By Amanda Bhuket
While our national attention has been consumed by the myriad health and safety issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests against police brutality, and the use of force against peaceful protesters by unidentified federal immigration agents, the Trump administration has been playing fast and loose with our asylum system.
Since shelter-in-place began, the Department of Homeland Security has used the pandemic as a pretext to effectively close the southern border to asylum seekers through a rarely-used public health statute. While doing nothing to protect asylum seekers, border officials, or the general public, the shutdown poses dire consequences for the thousands awaiting their right to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. The COVID-induced border closure – which public health experts have condemned as unjustified and unnecessary – has since been extended indefinitely and has resulted in the automatic expulsion of over 40,000 asylum seekers since March.
Now, the Trump administration wants to dismantle our asylum system even further by codifying these inhumane policies permanently into law. The proposed change will allow for the automatic denial of asylum to any individual in the U.S. who has contracted the virus — and for the automatic denial at the border if they hail from or have passed through a country where COVID-19 exists.
As an immigration attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in asylum law, I have a front row seat to how these policies would be devastating for asylum seekers in the Bay Area and beyond. Nearly every single individual seeking asylum would be threatened with expulsion under these new regulations, violating our duties under domestic and international law.
My clients, most of whom never would have made it to the Bay Area under the current border shutdown, have continued working at their jobs in the service industry throughout the pandemic in spite of the higher risk of infection among black and brown communities. And it’s not like they’ve had a choice. Being that asylum seekers are ineligible to receive public benefits, my clients have no other option but to find work in order to provide for their own basic needs — even if it means doing so without authorization, and even if it means putting their lives on the line to do so.
Most of my clients are from Central and South America who arrive here after long and arduous journeys to escape violence, persecution, and torture seeking asylum from these dangerous conditions. The ramifications of being sent home are deadly.
The proposed rule won’t do anything to protect our nation’s public health. It is simply another attempt by this administration to deny asylum seekers the protections they deserve by any means necessary. Such a rule would represent the height of hypocrisy for a country with the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide. While the presence of the virus can easily be detected through testing, the spread avoided through quarantine, and hopes for a vaccination continue to grow, such a drastic measure is completely unnecessary and belies an underlying animus toward asylum seekers that has been at the forefront of this administration’s immigration policy since the very beginning.
Perhaps even more menacingly, the proposed rule is written in such a way that it could be applied more broadly to other medical conditions in the future, including treatable conditions like gonorrhea, syphilis and tuberculosis.
This is not who we are as a nation nor who we should aspire to be. While California has led the nation in supporting the rights of undocumented immigrants by declaring itself a sanctuary state, the title does little to protect the thousands of asylum seekers in the Bay Area community from the draconian measures taken by this administration to rewrite our asylum laws.
We must continue fighting for asylum seekers in our community on all fronts. The public can submit comment to oppose this rule by August 10th. Congress must call on the administration to lift the restrictions at the border, resume the processing of asylum seekers waiting for an opportunity to submit their claims, and demand that the administration rescind the proposed rules affecting asylum seekers. The lives of thousands of asylum seekers, many of them Bay Area residents, depend on it.
Amanda Bhuket is the senior immigrant justice attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF).