Mexico has 118 confirmed cases of coronavirus. The United States has nearly 16,000 cases with the number expected to grow as testing kits become more widely available. Yet, President Trump confirmed during a press conference on Wednesday that he will be closing the southern border to asylum seekers and other immigrants who are caught attempting to enter the United States illegally. Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that both the Mexico and Canada borders would be closed to all non-essential travel. Mr. Trump added, “During a global pandemic they threaten to create a public storm that would spread infection to our border agents, migrants and the public at large.” These actions are thinly veiled as measures to prevent the spread of the virus within detention centers, immigration personnel, and amongst Americans. But the truth is that President Trump is attempting to use a global pandemic—the virus already spreading within the borders of the United States—as a pretext to fulfill his most anti-immigrant promises.
Under the new proposed rules, Border Patrol agents would return to Mexico anyone who is caught, denying asylees the only semblance of due process that was left in our system. For over a year, the Trump administration has forced more than 60,000 migrants to wait in Mexico as their asylum cases are processed. The administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy has been highly criticized as migrants wait for their immigration hearings in unsanitary conditions, amid violence and sexual assault, at migrant camps in Mexico, where they are required to complete English-only applications.
If President Trump were truly concerned about the safety of the American people, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids would come to a complete halt as cities and states take measures to stop the spread of the virus. It has been reported that ICE will temporarily pause enforcement other than against those with criminal convictions, however the new enforcement priorities mirror those implemented during the Obama administration, during which more than 3 million people were deported in eight years. The agency has moreover not said what it plans to do with the more than 37,000 people currently in its custody. The potential risk of bringing COVID-19 into detention centers, where immigrants are jailed in close quarters, unable to practice social distancing, is very real.
Last week an ICE employee at the Elizabeth Detention Center, in New Jersey, entered self-quarantine and has tested positive for COVID-19. At least 21 immigrants have died in ICE custody in the last 90 days, fueling concerns that immigration detention facilities lack adequate health and safety systems needed to keep immigrants safe while they’re in U.S. custody. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against ICE, requesting that vulnerable immigrants, with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness from coronavirus, be released from the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center outside of Seattle.
Medical experts, and even President Trump, have clearly outlined the need for social distancing to slow infections. While immigration courts have cancelled hearings for immigrants currently not in detention, cases for people in ICE custody are still taking place, making it possible for immigrants to be deported at a time when international travel is restricted for many countries around the world. However, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has closed its field offices, asylum offices, and Application Support Centers, halting interviews, naturalization ceremonies, and biometric appointments necessary for DACA beneficiaries, and those seeking visa renewals.
The lack of uniformity in immigration policies—stopping naturalization ceremonies, halting interviews, and visa appointments, while turning away refugees (in potential conflict with international law), detaining, and deporting more immigrants—reveals that closing the southern border is not about keeping Americans safe, but about furthering Trump’s xenophobic agenda.
President Trump has been relentless in his attempts to keep immigrants from crossing the southern border into the United States. From describing Mexican immigrants in derogatory terms, to his obsession with building a border wall, and multiple threats to close the border, he is now using one of the worst crises in modern history to advance his anti-immigrant agenda. But our ability to triumph over the coronavirus is directly linked to our ability to realize that the virus does not know politics, immigration status, or race. We must value each human life equally, including the lives of immigrants in the United States, and refugees seeking asylum. If we allow President Trump to use a global pandemic for political purposes, we will all suffer as a result.