US Is Using Pandemic as an Excuse to Send Asylum Seekers Back Into Harm’s Way

Fernanda* doesn’t know what to do. She fled Honduras with her husband and their toddler last year after death threats from gang members she says work with police officers in the family’s neighborhood to extort local businesses and workers. They made it more than 1,500 miles north, hoping to seek asylum in the United States, where Fernanda’s husband has an uncle who could provide them housing and support.

“We just want to be safe and work and contribute,” Fernanda told Truthout.

The family stopped for a while in northern Mexico, where Fernanda’s husband found temporary work. The news they received from asylum seekers ahead of them at the border was worrisome and confusing. People were being attacked. Hondurans were being sent to Guatemala. Sometimes no one could ask for asylum.

“They are always changing the rules,” Fernanda said.

For now, the family’s final leg of the route to the U.S. border is on hold. They are just trying to stay healthy, as the novel coronavirus is rapidly spreading in Mexico, which now has more than 5,000 related deaths, according to government figures. They still hope to be able to seek asylum in the U.S. at some point despite fears they could be deported to Honduras or sent to Guatemala.

COVID-19 Weaponized to Shut Down Borders

The Trump administration began pushing its agenda of shutting down asylum in the U.S. right out of the gate, and COVID-19 has now provided a new justification. Purportedly to protect public health, the government has essentially shut down asylum at the southern border with Mexico while the U.S. spreads the virus through deportations. Asylum deals with Central American nations are currently in limbo, but the administration could begin sending people to a third country, Honduras, at any time.

In 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security signed a series of bilateral agreements with security officials in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, including an asylum cooperative agreement (ACA) with each country. The agreements permit the U.S. to send asylum seekers of other nationalities to precisely those Central American countries that hundreds of thousands of citizens have been fleeing, and forcing them to seek asylum there instead or return home.

More than 900 Hondurans and Salvadorans were sent to Guatemala under the agreement between November 2019 and mid-March 2020, when implementation was suspended due to factors related to COVID-19, and the president of El Salvador said months prior that his country did not yet have any capacity to receive people under the third country deal. But implementation of the U.S.-Honduras asylum cooperative agreement could potentially begin at any time, following its publication on May 1 in the U.S. Federal Register.

“There are some reasons why the Trump administration might roll out some other ACAs like the Honduran ACA,” said Yael Schacher, senior U.S. advocate at Refugees International, a humanitarian and advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Together with Human Rights Watch, Refugees International just released a new report, “Deportation with a Layover,” that examines the U.S.-Guatemala asylum cooperative agreement. The May 19 report details rights violations and lack of protection at every step of the way, from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody to Guatemala. People are effectively compelled to abandon their asylum claims, according to the report, which notes only 20 of the 939 Hondurans and Salvadorans sent to Guatemala under the deal applied for asylum in Guatemala.

“We wanted to document how bad it was, the human rights violations, in Guatemala, because however bad it was in Guatemala, Honduras is going to be worse,” Schacher, one of the report’s authors, told Truthout. In Guatemala, a handful of asylum officers contend with a backlog and cumbersome process that requires high-level officials to sign off on each case, but Honduras has even less capacity to process asylum claims, said Schacher. Honduras is also more dangerous, with a higher murder rate, staggering levels of state violence and political repression, and high-level government involvement in drug trafficking.

For the time being, the Central American asylum deals appear to be on the back burner. The U.S. is using a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order authorizing the expulsion at the border of noncitizens without entry documents, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors. More than 20,000 people have been expelled since the initial CDC order in March covering a 30-day period that was then renewed.

“The administration is using this CDC order, which is ostensibly about protecting public health during the pandemic, to effectively eliminate asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst at Human Rights First, a human rights organization based in four U.S. cities.

“What that means is that CBP is not processing anyone who’s applying for asylum at the ports of entry and anyone who does cross the border between ports of entry is being expelled under the CDC order, either into Mexico or to their home countries,” Kizuka told Truthout.

