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The U.S. Is Abandoning Asylum-Seekers By Pretending To Care About Their Health

In this Dec. 14, 2019, photo, Dr. Psyche Calderon, right, works with a patient in a shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico. (Gregory Bull/AP)
In this Dec. 14, 2019, photo, Dr. Psyche Calderon, right, works with a patient in a shelter for migrants in Tijuana, Mexico. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Just over a month ago, I interviewed a woman in Tijuana who had escaped her home country in Central America after years of abuse. She was seeking asylum in the United States, but was forced to remain in Mexico pending her legal proceedings. Her abuser had promised to kill her, and was continuing to threaten her in Mexico. “I live in constant fear,” she told me. “Our neighborhood is not safe. We almost never go outside.”

She was, in fact, comparatively lucky — a kind woman had taken her in, allowing her and her son to sleep on her apartment floor. Before that, they had been living in one of the many teeming migrant shelters around the city.

With the highest homicide rate in the world, Tijuana is hardly a safe haven. But thousands of migrants remain there (and in other similarly dangerous border cities) in hopes of securing asylum in the United States. And now they are waiting indefinitely, in conditions that constituted a public health crisis even before COVID-19.

On March 20, the Trump administration announced it would stop formally processing asylum claims and began summarily deporting all migrants crossing the border, potentially sending people straight back to the peril they are fleeing. Such a reality is unprecedented.

It effectively suspends the right to asylum in this country, under the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic.

In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, photo people seeking asylum in the United States wait at the border crossing bridge in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from San Diego. (Elliot Spagat/AP)
In this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, photo people seeking asylum in the United States wait at the border crossing bridge in Tijuana, Mexico, just across the border from San Diego. (Elliot Spagat/AP)

It is also the natural progression of an agenda that Trump has pursued since he became president, painting refugees as sinister threats to our security rather than resilient survivors deserving of our country’s protection.

The administration announced this change in policy when the U.S. had more than 25,000 COVID-19 cases (compared to 203 cases in Mexico). U.S. officials purported the change to be in the interest of migrants, given the potential for infectious transmission with detainment. But there are numerous immigration enforcement alternatives, such as ankle bracelet monitoring, that don’t carry such risks.

And if the administration were truly concerned for the health of migrants, it would release nonviolent ICE detainees. Instead, it has continued in-person removal hearings for those in detention, despite the obvious risks.

The reality is that the Trump administration has been working to abolish asylum for some time now, embodied in the deceptively named Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) rolled out in January 2019. That policy forced many asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico pending their proceedings and erected numerous barriers, which have made it nearly impossible to be granted asylum, even for those with compelling cases. MPP is currently being allowed to continue while it comes under review by the U.S. Supreme Court after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down.

As a physician who has treated asylum-seekers on the border, I’ve seen firsthand the effect that this policy has had on their health. I’ve seen pregnant women with preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening condition, turned away from Mexican public hospitals. I’ve cared for migrants who have been beaten by cartel members. And I’ve treated patients with chronic coughs after being detained in the Custom and Border Protection detention centers, called hieleras (“ice boxes”) for their cold temperatures — sometimes for days or even weeks — while they awaited processing.

A photo from Friendship Park or El Parque de la Amistad, a binational park where residents of the U.S. and Mexico can meet in person under heavy monitoring from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Courtesy)
A photo from Friendship Park or El Parque de la Amistad, a binational park where residents of the U.S. and Mexico can meet in person under heavy monitoring from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Courtesy)

As an expert witness, I’ve testified to the evidence asylum-seekers carry with them, from the harms that drove them to risk everything for a chance to be safe. I’ve documented the details of scar patterns that corroborate diabolical methods of torture. I’ve heard about the flashbacks from those who have suffered through waterboarding and electric shock at the hands of their own governments. And I’ve observed the harsh reality that asylum-seekers face in courtrooms on the border, where they are often compelled to represent themselves, unable to access an attorney.

The fundamental principle that countries should not force those seeking refuge to return to a place where they will face persecution, known as ­non-refoulement, is a cornerstone of international law. It is enshrined not only in United Nations treaties, but also in our own federal laws.

Today, respect for non-refoulement is in grave danger of being completely discarded in the United States. While COVID-19 has brought about new uncertainty and dangers, our response cannot be to abandon those seeking asylum under the false guise of concern for their health, particularly when the alternative could be their assured death.

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C. Nicholas Cuneo Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
C. Nicholas Cuneo, MD is a resident physician in internal medicine and pediatrics at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital and Boston Medical Center.

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