The Impact of COVID-19 on the Human Rights of Migrants in the United States

Human Rights First’s Submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants

This submission principally focuses on policies and practices implemented by the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic that violate refugee and human rights law, endanger asylum seekers, and use the pandemic as a specious excuse to subvert U.S. and international refugee law. Under the guise of policies purportedly adopted by the Trump administration to address the pandemic, the U.S. government under the Biden administration continues to violate U.S. law and international treaty obligations by denying asylum seekers access to the U.S. asylum system subjecting many to refoulement to their countries of persecution or to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened. Legal guidelines issued by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) during the pandemic warned that denial of access to asylum without safeguards to protect against non-refoulement cannot be justified on the basis of public health.[i] In May 2021, UNHCR urged the United States to restore access to asylum in line with international legal and human rights obligations.”[ii]

Additionally, the Biden administration continues to further endanger asylum seekers by subjecting them to unnecessary and arbitrary detention during the pandemic. The prior failure of the Trump administration to release migrants and asylum seekers from crowded immigration detention centers resulted in preventable transmission, severe illness, and needless deaths, including at least 10 reported deaths in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody due to COVID-19. [iii] Since May 2021, COVID-19 cases have again spiked in ICE detention centers due in part to the agency’s continued failure to release migrants and implement widespread vaccination.[iv] The Biden administration has also continued Trump-era policies implemented during the pandemic that prevent refugees from integrating and naturalizing in the United States.

This document draws on Human Rights First’s experience representing, researching, and advocating for refugees seeking humanitarian protections in the United States.


[i] UNHCR, Key Legal Considerations on access to territory for persons in need of international protection in the context of the COVID-19 response, March 16, 2020,

[ii] UNHCR, Statement attributable to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on the need to end US COVID-19 asylum restrictions, May 20, 2021, available at

[iii] American Immigration Lawyers Association, Deaths at Adult Detention Centers, March 17, 2021, available at; Catherine E. Soichet, The Death Toll in ICE Custody is the Highest It’s Been in 15 Years, CNN, September 30, 2020, available at

[iv] Daniel Gonzalez & Maria Clark, COVID-19 cases spiking again at some ICE detention centers. Critics say ICE failed to vaccinate detainees, Arizona Republic, May 27, 2021, available at


Published on June 15, 2021


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