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As seen through fencing, migrants—including a young child—stand while being detained by Department of Homeland Security police after crossing to the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier, on June 27, 2019 in El Paso, Texas.

As seen through fencing, migrants—including a young child—stand while being detained by Department of Homeland Security police after crossing to the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier, on June 27, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Trump Accused of 'Weaponizing' Pandemic as Administration Weighs Extending Ban on Border Asylum Claims Indefinitely

"This ban was never about the pandemic, and it was never about public health."

Eoin Higgins

A reported move by the White House to indefinitely extend restrictions on crossing the border is generating accusations that President Donald Trump is "weaponizing" the coronavirus pandemic crisis to pursue the most radical elements of his anti-immigration agenda. 

An order under review by the administration would extend Centers for Disease Control (CDC) restrictions on nonessential travel between the U.S. and Mexico and the U.S. and Canada, a move that would cut off migrants seeking asylum from making their claims to the humanitarian protection.

"The Trump administration must end this racist and hateful policy, which has already sent thousands of people into danger and attacked the fundamental right to seek safety," Amnesty International's advocacy director for the Americas Charanya Krishnaswami said in a statement. "Racism, xenophobia, and discrimination won't make people in this country safe from the Covid-19 pandemic."

The proposed order's existence was first reported on Wednesday evening by the New York Times, which noted the plan was "part of a broad effort, led by Stephen Miller, the architect of President Trump's immigration agenda, to aggressively use public health laws to reduce immigration as the government battles the virus."

According to the Times:

Once issued by Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the CDC, the border restrictions would stay in effect until he decides the virus no longer poses a threat. The indefinite extension comes even as Mr. Trump has repeatedly pushed for states to reopen their economies, arguing that the threat from the virus will quickly recede.


While C.D.C. officials will review the dangers posed by the virus to the American public every 30 days, the new order essentially means that the border will be closed to immigrants until Mr. Redfield explicitly says otherwise—not the other way around.

The news of the proposed order, said Krishnaswami, proves that the "ban was never about the pandemic, and it was never about public health."

"The Trump administration is weaponizing Covid-19 to achieve the policy objective it's sought from day one: shutting the border to people seeking safety," she added.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that only two people seeking humanitarian asylum have been allowed to do so since the initial order on March 21. 

The administration justified the restrictions to the Post as being based in concerns for public health:

Department of Homeland Security officials say the emergency protocols are needed to protect Americans — and migrants — by reducing the number of detainees in U.S. Border Patrol holding cells and immigration jails where infection spreads easily. But the administration has yet to publish statistics showing the impact of the measures on the thousands of migrants who arrive in the United States each year as they flee religious, political or ethnic persecution, gang violence or other urgent threats.

Immigrant rights advocates like immigration law scholar Lucas Guttentag, however, were not buying the White House argument.

"The whole purpose of asylum law is to give exhausted, traumatized, and uninformed individuals a chance to get to a full hearing in U.S. immigration courts, and this makes that almost impossible," Guttentag told the Post. "It's a shameful farce."

Bottom line, said Amnesty's Krishnaswami, is that upholding human rights shouldn't be subject to the whims of the president and his hardline advisors.

"Every person has the right to seek safety, especially during a pandemic," said Krishnaswami. "Attempts by this administration to dismantle that basic right won't fix the administration's failures in responding to the pandemic early and efficiently."

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