The coronavirus has had profound impacts on the global community, and the border is no exception. Due to policy shifts and the realities of structural inequalities, migrants and asylum-seekers have been heavily impacted by the implications of the virus. The ability of migrants to access asylum, economic stability, due process, safety, and physical well-being has been severely restricted in the past month.
The novel coronavirus has upended the lives of people all over the world, as it has altered daily routines, economies, physical well-being, and the ways in which we connect with other people in our families and communities. Since mid-March, life at the border has also significantly altered. States throughout and on both sides of the border have reported tens of thousands of cases of the virus. As is true throughout the world, this has resulted in state and local governments taking steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, and normal life—economic, educational, familial, and cross-border—has ground to a halt. The U.S./Mexico border has also been affected by many measures that have been undertaken that further restrict the rights and dignity of migrants and asylum-seekers while using the virus as a pretext for these changes. People seeking asylum encounter no way to find protection in the United States, those crossing the border are returned within hours to Mexican towns, and the partial border closure has had economic and social impacts on interconnected communities. For immigrants and asylum-seekers in detention facilities and in deportation proceedings, the situation is dire—both for individuals and for broader society.
Through adherence to sensible public health and scientific guidance, doing everything possible to keep all members of a society healthy and safe is paramount. However, many of the policies that have emerged are not in keeping with public health best practices and force migrants and asylum-seekers—among the most vulnerable members of our communities—into positions that are dangerous, illegal, and hinder broader efforts to mitigate the pandemic.
On March 21, an “expedited return” policy took effect at the border, in which nearly all migrants are returned to Mexico nearly immediately after their apprehension in the United States. No medical examinations are performed, and after being taken to a field-processing center, they are then driven in specially designated vehicles to the nearest ports of entry. The process takes approximately one hour from apprehension to removal. As of April 9, nearly 10,000 people have been returned to Mexico under expedited returns.
Mexican cities with a greater array of services and aid have historically received most people deported from the United States, but with expedited returns, people are removed to any nearby border town, including those that are remote, dangerous, and lacking in any infrastructure to receive them. Mexico has agreed to receive any returned migrant from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, though not beyond. (These four countries comprise roughly 85% of people apprehended at the border.)
For the first time since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, Border Patrol is turning migrants away with no possible pathway to make a case for asylum. Though the Trump administration has put up multiple roadblocks to asylum over the last three years, this is the first time that agents are given free rein to expel people with no due process or procedure to consider claims for asylum whatsoever. The only option for protection that people have limited access to is if they can prove to both a Border Patrol agent as well as a higher ranking officer that they will face torture if returned, and it is information they must volunteer—agents are not allowed to ask about fear of torture.
In a statement released immediately after the expedited return policy was announced, the Kino Border Initiative denounced the plan: “The administration’s plan effectively eliminates asylum and due process. It leaves thousands of people in legal and humanitarian limbo in Mexico and disregards how this will affect communities south of the border. Above all, it will not make our interconnected communities safer from the virus.”
Migrant Protection Protocol hearings
In late March, the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) announced that it was postponing the hearings for people who are subject to MPP. However, although the hearings currently scheduled through May 1 have been put off due to public health concerns, people still have to present at the ports of entry in order to receive their new court dates. This presents particular challenges for those who have been returned through Nogales, many of whom we received at the comedor, as they are still required to travel to Ciudad Juárez—approximately 10 hours away through dangerous parts of Sonora and Chihuahua—to receive their new court dates. This requires paying bus fare for all members of the family, which is a significant financial burden for most asylum-seekers. Additionally, finding shelter space upon arrival to Ciudad Juárez is nearly impossible, as many migrant shelters have closed to new arrivals in order to avoid spreading the virus to the people who are already housed there. Moreover, undergoing such a trip runs contrary to the key public health directive to stay in place in order to mitigate spread of the virus.
At KBI, and alongside multiple partner organizations and allies, we advocate that a humane and dignified solution for families who have been subject to MPP is to allow them to follow internationally and medically established guidelines by releasing them to family sponsors in the United States, where they could safely quarantine and shelter-in-place. Instead, U.S. policy is forcing vulnerable families and individuals into spaces where there is little likelihood that they are able to protect themselves from a coronavirus outbreak due to overcrowded conditions, a lack of access to sanitation, and significantly diminished ability to receive appropriate medical care.
Partial border closure
On March 20, the border between the U.S. and Mexico was declared closed to “non-essential” traffic for at least 30 days. To travel into the United States, one must be a US citizen or legal permanent resident returning home; traveling for medical emergencies, work, or school across the border; and those engaged in cross-border trade. Notably absent from this list are people seeking asylum, who currently have no ability to present for asylum at ports of entry. Mexico issued fewer formal restrictions on people entering the country from the United States, although the documented levels of COVID-19 are much higher in the U.S. than Mexico. To that end, some border governments and activists have pushed for tighter controls of people who are coming south of the border, including testing southbound travellers for relevant symptoms and inquiring into their travel history.
Like everywhere, the virus has dramatically altered the economy of border cities. However, the partial border closure means that businesses on both sides of the border are bracing for unprecedented economic stresses. Nogales, Arizona, has historically seen about 70% of its sales tax revenue come from shoppers based in Sonora; many of these people are no longer able to cross. On the southern side of the border, the economy is similarly affected. Many of the people employed in informal economies near the ports of entry no longer have a source of income as people have ceased to cross the border and more Mexicans are staying home. Additionally, the maquiladoras in Nogales, Sonora—a notable source of employment for many people in the city, including repatriated migrants who have opted to settle in border communities—have significantly scaled back production. 60% of maquilas in Nogales are now either fully or partially closed in order to prevent the spread of the virus; medical and food industries are considered essential so have been able to continue operations.
