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The United States Can And Must Uphold the Right to Asylum During the Pandemic

The Trump administration is trying to present us with a false trade-off between asylum and public health; in reality, protecting human rights and halting transmission go together.

By on March 24, 2020

On March 20, the Trump administration announced a new policy barring most forms of travel across the southern U.S. border. In the days that followed, federal agencies gave conflicting information about how such a rule would be enforced. From what we know so far, however, there is no exception under the ban for people seeking asylum from persecution. This means that asylum-seekers would be deported without any screening or due process, even after expressing fear for their safety.

Such a policy is illegal on its face, in addition to being dangerous and immoral. Both U.S. domestic law and treaty obligations guarantee the right to seek asylum in the United States—including for people who cross the border without papers. If actually put into effect, this policy would directly violate these legal obligations. It would result, in immediate terms, in the return of asylum-seekers to the hands of their persecutors, placing their lives at risk.

The Trump administration has sought to justify this grossly callous policy, on public health grounds. In announcing the rule, for example, officials warned that an alternative policy of detaining a large number of asylum-seekers in close quarters would violate health recommendations and hasten the spread of the coronavirus. This is true, yet the choice between mass detention and a ban on asylum is a false one.

In reality, the administration should not and does not have to confine people in long-term detention while they are applying for asylum. Public health experts agree that allowing people to stay with their families and shelter at home, including through forms of community-based alternatives to detention, is the best way to prevent further transmission of the virus. These practices are also fully compatible with people completing their asylum processes.

What’s more, the United States is among countries with the highest numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19. Far from needing to ban travel across the southern border, a much greater risk of further transmission and spread of the disease is posed by U.S. proposals to round up and deport large numbers of asylum-seekers and immigrants to countries that have so far seen fewer reported cases of the virus.

Moreover, the administration’s argument about detention is disingenuous. At the same time the administration has sought to ban asylum on this basis, it requested hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding from Congress in order to build more detention centers—which it described as quarantine facilities—near the southern border. Such mass detention facilities would imperil the lives of the people confined in these centers and increase the spread of the disease beyond their walls.

If the administration is serious about recognizing the dangers of confining people in close quarters during the pandemic, they should work to reduce rather than expand the number of people held in these facilities. They can start by releasing the 37,000 people currently locked up in ICE custody and withdraw proposals to build new detention or “quarantine” facilities along the border.

U.S. authorities are trying to present us with a false trade-off between respecting the human rights of asylum-seekers and protecting the health and wellbeing of the public as a whole. This is a deceptive and invidious argument. The truth is that protecting public health and upholding the right to asylum require exactly the same things: an end to mass detention and mass incarceration, a suspension of criminal prosecutions for harmless border violations, and a halt to immigration-related arrests and deportations.

In a time of global crisis, authoritarian forces will try to exploit the sense of urgency and fear to break down human rights norms, including the legal agreements protecting the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees. We will only be able to survive and overcome this crisis, not by shuttering borders to people seeking safety, but acting across those borders in a spirit of solidarity.

Photo Credit: iStock – Juanmonino


About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!

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