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Failure to fix immigration undermines our ability to mitigate COVID-19

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As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the country and the globe, the Trump administration has enacted a series of travel restrictions with other countries and new measures targeting asylum seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border to combat the crisis. 

Although President Trump has claimed that these measures would mitigate the crisis by stopping “mass global migration” that purportedly spreads COVID-19, they overlook the systemic problems in our health care infrastructure that failed to contain the virus in the country. 

Unfortunately, this approach repeats the same mistakes of the administration’s asylum policies at the U.S.-Mexico border by focusing on prevention and not the system’s capacity to deal with a medical and immigration crisis. 

Over the last year, the administration has relied on agreements with other countries to stem the flow of migrants at the southwest border. The “Remain in Mexico” program and the asylum agreement with Guatemala, for example, both allow asylum seekers to be whisked from the border to either wait for a hearing or seek asylum elsewhere. Although these programs led to a decline in arrivals at the Southwest border, the administration did not use that moment to fix the immigration system’s problems. 

These problems are legion. The immigration court system, which processes asylum cases, continues to be underfunded and understaffed, creating years-long backlogs for these cases. Customs and Border Protection’s infrastructure continues to lack the capacity to receive and process vulnerable populations like families and children with appropriate medical and humanitarian care.

Finally, the Department of Homeland Security does not have protocols for coordinating processing or managing the transfer of asylum seekers across its agencies or to the Department of Health and Human Services, nor to surge resources at the border to provide humanitarian assistance when needed.  

These issues have limited the ability of the system to respond to the health crisis. Migrants in detention facilities face exposure to the virus if an employee contracts the virus and spreads it to their coworkers and detainees. The squalid conditions in the migrant camps on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border also create similar risks, since many migrants do not have access to facilities to take preventative hygiene measures such as washing their hands. And CBP still has to encounter and process arriving migrants in its facilities with limited ability to provide medical care and screening, putting both migrants and CBP agents at risk.  

The administration had not taken any meaningful, bipartisan steps to address these institutional problems before the pandemic, creating a two-front battle for the immigration system. Immigration advocates have called ending the Migrant Protection Protocols and releasing migrants in detention to avoid these medical issues. Without institutional and procedural changes that would allow the asylum and border systems to manage the incoming migrants, however, these steps would merely recreate the 2018 and 2019 border crisis.  

First, ending MPP would reinitiate the same crisis because we have not constructed enough new border infrastructure to receive vulnerable populations or boosted resources for asylum adjudications and immigration courts to manage a significantly higher volume of cases.

Ending migrant detention would compound this problem, especially if DHS released asylum seekers in the United States without viable alternatives for their medical care and appropriate conditions of release to ensure future appearance at immigration court.

And while Alternatives to Detention programs could mitigate some of these problems, the inability to deploy such measures on a large scale overnight would mean that more migrants would be released into the United States without any oversight by authorities. Without an end-to-end overhaul of our immigration system, these proposed measures would not help with addressing the current pandemic or ensuring that the asylum system operates fairly and efficiently. 

A smart response would recognize the need to fix the long-term problems with the immigration system while taking short-term measures to address the public health crisis. In the case of MPP, the United States and Mexico must immediately work with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the Red Cross, and UNICEF to set up proper refugee camps on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border that provides migrants with facilities to meet their health needs.

ICE should immediately surge health care resources to detention facilities and consider release for those who have underlying health conditions that would make them more susceptible to the coronavirus, with necessary monitoring and check-ins.  

While these short-term measures would not resolve the problem tomorrow, they would address the immediate challenges while buying time for the government to solve the structural problems in the system. Given the stakes, the administration and Congress cannot delay in fixing these problems to strengthen the immigration system and its ability to help contain the pandemic. 

Cristobal Ramón is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center

Tags Asylum seeker Donald Trump Illegal immigration to the United States Immigration Mexico–United States border Trump administration migrant detentions

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