(NEW YORK) — As the United States increasingly becomes the epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic, its neighbors in Mexico and Central America are urging new steps to prevent the virus’ spread to their populations, including a halt to deportations and increased security along the southern U.S. border — an ironic turn under President Donald Trump, who has made a border wall his political calling card.
But instead of heeding those calls, the Trump administration continues to deport migrants — including an increasing number of unaccompanied minors — and return asylum seekers across the border to Mexico to wait for their day in U.S. immigration court — even after at least one man deported back to Guatemala tested positive for COVID-19, the name of the disease from the virus.
“Deportees arrive every day, risking further spread of COVID-19 infection in Central America and straining the limited resources of Central American governments that are preparing health systems to attend to an already vulnerable population,” said Meg Galas, Northern Central America director for the International Rescue Committee, an aid organization that supports deported migrants, particularly in El Salvador.
The U.S. has over 245,000 COVID-19 cases, with the numbers growing exponentially. That dwarfs the outbreaks sprouting up to the south, with 1,378 in Mexico, 219 in Honduras, 47 in Guatemala and 41 in El Salvador as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Trump and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador spoke on March 21 after their administrations agreed to restrict border crossings to essential travel only, in particular for trade and public health services.
Five Mexican states share a border with the U.S., and during a teleconference with Mexico’s foreign and interior ministers on Wednesday, several of their governors urged the federal government to implement more restrictions on travel from the U.S. and to warn Mexican citizens in the U.S. not to return or “risk” endangering “their families in their cities of origin,” said Tamaulipas Gov. Francisco Javier Garcia Cabeza de Vaca.
The Mexican consulate in Dallas did just that Wednesday, issuing an alert to “highly” recommend citizens in the U.S. “stay at home and avoid all types of international travel, including to Mexico.”
But the Trump administration continues to force asylum seekers of all nationalities back across the border into Mexico to wait there for their cases to be adjudicated. The Supreme Court ruled on March 11 that the policy — which the administration titled the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” but is often called “Remain in Mexico” — could continue ahead of a final ruling on its legality.
Since the policy’s implementation in January 2019, some 60,000 asylum seekers have been sent back across the border, but with removals continuing apace, governors like Garcia Cabeza de Vaca are increasingly concerned newly displaced migrants could bring COVID-19 with them, spreading the virus like wildfire through their cramped, difficult living conditions.
“We have to find a way to give (migrants) dignified and humane treatment as well as adequate medical services because if they become contagious, especially in border cities, they can generate serious problems where they concentrate,” Garcia Cabeza de Vaca said Wednesday, according to his office.
All hearings for Migrant Protection Protocols asylum seekers have been postponed through May 1, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
In addition to moving migrants back across the border into Mexico, the Trump administration announced on March 20 that it would remove, “without delay,” any foreign nationals arriving on U.S. territory “without documentation,” according to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, citing orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect the U.S. public. Under U.S. law and international treaties, the U.S. has to hear any asylum seeker’s case, but this order would allow asylum seekers to be immediately removed.
The U.S. has not yet released data that would show if that has increased the number of removals. But 95 minors, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, were deported to Guatemala in March, for example, according to Guatemala’s migration agency — over four-times as many as in February and nearly six-times as in January, at 23 and 16, respectively. Deportation of these unaccompanied minors seems to violate a decades-old legal protection for migrant children.
Many of the migrants deported by the Trump administration are also not citizens of the country they’re deported to, after the administration finalized agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to deport any asylum seeker who passed through their territory back, regardless of their country of origin.
Critics say those deals violate U.S. obligations under international law, endangering asylum seekers by returning them to countries racked by violence and poverty and no ability to receive them — particularly in a time of pandemic, when their already impoverished health systems are stretching thin and their governments have issued nationwide lockdowns.
As the number of COVID-19 cases rise across the U.S., these deportation flights run the risk of carrying infected migrants to one of these countries — with that fear coming true for the first time this week. A Guatemalan man who was detained on March 5 and deported to his home country on March 26 had no fever or other symptoms at the time, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson, but he was later confirmed to have the deadly virus — potentially putting other migrants on the deportation flight at risk.
Knowing how vulnerable their populations are amid burgeoning deadly outbreaks, the governments of all three countries have urged the U.S. to halt deportations. But they have little leverage to battle an American administration intent on reducing all forms of immigration to the U.S. and willing to use financial assistance, which all three countries depend on, as a weapon.
Guatemalan authorities pushed back over two weeks ago, demanding that deportation flights stop. But after consulting with U.S. authorities, they allowed them to continue, but only for Guatemalan citizens and after “adequate health protocols are established,” the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 17.
The ICE spokesperson told ABC News the agency works with foreign governments and through the State Department to address the impact of “world events,” like the coronavirus pandemic, but deportations are continuing.
“ICE’s expectation is that each country will continue to meet its international obligation to accept its own nationals. Currently, repatriation flights to Central America are ongoing, however, the situation is fluid and changing every day,” they said, adding that the agency conducts a “visual screening” of detainees and ensures they have a temperature below 100.4 degrees before deporting them.
With up to 25% of COVID-19 patients not showing symptoms, according to the CDC, it’s unclear if that is enough.
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