Faced with coronavirus pandemic, Trump suspends immigration laws and presents his vision of a locked border

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Citing the threat of “massive and uncontrolled cross-border movements,” the president set aside safeguards to protect victims of trafficking and persecuted groups, implementing an expulsion order that returns migrants of all ages to Mexico. on average 96 minutes. US border patrol officers do not perform medical checks when they meet people crossing the country.

Homeland security officials say the measures are necessary to protect U.S. officials, healthcare workers and the general public from the coronavirus. Tightening border controls and preventing the flow of potentially infected populations to the United States minimizes the number of inmates in US immigration jails and border cells.

At a time when a large part of the nation is locked, they say, strict border controls are an essential public health response, as each unguarded passage potentially exposes American communities to what Trump has called an “invisible enemy” “

“Our country’s top health officials are extremely concerned about the serious public health consequences of massive and uncontrolled cross-border movements,” said Trump last month when he announced new immigration restrictions.

The border with Mexico and the huge steel barrier the president built there – still under constant construction during the crisis – remain key campaign issues for the president. During White House pandemic briefings, Trump repeatedly raised his border wall project without prompting, and touted construction progress, overestimating the number of miles traveled by crews as he says that he keeps his 2016 campaign promise.

Trump has for years attacked US immigration laws as too lenient, and the global pandemic has allowed the President to abandon many policies and legal protections he calls “the worst immigration laws of all time” ” Instead, he created a pilot test for the impact of the harsher measures he has long advocated.

The most immediate impacts are that migrants who cross the US border illegally are no longer taken to border crossings where they would be able to apply for humanitarian protection and gain access to the US immigration courts; and some unaccompanied minors who would generally benefit from protection and shelter are also deported.

“We are dismayed at the way things are managed,” said Linda Rivas, director of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center at El Paso.

Some migrant advocates say they fear Trump will soon lift emergency measures once the coronavirus epidemic is no longer a crisis.

“The border has always been a symbol in his broader world view of dangers from the outside,” said Andrew Selee, director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The coronavirus may disappear, but you may see these measures stay in place long after the epidemic recurs. “

Illegal crossings plunge

In the past 10 days, illegal crossings along the Mexican border have dropped by almost 40%, returning to the lowest levels of Trump’s presidency, according to preliminary accounts from senior customs and protection officials. borders, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to publicly discuss trends.

Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declaration of emergency, homeland security officials bypassed due process guarantees ordered by the courts for minors, asylum seekers and others as they return border workers in Mexico as quickly as possible. Migrants in detention are now counted as “meetings” rather than “apprehensions” and they are “expelled” from the country rather than officially expelled.

CBP officials say their marching orders are to return the migrants as quickly as possible to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus. After performing a quick criminal background check, officers collect migrants’ biometric information at outdoor stations before loading it into vans and taking them to Mexico.

Under normal circumstances, migrant minors arriving without a parent receive protection under US anti-trafficking laws; they are usually routed to shelters in the Department of Health and Social Services until they can be safely placed with family members or guardians. Under Trump’s emergency orders, the miners are expelled quickly from the country, some of them returning to Central America. Those arriving with an adult grandparent or brother are deported as part of a family group, despite the fact that the United States government has for years insisted on a strict definition of family which is limited to biological parents and their parents. minor children.

On Thursday, the CBP did not refer any children to shelters supervised by the office of the HHS Refugee Resettlement Office, for the first time in recent memory, according to ORR.

Asylum seekers – those who say they are fleeing persecution in other countries – should normally make their case before the courts. Some of them would be allowed to stay in the United States, some would wait in Mexico, and some would be sent to other countries to seek asylum there. It is this category of migrants that caused a historic push at the border last year, and it is now even more likely that these migrants will be returned to countries they are fleeing or returned without due process.

Asked to clarify the circumstances under which emergency health orders – known as Title 42 – are applied, CBP declined to respond, saying the information would be used to circumvent the nation’s immigration efforts .

“If specific circumstances guaranteeing exemptions from the eviction of Title 42 were to be made public, they would be exploited by smugglers,” said Matthew Dyman, spokesperson for CBP.

According to an internal note obtained by ProPublica, migrants would not be eligible for expulsion orders if they “make an affirmative, spontaneous and reasonably credible assertion, fearing that they will be tortured in the country to which they are returned.”

