Clothing hangs to dry at a makeshift migrant camp for asylum seekers in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on March 1, 2020. 

© 2020 Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Trump administration is using the COVID-19 crisis to deepen its relentless assault on asylum seekers and the right to seek asylum.

Last week US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reportedly began immediately “expelling” to Mexico all unauthorized migrants at the US-Mexico border – including unaccompanied children – without considering whether they qualify for protection under US asylum law. The new policy purports to be based on an order by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the centers’ order was based on insufficient and incorrect information provided by the Department of Homeland Security.

Among the assaults on asylum seekers’ rights that pre-date COVID-19, the Migrant Protection Protocols, known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, require asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their asylum claims are heard in US immigration court. Those hearings are now postponed due to the pandemic, and these asylum seekers are waiting indefinitely for their day in court in crowded and unsanitary camps and shelters where they are vulnerable to the virus.

The future looks even bleaker. The Department of Justice issued proposals that would amend the law indefinitely to deny asylum and other protections to people “infected with a communicable disease of public health significance.”

This isn’t due process – it is no process. And it is illegal. Even in times of emergency, international law prohibits the US from suspending the right to be protected from forcible return to life-threatening circumstances. The right to be protected from being returned to face torture – eliminated for some under the Justice Department proposal and severely compromised under a Customs and Border Protection policy – is also absolute and cannot be withdrawn.

More than 85 percent of southern border asylum seekers come from Mexico and the three so-called Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The US Department of State’s latest annual human rights report described widespread violence in these countries, including targeting of migrants by gangs and governments, instances of torture, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings. Human Rights Watch found the US government has deported at least 138 Salvadorans to their death since 2013, and others to serious abuses.

COVID-19 is a serious threat, but immigrants are not. The United States can take necessary measures, such as screening and quarantines, to protect public health, without violating the rights of asylum seekers and illegally forcing them back into life-threatening danger. The Trump administration’s proposals cynically deploy the virus as another weapon in its ongoing campaign to eliminate asylum rights and wrongfully exclude people needing protection from coming to the United States.