Human Rights First Calls for Revocation of New Rule That Uses COVID-19 as Pretext to Deny Asylum and Other Protection

WASHINGTON – Human Rights First urges immediate rescission of a new regulation to be published tomorrow by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice that would deny asylum and other life-saving protection to people seeking refuge who have been exposed to COVID-19 or passed through countries where COVID-19 or certain other disease are prevalent. We join leading public health experts in condemning policies like this rule which are “xenophobia masquerading as a public health measure.”

“Like the secretive expulsions of children and asylum seekers at the border, this rule is another cruel and illegal effort that exploits the pandemic to deny refuge to families, adults and children seeking life-saving protection,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection. “The incoming Biden administration should rescind this rule which is inconsistent with American values, flagrantly violates U.S. refugee law and treaties, and perverts the language of public health to endanger the lives of people seeking protection.”

“This rule does nothing to safeguard health; it will only endanger lives by sending people seeking asylum from Cameroon, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela and other places back to persecution, violence and other harms. Once again, the Trump administration is using the pandemic as a ploy to push its draconian immigration policies, spinning a false narrative that Americans must choose between protecting their own health and protecting the persecuted. Rather than presenting this false choice, American authorities should use evidence-based health measures to safely manage these cases.”

On August 6, in response to the July 9 proposed rule, 171 leading medical and public health experts wrote to Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and Attorney General William Barr to express “grave concerns” about the rule which, “ignores and misuses the science and core principles of public health” and “would undermine public health,” explaining that “public health cannot justify this discriminatory policy that imperils the lives of people seeking protection in the United States.” The experts warned that the proposed rule, like the March 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order used by DHS to expel children and asylum seekers at the border, is “xenophobia masquerading as a public health measure.” Instead, these health experts urged U.S. authorities to adopt measures grounded in the best available public health guidance (outlined in the letter and backgrounder cited below) “to protect U.S. border officers, those exercising their legal right to request protection in the United States, and the public health of our nation.”

More than 5,000 individuals and organizations, including Human Rights First, submitted comments in response to the July 9 proposed rule.

On May 18, more than 40 public health experts at leading public health schools, medical schools, and hospitals wrote to HHS Secretary Azar and CDC Director Redfield to urge rescission of the March CDC order, concluding that “[T]he nation’s public health laws should not be used as a pretext for overriding humanitarian laws and treaties that provide life-saving protections to refugees seeking asylum and unaccompanied children.” The public health experts recommended that “[R]ather than imposing a ban or suspension on people seeking protection from harm, U.S. authorities should use evidence-based public health measures to process asylum seekers and other persons crossing the U.S. border.” Such measures are detailed in this backgrounder.

On December 21, 2020, public health experts issued updated recommendations for safely processing asylum cases, reiterating that “[I]nstead of bans, expulsions and asylum denials, the Biden administration should employ science-based public health measures at borders to protect the health of the American public, U.S. border officers, communities on both sides of the border and the lives of those seeking refuge, safety and freedom.”

“This is just another politicized attempt to evade U.S. asylum laws to turn away people seeking asylum in this country” Acer added, “In its final days, the Trump administration is – yet again – doing absolutely everything it can to attempt to rewrite refugees laws enacted by Congress, trample on U.S. treaty obligations and run roughshod over U.S. administrative law.”

To learn more about the impact of the expulsion policy on asylum seekers and children expelled to danger, read Human Rights First’s new report “Humanitarian Disgrace: U.S. Continues to Illegally Block, Expel Refugees to Danger.” Human Rights First has also made in-depth policy recommendations to the next administration to address U.S. refugee protection challenges.


Published on December 22, 2020


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