The Trump administration has implemented dramatic restrictions on people seeking legal status in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic. However, it has not slowed or changed the deportation process to protect the well-being of individuals or communities to which they arrive.. As a result, thousands of people have been forced into dangerous situations in Mexico or their countries of origin, and the virus has spread in the Americas. This is in large part because U.S. agents frequently fail to abide by standard public health protocol and, above all, because the actions the Trump administration are rooted in long-held political motives, not a concern for public health and well-being. In all cases, safer alternatives are possible—both in terms of respect for public health as well as for upholding access to human rights.
The Trump administration’s misguided motives surrounding immigration and public health are evident when examining the alarming data surrounding deportations during the coronavirus pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, hundreds of deportation flights from the U.S. to at least 11 Latin American countries have occurred. Most of these countries do not have the health-care infrastructure to adequately treat the virus already present within their countries, much less the increased infections that results from hundreds of people being removed from the United States, the country with the highest number of infections worldwide. Moreover, the conditions that many people are being deported from tend to be places such as detention centers where rates of infection are widespread due to an appalling lack of official measures taken to address the presence of the virus. Finally, placing people in close quarters for hours on end during deportation flights creates another condition where the virus can spread—to the migrants being deported on the flight; to the family, friends, and communities they will interact with upon returning; and to the U.S.-based agents who staff the flights and have a high likelihood of contracting the virus and thereby infecting communities in the U.S.
This practice reveals the hypocrisy of the president’s rhetoric surrounding public health and the coronavirus. If the Trump administration were truly concerned with public health, they would create situations where families and individuals could safely quarantine before reuniting with family members; they would mandate the practice of public-health practices by U.S. agents; they would release large numbers of people from immigration detention; and they would halt all deportations, as the United Nations Network on Migration makes clear as a public-health imperative. The absence of these practices results in far more widespread infections, globally and in the U.S.
This article addresses the multiple threats to individuals’, community, and international health and safety because of deportations during the pandemic: by adding infections to already overwhelmed health-care systems, by forcing people to live in or travel under conditions where social distancing is impossible, and with the appalling practice of deporting unaccompanied children. All of these are combined with challenges in the countries of origin, such as poverty, violence, food insecurity, and human rights violations. To make matters even more complex, countries who cooperate with the United State to gain access to benefits such as humanitarian aid and work and tourism visas find themselves in the position of being denied necessary economic support if they do not comply with the deportations.
COVID Increasing in Latin America
The numbers of people who have been infected and hospitalized with COVID are decreasing in some parts of the United States, and businesses and other parts of society are moving towards more complete reopening. In other parts of the U.S., notably including Arizona, an early reopening has led to a sharp increase in COVID cases and added stress on hospital capacity. Meanwhile, much of Latin America is also observing alarming increases of COVID cases. As of June 6, COVID cases in Latin America had infected over 1.2 million people and led to 60,000 deaths—with no signs of slowing down. Additionally, many countries have limited testing capacity, meaning the actual number of infections is likely much higher. The World Health Organization believes that Latin America is the new epicenter of the virus, and that it has not yet reached its peak.
Brazil is the Latin American country that has been hardest-hit by the pandemic—its numbers of infections is second in the world, behind only the United States. Like the U.S., it is in the processing of reopening its economy, including to many non-essential services. Mexico is in a similar position. During the first week of June, Mexico recorded all-time highs in the numbers of new infections as well as the numbers of people who had died of the virus. Meanwhile, the president and other governmental officials are moving forward with rapidly reopening the economy. Similar conditions exist throughout the region, and are particularly dangerous when coupled with highly limited hospital capacity.
One of the primary ways that immigrants have been removed from the United States since the pandemic began in March is through an order that rapidly expels immigrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries back to Mexico with no avenue to seek protection or ask for asylum. Though it is done under the pretext of protecting public health, there is no rationale that supports this practice—and there are practical ways to both uphold health and human rights can occur in tandem. Moreover, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees explicitly makes clear that a “public health emergency cannot justify blanket measures that block asylum seekers”—and blocking asylum is precisely what this policy does. Additionally, though the stated reason for this order is to protect the health of agents and U.S. communities, it has been well-documented that few Border Patrol agents wear masks or abide by established social-distancing protocol.
A report released by Human Rights First in May estimated that under this order, approximately 4,000 people per month are being blocked from seeking asylum. Since it began in late March, more than 40,000 people have been expelled—a number that includes people who intended to seek asylum, people who are migrating for economic reasons, unaccompanied minors, people who faced significant danger if they were returned to Mexico, and many women and children, including a newborn less than one week old.
