Update on COVID-19 and Immigration

education and action Mar 19, 2020

By Christie Black, MWEG Senior Engage Director

Many of us are focused on our own social distancing and coping with the stress of strange schedules and new routines. Some of us are shuffling to find childcare or replacement income for lost work. All of these struggles are real and valid. As we deal with our own trials, may we also keep in mind those refugees who are unable to work or social distance while in U.S. custody or in camps, both at our southern border and around the world.

Asylum Seekers in Border Camps

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico Policy,” can remain in force while lower court challenges continue. (Please see more information about the policy here.) This process could take several months, if not longer. (See the ACLU lawsuit to end the policy here.) 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the situation for asylum seekers waiting in Mexico was not safe. Previously, asylum seekers would stay in the U.S. with sponsoring citizens while awaiting immigration hearings. Under the current administration, they are forced to wait in often squalid conditions without the opportunity for employment, and without sound police protection from kidnapping, sexual assault, and other violence. Introduce a global pandemic, and the risks they are exposed to increase exponentially, not only because the camps are not equipped to manage an outbreak, but also because they are now waiting indefinitely, as immigration court dates have been postponed to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Immigration Detainees

Nonprofits like Detention Watch Network and Immigrant Defenders Law Center are demanding the immediate parole and release of people in government detention who are at higher risk for catching COVID-19. The conditions in government detention centers are poor, as is evident by the multiple deaths of people while in custody. If violations of medical standards mean detention centers cannot reasonably prevent deaths under normal circumstances, it is unlikely that they are equipped to handle a novel virus. Detaining individuals in a manner that will likely lead to great personal harm and possibly death is highly unethical and also threatens general public health.

Potential U.S. Border Shutdown

The U.S. and Canada have agreed to close their border to “non-essential” travelers. This is in line with other countries. However, according to the New York Times, the Trump administration is also likely to close the U.S.-Mexico border to anyone seeking asylum. This would mean anyone legally presenting themselves at the border to claim asylum would be sent back to Mexico without any proceedings or processing.

Immigration Enforcement Halt

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced they will be pursuing arrests only when public safety is at risk. They will also avoid arrests and raids near medical facilities. This is a positive step to ensure the safety of ICE officers, who will not need to put themselves at undue risk of exposure to the virus. Also, undocumented immigrants will have the assurance that they will not be arrested if they try to seek medical care. For both reasons, these measures will help stem the rise of COVID-19 cases. 

Refugees in Camps Overseas

Doctors Without Borders is calling for the government of Greece to evacuate refugee camps immediately. As with the camps at the Mexican border, refugee camps overseas are ill-equipped to handle an outbreak under these circumstances, and they make social distancing next to impossible. So far, the government has not made plans to evacuate or to address a potential camp outbreak, despite a clear need to do so.

Governments are responsible for the care of those they actively detain. Refugee camps and detention centers are at particular risk of becoming locations where disease is actively shared, without providing any reasonable hope of adequate care. It is critical that governments act responsibly to care for those they have detained or to release them from the custody that places them in conditions where they are likely to contract a new and highly contagious virus.


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