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Trump Administration’s ‘Unprecedented’ Asylum Restrictions Look To Outlast Pandemic

 May 26, 2020 at 11:18 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 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. KPBS reporter max Rivlin Nadler tells us just how drastically the situation along the border has changed and how long we can expect it to remain that way. Speaker 2: 00:20 For three years, the Trump administration has altered longstanding policy towards asylum seekers and migrants along the Southern border. Each new policy cut down the legal pathways people have for reaching the U S to declare asylum, but none quite putting into the system that's been in place since the end of world war two. 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. 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 Corona virus pandemic. Speaker 3: 00:57 This is on precedent in its, in its blanket nature and its scope. Hiroshi Matamoros is a law professor at UCLA who specializes in immigration law. I mean, I think this administration is tried mightily through much of its tenure to reduce the number of asylum applications. But the bottom line is that this coronavirus situation has given the administration an opening to, uh, essentially, uh, close the border to asylum cases in a way that it was, I think trying to do, but doing it very imperfectly before Speaker 2: 01:27 DHS said it had authority to close the border to asylum seekers because of an order from the centers for disease control, Speaker 3: 01:34 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 are opportunities for more broad based restriction. I think those kinds of developments run pretty deep in American history as far back as the beginning of federal immigration law. But this recent closure of the border has yet to be challenged in court. And Matamoros believes that the Trump administration can't unilaterally close the border to asylum seekers based on CDC statute. It's a quarantine statute. It's not a deportation statute. It's not a kind of immigration control statute. Speaker 2: 02:24 Public health experts have expressed skepticism that the turnback policy stops the spread of Corona virus, especially as the pandemic hit the United States well before it's 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 turnback policy. Speaker 4: 02:45 DC was very clear with us, uh, with DHS and with CVP is we needed to make sure we did not house those individuals, uh, in our facilities, both for our workforce protection and protection of our DHS officers. Protection of the American people and protection Speaker 2: 03:00 of other migrants will 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 turnback policy was now extended indefinitely subject to 30 day reviews. At the same time asylum seeker sent back to Mexico under the remain in Mexico program have seen their court dates in the U S moved back well into 2021 Speaker 5: 03:26 people are absolutely desperate on for on many levels. They're desperate for information. Speaker 2: 03:31 Nicole Ramos is an attorney with [inaudible] illegal organization based in Tijuana that advocates for asylum seekers. They're raising money for prepaid debit cards to give to asylum seekers who need help. Speaker 5: 03:44 People are getting sick. They cannot get help at the general hospital, either in Tijuana or rosary DOE because they're full. And so you have people going and trying to survive. Covitz symptoms are COBIT at home and they don't have any access to healthcare. Speaker 2: 04:03 As the Corona virus 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 old time mountain wilderness. It will likely stay there for years, like possibly many of the policies towards asylum seekers adopted during this turbulent time. Max Rivlin Adler KPBS news. Speaker 1: 04:29 Joining me is KPBS reporter max Rivlin Nadler and max. Welcome. Speaker 3: 04:34 Hi. Speaker 1: 04:35 Now, tell us more about the situation faced by people waiting into one of, for their asylum hearings in the U S cause I imagine these are people who claimed asylum before the Corona virus asylum ban was put in place. So what is their status? Speaker 3: 04:49 Right. So these are people who, even before the Corona virus pandemic had been waiting months into Juana for, for the most part, these are people who are metered at port of entry. So they had to wait their turn to apply for asylum. And then ultimately when they were returned back to Mexico, they were given a court date back in the U S that, uh, they haven't been able to attend. And so some of these court dates, like I said in the feature, um, have now been extended well into 2021. Uh, people of course need to survive in the meantime during that amount of time. So they need to earn money, they need to find lodging, they need to, um, find education for their kids if possible, or at least childcare. And of course, because we're in such a dismal economic downturn all over the