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Trump Administration's 'Unprecedented' Asylum Restrictions Could Outlast Pandemic

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.
While major parts of the economy are reopening amid relaxing health measures, policies along the border-- first put in place during the pandemic-- remain extended indefinitely.

For three years, the Trump administration has altered long-standing policy towards asylum-seekers and migrants along the southern border.

First, there was “Zero-Tolerance,” which aimed to ramp up criminal prosecutions of border crossers, threatening them with lengthy prison sentences. Then there was the Remain-In-Mexico program, which sent asylum-seekers from Central America back to Mexico to wait months and years for their day in court. And there was also a ban on asylum-seekers who crossed through a third country on their way to the U.S.

Each new policy cut down the legal pathways people have for reaching the U.S. to declare asylum, but none quite put an end to the system that’s been in place since the end of World War II.


But on March 17th, the United States announced it would be turning back all asylum seekers along the southern border, regardless of their country of origin.

Trump Administration's 'Unprecedented' Asylum Restrictions Could Outlast Pandemic

Within a few hours, they would be returned to Mexico, in an effort that the Department of Homeland Security said was to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is unprecedented in its blanket nature and in its scope,” Hiroshi Motomura, a law professor at UCLA who specializes in immigration law, told KPBS. “I think the administration has tried mightily through much of its tenure to reduce the number of asylum applications. But the bottom line is this coronavirus situation has given this administration an opening to essentially close the border to asylum cases in a way that it was trying to do, but doing it very imperfectly before.”

DHS said it had authority to close the border to asylum-seekers because of an order from the Centers for Disease Control allowing DHS to ban entry to the U.S. to anyone they believe will spread disease.

This isn’t the first time the U.S. has used disease as a justification for changing immigration policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was part of a racist backlash to a smallpox outbreak in San Francisco.


“The use of public health reasons as pretexts for more broad-based restrictions. Those developments run pretty far back in American history, and are foundational to American immigration law,” Motomura explained.

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But this recent closure of the border has yet to be challenged in court, and Motomura believes that the Trump Administration can’t unilaterally close the border to asylum-seekers based on CDC statute.

“It’s a quarantine statue, it’s not an deportation statute. It’s not an immigration control statute,” he said.

Public health experts have expressed skepticism that the turn back policy stops the spread of coronavirus, especially as the pandemic hit the United States well before it spread to Mexico and Central America.

Earlier this month, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf visited San Diego to commend agents that were carrying out the turn back policy.

“The CDC was very clear to us, along with DHS and CBP, that we do not house these individuals in our facilities, both for our workplace protections, the protection of the American people, and the protection of other migrants. We’ve been very successful at doing this over the past two months,” Wolf said at a news conference at the San Diego Harbor Drive Coast Guard station.

Wolf said that 80% of migrants were returned to Mexico within two hours.

The same day Wolf spoke in San Diego, the Trump administration announced that the turn back policy was now extended indefinitely, subject to thirty day reviews.

At the same time, asylum-seekers sent back to Mexico under the Remain In Mexico program have seen their court dates in the US moved back well into 2021.

“People are absolutely desperate. They’re desperate for information,” said Nicole Ramos, an attorney with Al Otro Lado, a legal organization based in Tijuana that advocates for asylum-seekers. “They don’t have a real way of understanding what is happening or when their court date has been moved to.”

Since the turnback policy, the organization has begun to focus more on humanitarian relief for asylum-seekers stuck in Tijuana during the pandemic.They’re raising money for prepaid debit cards to give to asylum-seekers who need help.

“People are getting sick. They cannot get help at the general hospital at the general hospital in Tijuana or Rosarito, because they’re full. And trying to survive COVID at home, and they don’t have access to healthcare.”

As the coronavirus continues to ravage both countries’ healthcare systems and economies, border barriers between the two continue to go up.

San Diego’s first new border wall in decades is rising in the Otay Mountain wilderness.

It will likely stay there for years, like possibly many of the policies towards asylum-seekers adopted during this turbulent time — deployed during sickness and retained in health.

Trump Administration's 'Unprecedented' Asylum Restrictions Could Outlast Pandemic
Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.