The US has put most of its immigration process on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic and has for weeks been turning away all asylum seekers at the southern border. It closed its consulates abroad as well as most immigration courts and has temporarily stopped issuing green cards. But authorities have continued to charter deportation flights.
President Donald Trump declared the spread of the coronavirus a national emergency on March 12. An independent analysis from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that between March 15 and April 24, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sent 21 flights to Guatemala, 18 to Honduras, 12 to El Salvador, three to Haiti and the Dominican Republican, and one to Jamaica. Flights have continued since then, with some to Guatemala taking place last week. (ICE did not respond to requests for the total number of flights it has chartered.)
All of these countries have fragile health care systems and minimal social safety nets that would be overwhelmed by the kind of outbreaks the US has seen in hot spots like New York. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has put some immigrants who later tested positive for Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, on these deportation flights — effectively exporting the virus.
The US has recently instituted testing of all deportees, but not before they had deported hundreds of Covid-positive immigrants who may have been asymptomatic or developed symptoms after they were placed on the plane. In Guatemala, these deportees account for roughly 19 percent of the country’s total coronavirus cases.
Advocates have been urging the Trump administration to halt deportations during the pandemic to avoid spreading coronavirus in Central America and the Caribbean.
“Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Haiti have very limited capacity for testing, surveillance, and treatment and a limited supply of medical equipment such as ventilators,” Sergio Martín, general coordinator for the nonprofit Doctors Without Borders in Mexico, said in a statement. “A major outbreak of Covid-19 could be catastrophic.”
The US has been exporting the coronavirus through deportations
Several countries in Central American and the Caribbean have reported positive cases of coronavirus among immigrants deported by the US: more than 200 cases in Guatemala, at least two cases in Mexico and at least three cases in Haiti.
It’s unsurprising that so many deportees have tested positive for coronavirus given the number of detainees in ICE custody who have also tested positive for the virus. Reuters reported that, as of early May, more than 700 immigrants of the 1,400 that had been tested for coronavirus in ICE custody had tested positive.
Guatemala’s health minister Hugo Monroy has consequently called the US the “Wuhan of the Americas,” and the Guatemalan government has twice suspended deportation flights from the US. It was only after public pressure from organizations including Refugees International and Democratic lawmakers that the US started testing deportees in late April.
Senators Bob Menendez and Dick Durbin had called on the Trump administration to mandate Covid-19 testing for all deportees so that those who test positive can receive proper medical treatment and be quarantined.
“Forcibly returning individuals infected with COVID-19 does not comport with the humanitarian and public health standards our nation must uphold in a time of pandemic,” they wrote in a letter to the administration. “Continuing to deport COVID-19-positive individuals to countries that do not have the capacity to control its spread undermines the United States’ ability to defend against re-introduction of the virus once the epidemic is brought under control in the United States.”
Haiti has started sending all deportees to mandatory quarantine in one of two Port-au-Prince hotels for two weeks upon their arrival amid fears that they could carry the virus, but it’s proved to be an imperfect system given that one deportee who had tested positive recently escaped.
The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti still lacks testing capacity and has only 100 ventilators, which many Covid-19 patients need to help them breathe, for its entire population of 11 million citizens. A severe outbreak of the virus could therefore wreak havoc on the island nation, which is still recovering from a series of natural disasters, including a 2010 earthquake that left it in ruins.
The Trump administration is poised to start deporting more migrants to Honduras
The Trump administration has pursued a series of so-called Asylum Cooperative Agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that allow it to send migrants back to those countries if they passed through them on their way to the US. Only the agreement with Guatemala has gone into effect so far, but the administration could also implement the agreement with Honduras at its discretion.
The deals resemble “safe third country agreements” — a rarely used diplomatic tool that requires migrants to seek asylum in the countries they pass through by deeming those countries capable of offering them protection — although the Trump administration has been reluctant to use that term, perhaps because the countries it’s dealing with cannot be considered safe. Until recently, the US had this kind of agreement with just one country: Canada.
The administration has paused deportations to Guatemala under the agreement for now while both countries focus on combating the pandemic. A DHS spokesperson said that there are similarly “no imminent plans to begin transfers to Honduras” under a similar agreement.
“[W]hen international travel conditions improve we will resume discussions about implementing these agreements,” they said.
But while the US isn’t planning to immediately send asylum seekers to Honduras under the agreement, that could change at any time.
The Department of Homeland Security published the text of the US agreement with Honduras on April 30. It doesn’t specify who will be sent to Honduras, but US officials have stated publicly that Honduras will accept asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Brazil.
Honduras produces high numbers of people seeking asylum: In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, the US granted asylum to 2,048 migrants from Honduras, compared with 1,048 from Mexico, 3,471 from El Salvador, and 2,954 from Guatemala.
Honduras remains a hotbed of gang violence, largely perpetrated by the international criminal gang MS-13, which formed in Los Angeles and was transplanted to Central America following mass deportations of in the 1990s unauthorized immigrants with criminal histories. The gangs facilitate drug trafficking, extort local residents, and force teenage boys to join.
The country also has the fifth-highest homicide rate worldwide, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, as well as rampant government corruption and high rates of violence against women and LGBTQ individuals.
Deportations continue, in contrast to asylum processing on the southern border
The Trump administration has brought asylum processing at the southern border to a halt with the stated purpose of limiting the spread of the coronavirus. But the administration hasn’t decided to pause deportations for the same reason.
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. 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 their asylum hearings. 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.
Due to the pandemic, they will be forced to wait even longer: At least some of their hearings have been postponed until May 2021.
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 also 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 14,416 migrants were sent back back to Mexico under the new system in April, CBP reported.
With all of these restrictions taken together, migrants have been effectively barred from accessing asylum — a critical protection for those who have fled violence and persecution — on account of the pandemic. But while the Trump administration has deemed asylum processing to pose too great a risk of spreading the virus, it hasn’t said the same of deportations, despite actual evidence that they have contributed to outbreaks in other countries.
“Any measure that contributes to regionally spreading the disease or putting people at risk must be stopped immediately,” Martín said.