In these cases, officers must seek the approval of their supervisors before bringing an asylum seeker to a border patrol facility, in accordance with the new rules, dubbed “Operation Capio”.

“This is an anomaly,” said a CBP official who was not allowed to speak publicly about the measures. “The standard is not applicable in this environment under these circumstances. “

Selee said the administration may be slow to lift emergency measures even after the pandemic ends. Governments around the world that have struggled with a spike in asylum claims could use the pandemic as a “back door” to toughen immigration laws and apply other restrictions, he said, “because it is more difficult to question a health reason ”.

When he announced the new restrictions last month, Trump cited the threat of “mass global migration that would severely deplete the health care resources needed by our people.” Mexico has so far confirmed less than 1,500 positive cases of the virus, less than 1% of the number in the United States, but tests are not widely available. Many countries have seen significant peaks of coronavirus cases just weeks after discovering their first, as happened in the United States.

“Every week, our border officials encounter thousands of unfiltered, uncontrolled and unauthorized entries from dozens of countries. And we’ve had this problem for decades, “said Trump. “Normally, these massive flows place a heavy burden on our health care system, but during a global pandemic they threaten to create a perfect storm that would spread infection to our border officials, migrants and the general public. . Without control, it would cripple our immigration system, overwhelm our health care system, and seriously damage our national security. “

Despite the recent drop in level crossings, CBP officials and border officials say they fear a rush to the border if Mexican hospitals are overwhelmed, especially in major border cities such as Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana which house millions of people, many of whom work in cramped assembly plants. The economic damage caused by the pandemic is expected to trigger millions of layoffs in Mexico and Central America, potentially creating new immigration pressures.

Encouraged to leave

US and Mexican officials say they are cooperating closely to secure the border. In an extraordinary move, Mexico accepts the return of adults and families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who are “expelled”.

The Mexican government has said it will accept these returns on a case-by-case basis, but in practice they take almost everyone from these three countries in addition to Mexican nationals, according to CBP officials. The four countries represent more than 85% of people who cross the border illegally into the United States.

US and Mexican border officials have also restricted traffic at international bridges to essential travelers and commerce. Humanitarian groups have urged migrants to leave border camps and settle in areas with better sanitary and sanitary conditions.

Mexican nationals and those expelled from the United States in recent days have been quickly loaded onto buses and taken to other Mexican states, according to lawyers and lawyers. It is unclear whether people were encouraged or forced to board the buses, but Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities said it was part of a larger campaign by Mexican immigration officials to cross the border. border.

“The Mexican government wants to encourage people to leave and tell them it’s best to go,” said Pimentel.

Migrants said they were concerned about the coronavirus epidemic, but did not feel they had many options. They do not want to leave the border area and miss appointments once the US immigration courts resume operations – whenever that happens. They said they feared that the Mexican authorities would mainly force migrants from Central America to board the buses without knowing where they are going.

In Ciudad Juárez, migrants enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols program – known as “Staying in Mexico” – continue to arrive at US ports of entry in the early hours of the morning, unaware that their hearing dates were postponed because the court was suspended.

Rivas, of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, said migrants were at risk of being exposed waiting on bridges, where social distancing is impossible. Asylum seekers cannot be guaranteed a new hearing without walking to the bridge because the authorities have not collected addresses or created a system to serve legal documents or notices to migrants awaiting migration to Mexico she said.

“It’s nonsense,” said Rivas. “We give them a piece of paper and tell them to leave. “

Everyone – sick children, disabled asylum seekers and migrants from protected groups who are entitled to assistance – is rejected at ports of entry after the federal government effectively closed the border to immigrants, a said Rivas.

Juarez shelters are at high risk of spreading the coronavirus, she said, and lawyers have to make life and death decisions with their clients.

“We are going to be blindfolded as we try to plead because the border patrol is not clear on their criteria,” said Rivas.

Refugee Health Alliance doctor Hannah Janeway has worked closely with shelters to prepare for the virus, but confined conditions and space will make it almost impossible to stop the spread. Shelters are difficult to keep clean, residents may not have regular access to showers, and space to quarantine high-risk migrants is limited. The local Mexican health system is also taxed.

We have created this border situation where thousands of people in these shelters are waiting for their number to be called, ”she said. “If people get sick in the shelters, their death will be our fault. They are in these conditions which will eventually lead them to their death or a serious disability. And why? Because they were afraid enough to leave the only country they knew, to seek refuge. “

Miroff reported from Washington.

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