Many asylum-seekers who were returned to Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy were the victims of violence and persecution following their removal to Mexican border cities. This is a problem that continues and worsens under the rapid expulsions. Human Rights First reported that kidnappings and murders rose in Mexico from the spring of 2019 to the spring of 2020, and a notable percentage of this violence was targeted toward migrants and asylum-seekers. And with shelters and other social services limiting capacity in order to reduce the likelihood of virus spread, migrants returned to Mexico find themselves in increasingly precarious living conditions. This comes on top of a bottleneck that exists in nearly all Mexican border cities as the border remains closed to asylum-seekers, which means that people who are waiting to present at the port of entry are in a state of limbo for the foreseeable future. And in cities where people who were returned under MPP in 2019 and the spring of 2020, they too are waiting to appear at their rescheduled court cases—a change in dates that has been disorganized, unsafe, chaotic, and dangerous.
Deportations of Children and Minors
Since March, hundreds of migrant children have been expelled from the U.S. under an emergency order from the CDC. The Trump administration says that this is necessary in order to control the spread of the virus. Children are typically removed from the United States to their countries of origin, and the policy has rightfully come under attack from advocates and human rights activists. Not only is the United States sending children and teenagers back to situations where there is a significant possibility of them being harmed, they are also being separated from caregivers in the U.S., or the removal is undertaken without notifying a responsible adult for the child’s whereabouts. This policy stands in stark contrast to the previous protections that had been offered to minors through the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the United States. It generally sought to house minors in the least restrictive environment possible and reunite them with a U.S.-based family member.
On June 10, a federal judge temporarily blocked the deportation of a 16-year-old boy from Honduras in a challenge to this policy. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on the teenager’s behalf, arguing that no underage asylum seekers arriving on their own should be deported. Given the cruelty of the policy, as well as the widespread unpopularity of family separation, particularly as it was enacted in 2018, this policy may face particularly virulent opposition from advocacy groups, lawyers, and the general public.
High Rates of Infection in U.S. Detention Centers
Many of the people who are deported back to Latin America have previously been detained in a U.S. facility, where the rate of COVID-19 infections is far above the national average. Frequently, the Kino Border Initiative receives letters and phone calls from people in Arizona facilities, who describe the situation as feeling as though they are awaiting their deaths due to the perfect storm of close quarters, high infection, and few safety precautions being taken to control the spread.
In a late April Government Accountability Project report, studies estimated that within 90 days (in other words, by late July), somewhere between 72% and 100% of people in U.S. detention facilities would be infected with the virus. (In Arizona, the case numbers at La Palma Correctional Center are already among the highest in the country.) This has enormous public health implications for people in detention, people who work in detention, and local communities as hospital ICUs reach capacity. Additionally, when deportations continue under these circumstances, it has potentially devastating consequences in communities of origin. This is particularly true when coupled with the preexisting realities of the medical care system in Latin America, the region’s economic inequalities, and governmental policies that do not adequately create conditions to limit the spread of the virus.
Countries Ill-Equipped to Handle COVID Cases
In many Latin American countries, medical infrastructure is lacking to handle the COVID caseloads already present. Deportations dramatically increase the likelihood of community transmission. This is dangerous in itself, but it becomes alarmingly so when considering the realities of the medical care system in much of Latin America. For instance, Honduras’ medical system ranks among the worst in the world; Guatemala only has two urban hospitals; and there are 60 ventilators in the entirety of Haiti, a country with a population of 11 million. And in countries like Venezuela, where the hospital system already lacked nearly all essential resources, a pandemic of this proportion is disastrous. Latin America, as a region, invests $950 per capita in health care, significantly less than the global average of $3,970 per capita. Access to health care in Latin America often requires at least a small payment, which further excludes those who are sick but unable to pay.
The realities of under-resourced medical care systems are further exacerbated by economic inequalities. Latin America has significant income inequality, and 60% of the region’s workers are employed in the informal sector—meaning that they have no access to benefits or time off when sick. Additionally, these are jobs that are generally not possible to do remotely or with secure social distancing, meaning that the virus spreads more rapidly among the lower-income populations of the countries. The pandemic is beginning to expose even more starkly the inequalities in the region—and deportations from the United States are causing the situation to worsen, in economic, political, and public-health terms.
