On March 8, 2020, I arrived in El Paso, Texas with a group of classmates and professors from Georgetown University. We were on our spring break and traveling to the border for a course on refugee and migrant children. As an International Politics major with a minor in Latin American Studies, I was interested to see what the immigration and asylum policies I’d been learning about in class actually looked like on the ground. Little did I know that just a few days later, the university would ask students to return to our permanent residences due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and several days after that, the southern border would be closed to all non-essential travel. Now, as a summer PR intern with NICE, I’ve had the chance to reflect on my experience at the border and to see how COVID-19 has intersected with immigration policy to affect asylum seekers both at the border and in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.
My trip to the border in that liminal moment was a glimpse into a system reckoning with old policy failures in light of new public health challenges. For many of the individuals we spoke with, from lawyers, to non-profit leaders, to government officials on both sides of the border, fears of the looming COVID-19 outbreak were intertwined with broader concerns about US immigration policies that were exacerbating the danger to asylum seekers. Principle among them were the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” Program.
The Remain in Mexico Program began in early 2019 and allows the US to return non-Mexican asylum seekers to locations in Mexico while their claims are adjudicated in US immigration courts. This policy has been challenged by many groups on the grounds that it denies asylum seekers the right to due process. It is very difficult for migrants to access US legal assistance while waiting in Mexico, leaving them to navigate the immigration court system without any form of legal defense or guidance. The program is also criticized for endangering the migrants who are returned to Mexico. As clear outsiders in Mexican border communities, asylum seekers are considered easy targets for organized crime and are especially vulnerable to experience kidnapping, exploitation, and lack of basic necessities while living in precarious camps along the border. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court found the policy to be in violation of federal and international law, but in early March the Supreme Court allowed the program to continue.
Now, public health concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic have made the situation even more dangerous. In early May, Refugees International reported on an encampment of asylum seekers in Matamoros, a city on the Mexican side of the border adjacent to Brownsville, Texas. The camp shelters 1,500 to 3,000 residents who are mostly from Central America, Cuba, and Venezuela. Humanitarian aid providers have been preparing for an outbreak of the virus in the camp, but social isolation is nearly impossible due to overcrowded living conditions and shared toilets and showers. At the end of April, a field hospital was set up at the edge of the camp to treat patients with COVID-19. The first case in the camp was reported in late June, and the city of Matamoros has the second largest outbreak in the state of Tamaulipas. Many fear that it is only a matter of time before an outbreak in the camp occurs, overwhelming the meager health infrastructure and endangering the lives of at-risk asylum seekers.
What’s more, the pandemic has also created chaos for an already backlogged asylum system. In El Paso, a lawyer explained to us that her clients often wait months for their court date, and a series of asylum hearings and appeals can sometimes take years in total. Without a permanent mailing address to receive court notices, migrants who have been returned to Mexico often have trouble figuring out when their court dates are or when postponed hearings have been rescheduled. Now, asylum office and immigration court closures due to COVID-19 safety concerns have placed these asylum seekers in limbo, not knowing when courts will re-open or when their next hearing will be.
The fate of asylum-seekers who never get their day in court is even more chilling. On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled that asylum-seekers whose claims are initially denied by immigration officials have no right to a hearing before a judge. This allows for rapid deportation of asylum seekers who are unable to initially prove to immigration officials that they have a credible fear of persecution in their country of origin. Amid a global pandemic, mass deportations are not only cruel, but also undermine public health: according to the New York Times, nearly a fifth of Guatemala’s COVID-19 cases are linked to deportees from the US.
At the border, my classmates and I learned that the COVID-19 pandemic poses a dire threat to immigrants and asylum seekers precisely because of the harmful immigration policies implemented long before the public health crisis began. The Remain in Mexico Program is one such policy that has forced migrants into precarious living conditions and stripped many of their rights to due process and non-refoulement. A chaotic asylum system and expedited deportations have also amplified the security and health concerns that migrants face. Just as the pandemic has highlighted racial and economic disparities in US cities, it has also further exposed the cracks in a dehumanizing and ineffective immigration system.
Growing up in Nashville, I have seen how immigrants and refugees are a vital part of our city. NICE serves asylees arriving in Nashville from Latin America, and many of these newcomers have gone on to help the Nolensville Pike area thrive by opening businesses, sharing their cultural heritage, and contributing to a strong and resilient community ecosystem. Going forward, we must acknowledge the humanitarian crisis occurring at the southern border, defend the right to asylum for those fleeing persecution, and work to build a system that better protects those seeking refuge in the US.