On March 17, President Trump announced plans to close the southern border to asylum seekers. “We need the Wall more than ever!” Trump tweeted, though the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that physical barriers will not stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, and despite the fact that the United States has more cases per capita than does Mexico.

Would the closure stop the spread of the virus? Here’s what we know — and what to look out for.

More of the same at the southern border

Trump has treated the coronavirus pandemic as a way to extend his broad anti-immigration platform, characterizing the disease as a “foreign virus.” This week, the State Department warned Americans not to travel abroad, and the White House first closed the border with Canada and then with Mexico for nonessential travel. Last week, Trump announced a 30-day ban on travel from most of Europe and soon added more countries to the banned list. These restrictions on otherwise legal travel — whether it be for work, leisure or another reason — use the same legal authority as the series of travel bans started in January 2017.

Meanwhile, the United States has announced even stricter policies around stopping immigrants at the southern border, and it continues to detain asylum seekers. Private detention companies hold about 15,000 immigration detainees on any given day, including both recent arrivals and those present in the United States for decades.

Those in closed facilities are at particularly high risk should the virus enter the facility, which may happen soon. This week, a corrections officer at a New Jersey jail that houses immigrant detainees tested positive for the coronavirus. To protect detainees nationwide, immigrant advocacy groups have called on the government to close immigration detention facilities. In my own work in the country’s largest family detention center, I have seen families side by side, sharing a space where it would be next to impossible to avoid the virus. I had planned another trip with law students to the detention center this month — but scrapped it rather than risk bringing the virus in.

Yet while public agencies such as the New York City Board of Correction are calling for that city’s jail system to rapidly release detainees who aren’t an immediate danger to reduce the risk of a fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak, the federal government is taking a different tack. Instead of releasing migrants, the administration announced an upcoming policy that all asylum seekers arriving at the southern border will be turned back to Mexico with no due process, purportedly to keep out the virus.

But over the past three years, the Trump administration has steadily tightened immigration policy to make it increasingly difficult for refugees to get into the United States. That includes the Migrant Protection Protocols, which force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, and restricting certain claims that were once accepted reasons for asylum. That makes this latest step appear to be another push toward the goal of eliminating asylum.

But the United States has higher rates of the virus than does Central America. Reverse contagion is more likely, with deportations spreading the virus southward. Central American countries are taking measures to protect themselves: Guatemala has suspended flights into the country, including of Guatemalans deported by the United States.

Undocumented immigrants aren’t likely to trust ICE’s announced halt in enforcement

On March 18, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it would “delay enforcement actions” of undocumented immigrants, except those who have committed crimes or threaten public safety — and specifically emphasized that ICE agents would stay away from hospitals and medical care facilities to encourage everyone to seek care.

Nevertheless, undocumented immigrants fear stepping into a hospital, worrying that their status will be identified and tracked — if not now, then later. They are not likely to believe such reassurances, given the past several years of ever-increasing monitoring and enforcement even of sympathetic noncriminal immigrants. In fact, the day before the announcement, ICE was continuing its immigration raids, with N95 masks on hand. Further, undocumented and lawful immigrants alike have a new reason to fear seeking health care in particular because of the public charge rule that went into effect in February, which assesses whether green card applicants are likely to ever need public benefits. Using Medicaid generally hurts applicants, with an exception for emergency Medicaid — now including covid-19-related testing and treatment.

Despite official reassurances, however, the administration’s overall anti-immigrant stance will most likely keep immigrants away from health care, increasing the risk of spread more broadly.

With immigration courts and offices closing, more case backlogs and delays

The administration has announced that it will close immigration courts and asylum offices in certain cities, with more likely to follow. The court system alone has a backlog of more than 180,000 pending cases, many added during the 2019 partial government shutdown. The longer the courts are closed, the greater the backlog will become — and immigrants already wait up to four years to have their cases heard in court. As time passes, cases can weaken because of changing conditions, even as immigrants’ lives in the United States become more established. Where courts do remain open, groups of immigrants await hearings in crowded waiting rooms well over the 10-person limit recommended by the CDC, again risking their own and the public’s health.

Meanwhile, as of March 18, all U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field offices are closed. These offices handle citizenship interviews, routine fingerprinting for background checks, and other in-person application processing. While some applications may not be time-sensitive, others’ immigration status is at serious risk because of these closures. For example, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are urgently submitting their renewal paperwork before the upcoming Supreme Court decision that could end the DACA program, expected by June. If a DACA renewal application is filed by the time of the decision, the government may still process it — no matter what the court does. But with USCIS offices closed for essential public health reasons, DACA applications are stalled.

The United States is likely to continue tightening its borders, enforcing at least some immigration violators, and detaining asylum seekers. Meanwhile, the backlogs in immigration court cases and application processing will increase dramatically, putting vulnerable immigrants further at risk of losing protection.

Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer is an assistant clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, where she teaches law and directs the 1L Immigration Law and Advocacy Clinic.

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