world, um, it's tough for them as well to even find work. So they're finding that they can't work to secure safe place to live or even to find food for their family. And on top of that, of course, the pandemic is still very much real in Tijuana, even more than in San Diego. So it's, it's dismal circumstances for them and very dire circumstances for when they do find work in the first place. Speaker 1: 05:59 Are any asylum hearings taking place in the U S right now? Speaker 3: 06:04 Yeah. If you were detained in the U S right now, there are hearings going on. So that means you're in ice detention. There are credible fear interviews. There's Rifaximin interviews. There are interviews taking place right now, but that's only if you are appearing by video from a detention center in the U S and of course these detention centers are coronavirus hotspots here in OTI Mesa. We have the largest outbreak in an ice detention center in the United States and until very recently, uh, the site of the only death of an ice detainee inside of an ice facility. So those people are still getting their asylum hearings. It's just the people who either have been sent back to Mexico, people who are out on bond, who are with their families or friends or sponsors and people who have been just banned from entering the country entirely who are no longer having asylum hearings. Speaker 1: 06:57 Now back in mid March when the asylum ban was ordered, coven 19 hadn't had much of an impact in Baja. So how did the Trump administration justify its belief that asylum seekers would bring in the disease? Speaker 3: 07:11 Yeah, so that's really interesting, right? Cause the timeline doesn't quite square root. The United States and mid-March was beginning. It's very upward climb and upward trajectory of coronavirus cases, whereas Mexico was still relatively low and you could look at the hotspots. These were places that had large international travel. Uh, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Mexico, just doesn't have that. Of course, a lot of its travelers over the border, uh, through from the U S to Mexico. So, um, a lot of times that's where the virus was actually coming from, from the U S into Mexico. And that was taking place just through normal transit as we see across the border every single day here, even though [inaudible] technically there is a slow down along the border, still traffic is going back and forth every day. Um, and then on top of that, people were being deported to central America who tested positive for Corona virus. So in the case of several central American countries, their presidents are now blaming the U S for bringing Corona virus to those countries through deportations. Um, so in terms of there being an actual justification at the time that asylum seekers, we're bringing Corona virus to the U S um, that, that in of itself doesn't really hold water. Looking back in hindsight, Speaker 1: 08:28 well now that Baja and Tijuana are dealing with a significant covert outbreak, supporters of the band must see that as proof that it was a good idea. But, but what have the courts said? Speaker 3: 08:39 The courts have not said anything. Um, mainly because this is a very difficult policy to challenge, right? You need a plaintiff. Um, sometimes if you don't have a plaintiff, you could be in an organization that wants to challenge this. These things take time. This is a novel use the CDC regulation. So lawyers are researching this on top of that. Um, courts are for the most part, closed federal courts in civil cases are still hearing them telephonically for the most part. So I wouldn't be surprised if this does get challenged soon enough. It just takes a long time for a legislature, for, for litigation like this to make it to a courtroom. Especially because this is so unprecedented. Speaker 1: 09:23 If the asylum ban is based on that CDC health warning, won't it have to be lifted after the covert 19 pandemic? Speaker 3: 09:31 Yeah, that's really just a question of discretion, right? Because it's based on the CDC health warning, but the CDC health warning itself is extremely general. It's whatever DHS would kind of designate as a place where Corona virus is running rampant. Um, that doesn't necessarily mean you're seeing, you know, massive amounts of numbers like you're seeing in Brazil or the U S it could mean that you're single low amount of numbers, but it's still has Corona virus. Right? We didn't, we didn't snuff out Ebola or SARS or MERS for several years afterwards. We just contained it and we're able to kind of mediate, um, risk based off of that. So it's really open to interpretation. And like I said before, I think litigation is what's ultimately going to have to decide whether this continues or not. Speaker 1: 10:21 Yeah. I've been speaking with KPBS reporter, max Rivlin, Nadler and max. Thank you so much. Speaker 3: 10:27 Thank you.

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.
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