The CDC expulsions join a long list of illegal and dangerous policies aimed at curtailing asylum, Human Rights First argues in a May 13 report titled “Pandemic as Pretext.” The report also provides an update on the group’s ongoing research into the devastating consequences of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – which, since January 2019, has forced thousands of predominantly Central American asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while awaiting U.S. immigration court hearings. There have been more than 1,000 reports of attacks – including kidnappings, rape and torture – against asylum seekers in Mexico subject to the MPP, and the CDC order is expelling thousands more people back into border areas where migrants and asylum seekers have been targeted.

The CDC order is currently in effect until May 20, but the restrictions could soon be extended indefinitely without the need for active renewal every month. The New York Times first reported on May 13 that the Trump administration is planning an indefinite extension by way of a new order that would keep the measures in place until the CDC director deems COVID-19 no longer a threat.

“Were the CDC to extend this order indefinitely, that seems to point even more solidly to the fact that this is a political decision and not one based in public health, because the administration has clearly been wanting to shut down asylum at the border for a long time and now they’ve found this pretext to do it,” said Kizuka.

“That’s at a time when people are still able to cross the border between the U.S. and Mexico to go to work or to school, to do essential activities, but CBP isn’t taking even basic precautions like requiring CBP officers to wear gloves and masks,” he said.

The potential indefinite extension also comes at a time when the U.S. has more total confirmed COVID-19 cases (over 1.5 million) and deaths (over 90,000) than any other country in the world, and has been propagating the global spread of the virus through deportations. More than 1,000 migrants and asylum seekers in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody have tested positive for COVID-19, but the percentage of detainees who have been tested is still single digit.

Deportees have subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 in Guatemala, Mexico and Haiti. Many more unreported cases are very likely, due to extremely limited testing in both ICE custody and home countries. Deportations began dropping in March in comparison to January and February and recent years, but throughout the pandemic, the U.S. has still been expelling and deporting thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to Latin America and the Caribbean. In April alone, the U.S. deported 1,307 Hondurans and 716 Guatemalans, according to government statistics in the two countries.

Guatemala has briefly suspended incoming U.S. deportation flights after confirming COVID-19 cases among returning migrants and asylum seekers. More than 100 deportees are among the country’s 2,001 total cases. Flights have resumed following U.S. commitments to step up monitoring and testing, but deportees have periodically continued to test positive upon arrival in Guatemala, even when carrying U.S.-issued paperwork claiming they did not have the virus.

“ICE is just not adequately testing people either in detention or before deportation,” said Schacher. “Guatemala’s the only country in Central America that’s sort of been pushing back on the Trump administration,” she told Truthout. “Other countries have not demanded what Guatemala has demanded, like the paperwork proving they’re negative for COVID.”

Schacher posits that ongoing Guatemalan pushback on deportations with regard to COVID-19 is one of a few scenarios that could potentially lead to implementation of the asylum cooperative agreement in Honduras amid the pandemic. The ACAs are more complicated than most U.S. policies and programs restricting asylum for a few reasons, not the least of which is their bilateral nature, and overall, the agreements are “really a relatively minor piece of this enormous enforcement plan at the border,” said Schacher.

The U.S. “has other tools in its toolbox to use. I think this is sort of a policy that it used when other policies failed,” she said. “The Trump administration turns to it when it’s in a lurch, when it’s in a bind with other policies,” Schacher added, explaining that U.S. pushes to move the ACAs forward have coincided with moments when implementation of other measures to restrict asylum have been at least temporarily hindered, particularly by litigation.

“If Guatemala puts up too much of a fuss and prevents the U.S. from deporting as many Guatemalans to Guatemala as it wants to because of the COVID [issue], I could see the U.S. just sending Guatemalans to Honduras under that ACA,” she said.

After months of U.S. and Honduran government indications that implementation of the ACA was just around the corner, there is now no clear timeline as to if or when that will happen beyond the recent official publication of the agreement paving its way. A court challenge against all three ACAs continues in the U.S., where Human Rights First, the American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigrant Justice Center and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies filed a federal lawsuit against the agreements in January.

“No one should be sent to Honduras,” said Fernanda. “If it were safe, we would not have left. We had no option.”

* Fernanda’s name has been changed to protect her identity.