Stigmatization of People Deported COVID-19
In many countries where people are being deported back to from the United States, people face not only economic challenges, uncertainty about safety, and questions about reintegration into their communities of origin. In the era of COVID-19, some people also face stigma because of the fact that the U.S. has such a high rate of COVID infections. For instance, in April in the Casa del Migrante in Guatemala City, the migrant shelter staff and guests received death threats due to unsubstantiated rumors that migrants had escaped from the shelter and were breaking their mandated quarantine. In another town near the Guatemala-Mexico border, locals stopped a bus of migrants returning home from coming into Guatemala because of fears of the spread of the virus. A researcher at Guatemala’s Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, Rosario Martinez, said that the stigmatization and violence exists beyond Guatemala as well: “They say that these people should be detained. Then comes the community violence. They attack their families, they throw rocks, they want to set their houses on fire.”
Other advocates in Guatemala, and beyond, have urged the government for a suspension of deportation flights, but given the reality that the people are being deported—and in some instances do indeed test positive for the virus—they instead call for solidarity and support. In the indigenous community of Uspantan in Guatemala, locals came together to offer support for their deported neighbors. The community sought ways to support them by ensuring they were fed and comfortable during their mandated quarantine.
Human Rights Violations Due to Covid-19
In a number of the countries to which the United States deports migrants, there have been numerous concerns made about human rights violations that occur in the name of controlling the pandemic. In Honduras, during the first several weeks of the pandemic, over 6,000 people were detained for failure to comply with the stay-at-home and curfew orders. As Security Secretary Jair Meza said, “Hondurans will be disciplined if they leave their houses if it is not necessary…. Paradoxically, all one has to do to not be punished is to remain home.” Of course, this is quite difficult to abide by for many groups of people, though the challenges of strictly abiding by this order falls disproportionately on marginalized groups. Deported migrants, who are frequently in the process of traveling, reuniting with family, and looking for work are among this group of vulnerable people.
Similarly, in El Salvador, hundreds of people have been arrested in the name of reducing the transmission of COVID, including essential workers with permission to leave their houses. Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele has encouraged excessive use of force against those who cannot or do not comply with the stay-at-home order. This has resulted in abuses by law enforcement and the detention of hundreds of people in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions—where, paradoxically, the virus spreads particularly rapidly.
Food Insecurity On the Rise
Coupled with limited hospital capacity, human rights abuses, and a challenged economy, a related struggle is that of rising food insecurity and poverty levels in Latin America. Remittances from family members in the United States—which previously helped with household expenses such as transportation, food, and education—have dropped off significantly since the pandemic began, further exacerbating the problem of access to food and resources. This comes amidst the increasingly notable effects of climate change in the region, which had, even before the pandemic, been threatening the livelihood and well-being of farmers and producers. Taken together, this has led to the concerns of a potentially significant food crisis in Central America and beyond. Catholic Relief Services recently released a study that over 80% of farmers in El Salvador are uncertain about where their next meal will come from. This is echoed throughout the region, and could lead to a significant humanitarian crisis if unaddressed.
Strong-Arming Tactics to Force Countries to Accept Deportations
Some countries, including Guatemala and Haiti have expressed their discomfort with continuing to accept deportations as they have watched infection numbers rise in both the United States and their countries. However, when countries refuse to accept deportation flights, the U.S. retaliates by withholding essential aid. In an April 10 “Memorandum on Visa Sanctions,” Trump planned to implement visa sanctions on citizens of any country that refused to comply with deportation flights.
In the case of Central America, the United States has supplied coronavirus aid, including ventilators. The countries that were more cooperative in the U.S.’ deportation efforts, including El Salvador and Honduras, were moved to the front of the line to receive this lifesaving aid. Meanwhile, Guatemala—which has less willingly and consistently accepted deportation flights—was denied this aid. This is politicizing aid in a way that unnecessarily preferences some and sickens others, or worse, because of political bullying.
Deportations during a pandemic are dangerous, misguided, and in stark opposition to international guidelines that protect the well-being of migrants and communities. The Trump administration has used the pandemic to further its extreme immigration agenda, leading to suffering, illness, and death that could have been prevented.
Alongside partner organizations such as the Latin American Working Group, we urge that the following measures are instead adopted to uphold public health and human rights: a) adopt a moratorium on deportations from the U.S. to any country during the pandemic; b) provide the safe release of people currently in immigration detention under orders of supervision and after a period of quarantine; c) rescind the asylum ban at the southern border; and d) provide necessary humanitarian aid to other countries without weaponizing it as a political tool. These are necessary actions to uplift health, dignity, life, and well-being. We invite you to join us in contacting your friends, local media, and elected representatives to advocate for these measures.