The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This crisis requires political courage to respect our values. Trump isn’t doing that.

The U.S. flag at the Cordova Americas border bridge, where the new travel restrictions have stopped people from crossing. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

ENSHRINED IN law for four decades, the system that allows persecuted migrants to seek refuge in the United States has survived sustained assaults since the Trump administration took office. Now Mr. Trump, having weaponized a public health crisis to ignore long-established statutes, rules and procedures, has finally managed to crush it.

For the past three weeks, virtually every category of migrant without papers has been turned back at legal ports of entry along the southern border or expelled immediately upon apprehension by border agents; 10,000 have been thrown out so far in the crisis. They include minors who may have been trafficked and asylum seekers, individually or in families, who may face persecution in their home countries. Immigration courts are suspended, deportation procedures have been ditched, and due process is a thing of the past.

For years, President Trump has disparaged unauthorized migrants as disease carriers, with paltry evidence. Now he justifies the brutal measures, imposed March 21, by insisting that in the midst of a pandemic, migrants could ignite a “perfect storm” of contagion that would endanger border agents, the health-care system and the public. “Left unchecked,” he warned, they could even “cripple our immigration system” — the very immigration system he has tried by every means to dismantle since taking office.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

The evidence for that is, so far, scant; a hundred times more people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the United States than in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala combined — the countries of the overwhelming majority of migrants at the southern border. That adds weight to the suspicion that Mr. Trump, contemptuous of what he calls “the worst immigration laws ever,” is obliterating them through the legally dubious means of a health emergency measure enacted in 1944.

It is reasonable in the face of this pandemic to exercise extreme caution in screening those who are admitted to the United States, and even barring most foreign travelers from Western Europe and China, some of the world’s most ravaged regions. It’s a different thing to impose a systematic, draconian, extralegal regime, one never contemplated by Congress, whose effect is to ignore and override 40 years of asylum and immigration law.

Mr. Trump had severely tightened asylum procedures before the pandemic but had not, and could not, expunge the possibility that migrants with reasonable asylum claims could apply and be heard in court. Respecting those asylum procedures, like respecting civil liberties, presents few challenges during prosperity and peacetime. It is more difficult, and requires political courage, when the country is reeling economically, and on what amounts to a war footing, as it is today.

Yet it is precisely in times of emergency that any country faces its most severe tests — ones that call into question the nation’s essential character and values. It shames itself when it fails to live up to those qualities and values, as the United States did when it forcibly imprisoned more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. That is what Mr. Trump is doing now by betraying this country’s long tradition as a beacon to those fleeing oppression.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Detained migrant children are sitting ducks. Accelerate their release.

The Post’s View: Trump’s immigration policies have already put lives at risk

Josiah Rich, Scott Allen and Mavis Nimoh: We must release prisoners to lessen the spread of coronavirus

Yael Schacher: Coronavirus can’t be an excuse to continue President Trump’s assault on asylum seekers

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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