Closing the Borders Won't Flatten The Curve—If Anything, It's Making Things Worse | Opinion

COVID is changing everything, but here is one thing that is not changing: the U.S. retreat from its world-leading role in responding to humanitarian crises and welcoming refugees. The administration's latest immigration policies are undoubtedly cruel, but they may also exacerbate the COVID crisis by endangering public health in the U.S. and south of the border.

In late March, the administration issued an order authorizing the expulsion of non-citizens arriving at the border. Under this scheme, it takes just an average of 96 minutes for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to expel asylum seekers. In the first six weeks, CBP expelled some 20,000 people, including 400 unaccompanied children.

However, the new approach gives the individuals concerned no chance to make their legal case for asylum, a clear violation of U.S. and international law. And although the order was first issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the name of pandemic response, the agency has had no role in its implementation and public health experts have warned that these expulsions do nothing to combat the virus' spread.

This policy of expulsion is a continuation of this government's slate of punitive border policies. Indeed, this measure comes as the administration continues the so-called "Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP)," which have already forced over 60,000 asylum seekers – political dissidents from Cuba, women on the run from El Salvador – to wait in Mexico for their U.S. hearings. While the Mexican government works to accommodate asylum-seekers in the shelters along the border, the risk looms that a surge of asylum seekers expelled from the U.S. would once again leave the Mexican side of the border in chaos.

IRC staff have seen firsthand how these conditions jeopardize the health and safety of vulnerable groups, including women, girls, and the LGTBQ+ community. In the midst of a pandemic, the combination of movement of people, high density environments, and poor access to sanitation create the conditions for the disease to flourish.

The deportation of thousands of people to countries from which they have fled in Latin America and the Caribbean is also a multiplier of insecurity. Through our humanitarian programs in Northern Central America, the IRC has witnessed the reality on the ground: on top of the violence, terror, and crises that have forced so many to flee in the first place, these countries are woefully ill-equipped to cope with the impacts of this pandemic. Country governments have therefore tried to refuse these deportation flights.

Meanwhile the Administration's policy to detain immigrants, rather than pursue successful and safer community-based alternatives, is putting the lives of immigrants and government employees at risk.

Detention facilities are notoriously overcrowded and have a devastating track record of neglect when it comes to sanitation, medical care, and personal safety. In the IRC's work providing legal representation to detained immigrants facing deportation, we have seen up close how hard people have to fight for their health and their lives.

Despite unanimous agreement among public health experts that social distancing is critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released fewer than 700 individuals from detention as of mid-April, leaving more than 32,000 people detained. The impossibility of protecting oneself against the virus in detention is clear: of the very few individuals in detention who have received tests, about half have been positive, many times above the national rate.

Just as the pandemic spans borders, America's response must too. The right to claim asylum should not be sacrificed – and does not need to be sacrificed – on the altar of public health. In fact, public health depends on respecting that right.

For example, instead of being expelled to dangerous conditions south of the U.S. border or held in unsafe detention centers, those waiting for their day in court should be released with clear information about how to pursue their claims for protection. The administration can and should implement public health measures, including screenings carried out by public health officials and access to health facilities, to mitigate risks and allow people to shelter in place with their family or friends.

In addition, the administration should halt deportations back to countries beset with humanitarian crises and fragile healthcare systems. Instead, it should rapidly deliver aid to Northern Central America to address the root causes of displacement and strengthen these countries' ability to respond to COVID-19. Thus far, however, the administration's overseas response has been far below the scale and urgency COVID-19 requires--even with the knowledge that the world will not be safe from this pandemic unless all are safe.

Prioritizing the health and well being of all, regardless of immigration status, is what's best for America. We are all vulnerable during this global pandemic, but American policies should not compound the danger and the damage at home and abroad.

David Miliband is CEO and president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​