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Asylum seekers wait for their turn to cross to the United States at the US/Mexico border in Tijuana, Mexico, on February 29.
Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images

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The US has abandoned asylum seekers in Mexico during the pandemic

The border is closed indefinitely and Trump has started rapidly sending asylum seekers back to Mexico.

Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President Donald Trump has spent the last three years pursuing policies that would effectively shut down the asylum system on the southern border of the United States. Once the coronavirus hit, he was able to bring that vision to fruition.

Amid the pandemic, the Trump administration has closed the US-Mexico border, implemented an expulsion order to swiftly turn away migrants at the border, and postponed all immigration court hearings for migrants who are waiting in Mexico for a decision on their asylum applications in the US. The border restrictions have been extended indefinitely until officials decide that immigration no longer poses a public health risk to Americans, the New York Times reported Wednesday. Those measures, coupled with the restrictions on asylum seekers that were already in place, have brought the asylum system to a virtual standstill.

Since February 2016, the Trump administration’s border policies have forced migrants to wait in Mexico for months at a time. US Customs and Border Protection officials have been limiting the number of asylum seekers they process at ports of entry each day, making migrants wait in Mexico for their turn. Even after migrants are processed, they are quickly sent back to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).

More than 60,000 migrants have been sent back to await decisions on their US asylum applications. Thousands of them have been living for months in makeshift encampments, where they rely on volunteers for basic necessities, are targeted by criminal gangs, and have little means to deal with a major public health crisis.

A makeshift migrant camp in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on December 19, 2019. More than 1,000 Mexican migrants had been waiting for weeks, some for months, for a chance to file for asylum in the United States.
Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Now Trump’s policies are limiting their access to safety in the US even further and risk exposing them to the virus in conditions where it’s difficult to social distance, including migrant shelters and informal encampments. Some migrants have already tested positive for Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus: On April 20, the Mexican government reported 16 cases among migrants in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

Invoking federal law allowing immigration officials to turn away people who might pose a risk of spreading communicable diseases, US Customs and Border Protection has implemented new emergency protocols to quickly send migrants back to Mexico. Migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are processed in the field rather than inside US Border Patrol stations, and, without so much as a medical exam, are sent back to Mexico in an average of 96 minutes, the Texas Tribune reported. Some 20,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico under the new system, according to the 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 alter the US’s obligation under international human rights law to continue accepting asylum seekers. Trump has nevertheless brought a halt to asylum processing at the US-Mexico border — and in so doing, dealt a death blow to a system he’s long tried to dismantle.

The United Nations claims that the US is unlawfully depriving people of their right to apply for asylum and committing “refoulement” — forcibly returning them to a place where they will face persecution, again in violation of international human rights law.

“We’re worried about the rapid, systematic expulsions of persons including asylum seekers from the US,” Sibylla Brodzinsky, a spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNCHR), told Vox. “Obviously, a pandemic of this nature warrants extraordinary measures at borders, but the expulsion of asylum seekers, which basically results in refoulement, shouldn’t be among those measures.”

Migrants are waiting out the pandemic for their chance at asylum

Despite these new barriers, many asylum seekers living in Mexico are still waiting for their turn to be processed at ports of entry and for their immigration court hearings during the pandemic.

Across Tijuana, Nogales, and San Luis Rio Colorado — the three largest ports of entry on the southern border — nearly 12,000 asylum seekers were on the waitlist to be processed as of November, the most recent month for which data is available in court filings. Those who already had been processed through the Remain in Mexico program, meanwhile, will have to wait longer for a decision on their asylum applications, because the administration has postponed all court dates prior to April 22.

Only some of them have been lucky enough to find housing in shelters, hotels, or rooms for rent. Space in shelters was already limited, but since the pandemic hit Mexico, many have stopped taking in new arrivals or shut down completely. The UNHCR has been trying to help them stay open by setting up hand-washing stations and isolation areas in case someone tests positive for Covid-19, Brodzinsky said.

