positive for Covid-19, Brodzinsky said.
The UNHCR has also provided asylum seekers with money-based assistance to help make up for lost income from pandemic-related imprisonment orders, which led to company closings and leave. It gives them the financial freedom to rent an apartment instead of staying in a reception center, which helps prevent overcrowding.
For thousands of others, only colorful tents and sails stand between them and the elements. In Matamoros, a town of about 500,000 residents across the border from Brownsville, Texas, about 2,000 migrants have moved to tent camps along the Rio Grande – so close to the U.S. border that they can show up in port for processing when their name is mentioned.
Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney representing migrants in the Matamoros camps, said that no one should cross the border during the pandemic, even for people who need medical attention and health problems that put them at high risk of complications from the virus. However, most migrants have chosen to wait in Mexico. There are a small number of people who have voluntarily returned to their home countries, but for many going back would mean risking their lives.
The vast majority of them are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, known collectively as the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Central America, where rampant crime, violence and corruption have driven hundreds of thousands in recent years. Migrants are common in those countries robbed, kidnapped for ransom, raped, tortured and murdered.
“90 percent of the people we treat as patients are people who flee exactly the same kind of violence as ISIS,” said Helen Perry, the executive director of Global Response Management, a nonprofit healthcare organization in the Matamoros camps. “If the option is, stay here and live in your tent until you’ve exhausted all hope, or go home and have your head chopped off – the reality is they don’t want to leave.”
Asylum seekers may also have the opportunity to apply for asylum in Mexico, which did not stop receiving and processing applications during the pandemic and closed it at the southern border. But the Mexican government also continues to detain asylum seekers, albeit in smaller numbers to boost social distance. There have been a number of protests in recent weeks against the tight conditions in Mexican detention centers, including one in a facility in Tenosique where a Guatemalan asylum seeker died in a fire on March 31.
Brodzinsky said that UNHCR has helped facilitate the release of about 300 asylum seekers from detention centers across Mexico since the pandemic struck, placing them in shelters or finding another place to live. The organization has been doing this type of work for years, but has stepped up its efforts in response to current events.
Asylum seekers still rely on volunteers for basic services and medical care
Many of the asylum seekers who live in border towns along the US-Mexico border depend on U.S. volunteers for basic needs and services. However, most non-profit organizations and NGOs that regularly crossed the border to work in the migrant camps in Matamoros never showed up again because of the pandemic. Global Response Management, Doctors Without Borders, and a local information center in Matamoros are the only large groups left on the ground, Perry said.
Some groups were concerned that they would become a ‘Typhoid Mary’, which would carry the coronavirus to the densely populated camps, where it would spread quickly. And Goodwin, who had previously crossed the border almost daily to meet migrants in the camps, said she quit from March 15 because she has an immunocompromised child that she cannot infect.
But for groups that provide essential services – including health, food, water, and safety – volunteers simply need to take extra precautions, including wearing masks, washing their hands regularly, and staying home when they are sick.
When migrants in the camps begin to show symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, nonprofits first exclude influenza and streptococci and then isolate them in a fenced area with a separate bathroom in the southern part of the camp . Perry said on April 17 that they had 17 patients with clinically related symptoms of Covid-19 – but the state, which determines who gets tested, has only tested four so far. One test came back negative, but they were still waiting for the other results.
Mexican migration authorities are considering restricting access to the camps and establishing screening areas, Perry said. The non-profit organizations still on the ground have also worked to educate migrants in the wider community on how to slow the spread of the virus by isolating themselves in their homes.
However, despite these preventive measures, migrants are still concerned that the pandemic will break through the camp and that they will not have the medical resources to survive it.
The public hospital in Matamoros, where migrants would previously have sought medical care, is closed to anyone who does not have a life-threatening emergency, including pregnant women, Perry said. The gates are locked and if a patient wants to be seen, they have to wait outside for an employee to let them in. Meanwhile, private hospitals in Matamoros are also closed to anyone who has symptoms of Covid-19.
“The residents of the camp are aware of what is happening worldwide and they are concerned with what will happen to them, not only with their case, but also with what will happen to them if they get sick,” said Perry. “We remind them that we will not abandon them.”