Trump Administration Expands Public Health Pretext to Block Asylum-Seekers

New proposed rules paradoxically ban people from places with high incidence of COVID-19, even as the United States leads the world in number of cases

WASHINGTON – Human Rights First condemns the Trump administration’s latest anti-asylum rule, slated to be issued on July 9, banning asylum-seekers and people seeking other humanitarian protections on the pretext of public health. This renewed attack on asylum extends the administration’s ongoing illegal efforts to block asylum-seekers under the guise of an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19 that public health experts have decried as specious and lacking a public health justification.

“Once again the Trump administration is citing public health as an excuse to violate U.S. asylum law and treaty obligations in order to bar people seeking safety in the United States,” said Anwen Hughes, deputy legal director at Human Rights First. “This new rule flies in the face of our legal obligations to asylum seekers and seems to lack any real public health justification. Perversely, under this rule, asylum-seeking doctors, nurses and other essential personnel risking their lives in the pandemic response could be denied all forms of refugee protection in the United States merely because they have come into contact with COVID-19. As we have seen in recent Supreme Court and lower court rulings, failure to offer even a plausible justification for anti-immigrant policies has not worked out well for the administration.”

This rule could, among other harmful actions:

  • Bar from asylum (and the lesser withholding of removal relief) asylum-seeking nurses, doctors, health aides, cleaners and other essential personnel who have “come into contact with” COVID-19 while risking their lives in the pandemic response in the United States;
  • Bar asylum-seekers from refugee protections who have fallen ill from COVID-19 while in the United States waiting for an asylum hearing, including asylum-seekers who contract coronavirus in ICE detention centers;
  • Bar asylum-seekers from refugee protection merely because they recently came from a country other than the United States where COVID-19 is prevalent, even if they have a well-founded fear of persecution;
  • Block asylum-seekers coming to U.S. airports, land ports of entry, or after crossing the border from requesting protection, if they were recently in a country where COVID-19 is prevalent, such as Russia, Brazil, El Salvador, even if they are not in fact infected;
  • Block asylum-seekers who are determined during preliminary screenings to face torture if returned to their country from requesting U.S. protection before an immigration judge and transfer them to third countries;
  • Allow the administration to potentially extend the ban to other diseases, including treatable conditions like gonorrhea, syphilis and TB, to block even more asylum-seekers;

The public will have only 30 days to comment on the proposed rule.

As Human Rights First described in its recent report, “Pandemic as Pretext,” the Trump administration has exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to carry out its long-held ambition to eliminate humanitarian protections for asylum-seekers at the southern border in violation of U.S. law and treaty obligations to refugees. This proposed regulation, which is not limited to border arrivals, would vastly and permanently extend these efforts to eviscerate asylum, once again under the guise of public health, to all asylum-seekers, even those already within the United States.


Published on July 8, 2020


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