The UNHCR has also been providing asylum seekers with cash-based assistance to help make up for lost income due to pandemic-related confinement orders, which have resulted in business closures and furloughs. It gives them the financial freedom to rent an apartment, rather than staying in a shelter, which helps prevent overcrowding.

For thousands of others, only colorful tents and tarps stand between them and the elements. In Matamoros, a city of about 500,000 people across the border from Brownsville, Texas, about 2,000 migrants have moved into tent encampments along the Rio Grande — so close to the US border that they can show up at the port for processing whenever their names are called.

Jodi Goodwin, an immigration attorney who has been representing migrants in the Matamoros camps, said that no one has been allowed to cross the border amid the pandemic, even people who need medical attention and who have health conditions that put them at a high risk of complications from the virus. Even so, most migrants have chosen to continue to wait in Mexico. There have been a small number of people who have returned to their home countries voluntarily, but for many, going back would mean risking their lives.

The vast majority of them come from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, collectively known as Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” where rampant crime, violence, and corruption has driven hundreds of thousands to flee in recent years. In those countries, migrants are commonly robbed, kidnapped for ransom, raped, tortured, and killed.

“90 percent of the people we are treating as patients are people who are fleeing the exact same kinds of violence as ISIS,” said Helen Perry, the executive director of Global Response Management, a health care nonprofit administering services in the Matamoros camps. “If the option is you stay here and live in your tent until you have exhausted all hope, or you go home and get your head cut off — the reality is that they don’t want to leave.”

Asylum seekers may also have the option of applying for asylum in Mexico, which has not stopped receiving and processing applications nor closed its southern border during the pandemic. But the Mexican government is also continuing to detain asylum seekers, albeit in smaller numbers to encourage social distancing. There have been a number of protests over the cramped conditions inside Mexican detention centers in recent weeks, including one at a facility in Tenosique in which a Guatemalan asylum seeker died in a fire on March 31.

Brodzinsky said UNHCR has helped facilitate the release of roughly 300 asylum seekers from detention centers across Mexico since the pandemic hit, helping to place them in shelters or find them other places to live. The organization has been doing this kind of work for years, but it has ramped 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 living in border towns along the US-Mexico border are dependent on American volunteers for basic necessities and services. But the majority of nonprofits and NGOs that were regularly crossing over the border to work in the migrant camps in Matamoros have stopped coming due to the pandemic. Global Response Management, Doctors Without Borders, and a local resource center in Matamoros are the only major groups with a presence still on the ground, Perry said.

Some groups were concerned that they would become a “Typhoid Mary,” carrying coronavirus to the densely-populated camps, where it would spread quickly. And Goodwin, who had previously crossed the border almost daily to meet with migrants in the camps, said she stopped doing so as of March 15 because she has an immunocompromised child she cannot risk infecting.

But for groups that provide essential services — including health care, food, water, and security — volunteers just have to take extra precautions, including wearing masks, washing their hands regularly, and staying home if they’re sick.

If migrants in the camps do start exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, nonprofits first rule out influenza and strep and then isolate them in a fenced area with a separate bathroom in the southern part of the camp. As of April 17, Perry said they have had 17 patients with clinically concerning 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 limiting access to the camps and setting up screening areas, Perry said. The nonprofits still on the ground have also been working on educating migrants living in the broader community about how they can slow the spread of the virus by isolating themselves in their homes.

But despite these preventive measures, migrants are still afraid that the pandemic will rip through the camp and that they won’t have the medical resources to endure it.

The public hospital in Matamoros, where previously migrants would 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, the private hospitals in Matamoros have also closed to anyone who has symptoms of Covid-19.

“The residents in the camp are aware of what’s going on worldwide and they’re worried about what’s going to happen to them, not just with their case but also what happens to them if they get sick,” Perry said. “We remind them that we’re not going to abandon them.”

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