Weaponizing the Pandemic to End Asylum

Under the guise of protecting public health, the United States has accelerated its retreat as a world leader in responding to humanitarian crises and providing safety to those fleeing from harm. On July 9, the Trump administration proposed a rule that amounts to a de facto ban on asylum during the current pandemic and all future public health crises. Not only is this policy proposal cruel and uninformed by actual public health advice, but it is grounded in a centuries-old and false association between immigrants and disease.

Under the proposed rule, even if there is no evidence that an asylum seeker has been exposed to a virus, the person could be barred from asylum protection if he or she hails from or have traveled through a country where an outbreak is “prevalent or epidemic.” (In other words, during the COVID pandemic, nearly all countries.) Summarily denying protection to and returning people to the persecution from which they have fled — and with a total disregard for the deadly consequences of such a policy — is an assault on American values and a failure of moral leadership.

Additionally, this rule applies to asylum seekers already within the United States who meet a vague standard of “coming into contact with” COVID. Nurses, doctors, health aides, cleaners and all other essential personnel who are on the front lines during the pandemic would be at risk of deportation and banned from asylum protection. This doesn’t make America safer — it puts Americans, and those striving to become Americans, at risk. Even those who need access to hospitals for reasons other than COVID would be penalized, simply because they sought health care during a pandemic.

In an especially cynical move, the proposed rule would also bar asylum seekers who have fallen ill from COVID while in the United States awaiting their asylum hearing, including those who have contracted the disease while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention centers. In other words, this rule would punish people for getting sick, even though the fault lies with ICE’s failure to prevent the introduction and spread of COVID throughout its facilities.

Deporting those with COVID to countries with strained health care systems not only puts their lives at risk, it contradicts global best practice in managing the pandemic, which, by definition, must be effectively addressed everywhere in order to keep the virus in check. The IRC has found that many of the countries that asylum seekers are fleeing from are facing a double emergency: the arrival and impact of COVID and the secondary humanitarian, economic and infrastructural havoc this outbreak will wreak. For example, in Venezuela — which makes up nearly one-third of U.S. asylum applications — 90 percent of hospitals report shortages of medicine and critical supplies, there are just 8 hospital beds per 10,000 people, and a mere 84 ICU beds for a population of 32 million. By aggressively pursuing deportations to countries with strained health care systems despite ICE’s inability to control infection rates, the United States is acting as a regional “superspreader” — ironically, contributing to the very crisis from which it purports to protect Americans.

President Donald Trump has long perpetuated the false narrative of immigrants being public health risks. During his presidential campaign, he wrongly accused Mexicans of bringing “tremendous infectious disease” to the United States, furthering this harmful narrative and stigmatizing immigrants and asylum seekers. Yet, this toxic rhetoric didn’t start with Trump.

The long history of immigrants being falsely associated with public health risk reaches as far back as the United States’ first immigration policies. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law passed to prevent the entry of all members from a specific ethnicity or nationality, was steeped in fears about Chinese workers bringing disease to the United States. Past epidemics have also used immigrants as scapegoats: Cholera was called “Asiatic Cholera” in the 1800s, tuberculosis was called the “Jewish disease” in the 1900s, and Italian immigrants were blamed for the New York City polio epidemics in 1907 and 1916.

Policies rooted in such racism and xenophobia deny scientific evidence and put greater public health at risk. Disease doesn’t discriminate based on citizenship or race, but systems do. Structural racism and discrimination puts communities of color, both immigrant and non-immigrant, at intensified risk of infection.

The administration must strive to protect the right to seek asylum during the pandemic, not dismantle it. Instead of increasing the risk of immigrants contracting COVID through detention, the administration should grant all migrants being held in ICE detention immediate release in a manner consistent with public health protocols, through humanitarian parole, release on recognizance and community-based alternatives that do not impose unwarranted conditions on release such as unaffordable bond amounts.

Instead of spreading the virus throughout the region, the administration’s COVID response should include vulnerable populations in their response and preparedness plans. All communities, including asylum seekers, must have access to life-saving health care and economic relief measures. Only then will individuals in the United States and the region be safe.

The administration’s proposed rule risks the safety and well-being of asylum seekers, reduces America’s ability to respond to our current public health crisis and perpetuates the false equivalence between immigrants and disease. Absent the administration doing the right thing, Congress should pass the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act, which would halt deportations and other immigration enforcement actions that spread COVID. We must push back against this hateful and dangerous narrative.

Olga Byrne (Olga.Byrne@rescue.org) is the director of immigration for the International Rescue Committee.

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