Many of the volunteers, aid workers and legal staff who had previously been present in many Mexican border cities have made the decision to suspend their work across the border due to the highly transmittable nature of the virus as well as the partial border closure. People are afraid to cross because of contracting the virus, a well-placed concern of spreading the virus to a highly vulnerable community, and the mechanics of the border closure. Protecting public health is paramount, as is containing the spread of the virus whenever possible—and simultaneously, services available to migrant communities and asylum-seekers south of the border have become more limited.
Continued deportations and the spread of the virus
The United States has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, yet we continue to deport people to their countries of origin during this time. Not only is this concerning because of the spread of the virus and violations of human rights, but it also places a significant burden on the receiving countries. In many cases, the health care infrastructure does not exist to adequately care for infected people and their communities.
Though many countries are grappling with how to respond to deportations from the United States, Guatemala has received particular attention for its response. Several times, the country has changed its policy regarding accepting deportations—temporarily halting them in mid-March before once again accepting deportation flights. At least three people deported from the U.S. to Guatemala had confirmed COVID-19 cases as of early April, and two were nearly certainly infected with the virus in Arizona detention centers. Also earlier this month, Guatemala asked the U.S. to limit the number of people on deportation flights to 25, down from 60-90 in the past. Then, on April 6, they suspended the deportation flights for the entirety of Holy Week.
The difficulties extend past the moment of deportation. Migrant shelters are closing or significantly limiting the numbers of people who are able to stay in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Local economies have ground to a halt, and most businesses and government offices are shuttered. This means that people being deported face extremely difficult circumstances in securing housing and a job. Additionally, remittances throughout Latin America are beginning to fall as family members in the U.S. are losing work and not able to support loved ones abroad. Finally, root causes that initially compelled people to leave their home countries, have not improved in the time of corona virus, and so many people are forced to confront the same conditions they fled in a particularly challenging historical moment.
Notably, Mexico has not resisted receiving people deported from the United States. As discussed in the section on expedited returns, they have agreed to receive at least tens of thousands of individuals deported from the United States—including from Central America—to Mexican border towns.
Over 36,000 people are held in ICE detention facilities throughout the U.S. Medical professionals and other advocates described immigration detention centers as “tinderboxes on the verge of explosion” in regard to the spread of Covid-19. The best practices to control the spread of the virus—social distancing, frequent hand-washing, wearing masks—are in no way available to people inside detention facilities across the U.S. (The migrant story in this month’s newsletter features testimony about the conditions in an Arizona detention center from Alejandro, an asylum-seeker who passed through KBI in the summer.) Some detainees are so desperate from the fear of the virus and the extreme mishandling of the situation in detention facilities that they are begging to be deported.
Though in-person legal and familial visits to detention facilities in Arizona have been suspended, detention centers are in no way “closed” environments. On a daily basis, guards, contractors, vendors, and new/transferred detainees arrive to the facilities, thus dramatically increasing the likelihood that the virus will be transmitted.
Many immigrant rights groups—including our partners at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project—have been calling for the release on parole for people in detention, particularly for those who are in high-risk categories due to age, pregnancy, or an underlying condition. El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz wrote on April 7 and urged the release of all non-violent migrants: “Our faith compels us to welcome the stranger with compassion. And this is also a matter of public health. By keeping non-violent migrants in immigration custody, we are placing everyone in danger.”
Also on April 7, ICE identified over 600 migrants who were identified as high-risk as possible candidates for early release. Previously, more than 160 had also been released “due to the unprecedented nature of the novel coronavirus,” according to a statement released by ICE. In early April, a federal judge ordered the immediate release of 10 detainees, saying it would be “unconscionable and possibly barbaric” to keep them in immigration custody.
The situation in Mexican detention facilities is deeply troubling. In late March, immigrants in detention in a facility in Tabasco, Mexico protested the dangerous conditions where they were being held in light of the Coronavirus, and set fire to a mattress to call attention to the danger they were in. One Guatemalan migrant died and 14 others were hospitalized due to smoke inhalation and violent responses by prison officials. After this incident, the United Nations demanded that 42 people in the facility be transferred to a shelter as they continue their asylum claims. Another protest occurred the previous week in Mexico’s largest immigration detention center in the state of Chiapas, which has long come under intense criticism for its overcrowding and unhygienic conditions. Approximately 60 migrants, mostly from Central America, spoke out in fear because of the virus and the length of time they had been held. In response, guards attacked them with tasers, pepper spray, and water hoses.
This is an unprecedented historical moment, and all necessary measures must be taken to protect the health and well-being of all members of society. As this pandemic has made profoundly clear, we are deeply connected to one another. If we neglect migrants and asylum-seekers from our scope of care, they will suffer—and that is an injustice. Moreover, though, if we neglect them—as well as all of those who are vulnerable and on the margins of our society—we neglect to acknowledge the ways in which our well-being is connected to the health and safety of others. It is time for our policies and our actions to reflect this interconnectedness, and to do everything in our power to take care of one another.