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In a photo taken on November 6, 2019, Border Patrol agents hold a group near McAllen, Texas, along the US-Mexico border. © 2019 AP Photo/Eric Gay

(Washington, DC) – A Trump administration plan to immediately return to Mexico all asylum seekers who cross between ports of entry without any examination of their protection claims violates United States and international rights protections, Human Rights Watch said today. The proposal would appear to be using the COVID-19 pandemic to further dismantle the US asylum system.

Under the plan, as reported by the New York Times on March 17, 2020, US border agents would be allowed to quickly return migrants and asylum seekers who enter the US in an unauthorized manner to Mexico. They would be returned without passing through US border detention centers or being given an opportunity to seek protection, as required under US and international law. It was not clear whether the policy would apply only to Mexican nationals or also to non-Mexicans apprehended in the US. Officials said the measures were necessary to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks in detention centers and the infection of Border Patrol agents.

“The Trump administration appears to be weaponizing fears over COVID-19 to step up its anti-immigrant agenda by eviscerating the right to seek asylum,” said Clara Long, senior US researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of whipping up xenophobia and denying rights, the Trump administration should be taking rational, prudent steps to ensure the health of citizens and noncitizens alike.”

Mexico’s Foreign Ministry released a statement on March 18 that it had received no formal request regarding the reported US policy. If such a proposal materializes, the Foreign Ministry said, Mexico would respond to it in “defense of its interests, considering, among others, public health and human rights.”

In November 2018, President Donald Trump attempted to bar from seeking asylum individuals who enter the United States from Mexico between ports of entry. A federal court ruled in December 2018 that the ban conflicted with US law, which specifically allows anyone who enters the US, whether or not at an official port of entry, to apply for asylum.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to seek asylum. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, released guidance on March 16, 2020 calling for border measures relating to COVID-19 to be necessary, proportionate, and reasonable to the aim of protecting public health. Any “blanket measure” to preclude the admission of refugees and asylum seekers would not meet this standard, UNHCR said. Human Rights Watch said last week that the health risks posed by COVID-19 to people detained for immigration purposes in the United States should prompt officials to stop arbitrary detentions and opt for release where possible.

To the extent that restrictions such as quarantine or isolation of symptomatic people become part of the US border response, they should, at a minimum, be strictly necessary to achieve a legitimate objective, that is based on scientific evidence, is proportionate to achieve that objective, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, and is of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, and subject to review, Human Rights Watch said.

“US officials finally recognize they cannot safely detain people in unhealthy and undignified detention conditions along the border, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Long said. “But instead of putting lives at risk, the US should make use of the effective detention alternatives at its disposal, adopting public health measures such as quarantine and screenings as appropriate.”

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