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US Rule Targets Disease-Stricken Countries To Deny Asylum

People seeking asylum in the United States wait at the border crossing bridge in Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.
Associated Press
People seeking asylum in the United States wait at the border crossing bridge in Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.

The Trump administration on Wednesday proposed empowering border authorities to deny asylum to people from countries with widespread communicable disease, its latest in a string of regulations before the November elections to dramatically raise the bar on who qualifies for humanitarian protections.

The Homeland Security and Justice departments said in a joint proposal that denying asylum to people from high-risk countries would combat disease in the United States, in some cases stopping it before it reaches American soil. Their argument rests on experiences with the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is difficult to predict the impact that another emerging, or re-emerging communicable disease would have on the United States public health system,” reads the proposal signed by Attorney General William Barr and Chad Mizelle, Homeland Security's acting general counsel. “Modern pandemics, spread through international travel, can engulf the world in three months or less, can last from 12 to 18 months, and are not considered one-time events.”


The proposal's publication in the Federal Register will trigger a 30-day period for public comments. It would take effect sometime after the comment period ends.

The rule says authorities “may consider emergency public health concerns based on communicable disease due to potential international threats from the spread of pandemics” when determining eligibility to seek asylum or a similar form of protection called “withholding of removal." It says the rule is aimed at protecting public health and the economy during future pandemics, as well as COVID-19.

Human Rights First, an advocacy group critical of Trump’s policies, called it another example of using public health concerns to violate U.S. asylum law and treaty obligations.

“This new rule flies in the face of our legal obligations to asylum seekers and seems to lack any real public health justification,” said Anwen Hughes, the group’s deputy legal director.

It is the latest proposal to limit asylum by executive action, avoiding Congress. Last month, the administration laid out detailed guidelines for immigration judges to be more selective about granting claims and to deny some without a hearing. Another rule will make it extremely difficult for asylum-seekers to get work permits.


Since March, the administration has been quickly expelling people at the border, without a chance to seek asylum. But that measure is temporary, aimed specifically at the current pandemic.