Open the Borders. Open the Prison Gates. Don’t Sacrifice a Single Person to This Virus.

Closed borders and ICE raids mean crowded detention centers and camps, which is always inhumane. In a pandemic, it’s a global public health threat.

Khury Petersen-Smith March 25, 2020

Agents from the United States Office of Customs and Border Protection push a Mexican migrant's wheelchair as he is deported at the Paso del Norte-Santa Fe International Bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico on March 21, 2020. (Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

From treat­ing the cri­sis like a hoax” to botch­ing the roll­out of tests, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has already made a series of deci­sions that are wors­en­ing the coro­n­avirus pandemic.

There is an unfolding conversation about the fact that prisons, jails, and other carceral facilities pose a special threat to public health in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

Trump’s announce­ment that the Unit­ed States will bar asy­lum seek­ers at the bor­der is yet anoth­er that will guar­an­tee more death and suf­fer­ing as the infec­tion unfolds. That is why end­ing the deten­tion of immi­grants and allow­ing peo­ple stuck at the bor­der entry is not only the humane thing to do: It is also what will best serve pub­lic health.

This may come as a sur­prise. Isn’t the best approach right now to lim­it move­ment? Shouldn’t peo­ple stay where they are? Why then would the Unit­ed States open its bor­ders to large num­bers of peo­ple seek­ing entry?

To answer these ques­tions, we have to look at the sit­u­a­tion that the poli­cies have already caused.

We all remem­ber the past two years’ worth of hor­rif­ic pho­tos and videos of chil­dren and adults packed into ani­mal cages in deten­tion cen­ters, suf­fer­ing obvi­ous neglect. Or peo­ple detained under bridges in Texas when their num­bers exceed­ed the capac­i­ty of the Bor­der Patrol to hold them indoors.

There is an unfold­ing con­ver­sa­tion about the fact that pris­ons, jails and oth­er carcer­al facil­i­ties pose a spe­cial threat to pub­lic health in light of the coro­n­avirus out­break. The basic rec­om­men­da­tions from the CDC, such as reg­u­lar­ly wash­ing hands and keep­ing a dis­tance between peo­ple, are impos­si­ble to fol­low in the dirty, over­crowd­ed con­di­tions behind bars.

As Homer Ven­ter, a physi­cian for­mer­ly employed at Rik­ers Island, has said, Jails and pris­ons may actu­al­ly dri­ve this epi­dem­ic curve up. These are places that can serve as reser­voirs or accel­er­a­tors of an outbreak.”

This is true for immi­grant deten­tion too. And yet, the dri­ve to detain more — par­tic­u­lar­ly the crack­down that Trump promised tar­get­ing migrants in sanc­tu­ary cities — con­tin­ues. ICE agents are car­ry­ing out raids in Cal­i­for­nia with res­pi­ra­to­ry masks.

At the same time as the attack on immi­grants has pro­duced dan­ger­ous and inhu­mane con­di­tions in U.S. deten­tion facil­i­ties, it has also cre­at­ed a par­al­lel cri­sis and pub­lic health time­bomb at the border.

A com­bi­na­tion of poli­cies, from the Migrant Pro­tec­tion Pro­to­cols” (also known as the Remain in Mex­i­co” pro­gram) that forces asy­lum seek­ers await­ing legal pro­ceed­ings to wait south of the bor­der, to so-called meter­ing”—allow­ing a tiny num­ber of peo­ple to apply for asy­lum at the bor­der each day — has pro­duced a bot­tle­neck for peo­ple seek­ing entry to the coun­try. Pre­dictably, makeshift camps of thou­sands have emerged in cities on the Mex­i­can side of the bor­der, such as Tijua­na, Mata­moros and Juarez as peo­ple patient­ly await entry.

One does not need to be an epi­demi­ol­o­gist to under­stand why forc­ing large num­bers of fam­i­lies into squalid camps, exposed to the ele­ments, with no run­ning water and min­i­mal access to med­ical atten­tion makes them vul­ner­a­ble to count­less health threats — espe­cial­ly a high­ly con­ta­gious infec­tion spread by sneez­ing and coughing.

The well-being of these peo­ple should be enough to pur­sue a humane approach rather than aban­don­ing them. But leav­ing them sus­cep­ti­ble to cer­tain infec­tion, with­out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of treat­ment, not only threat­ens those stuck in the camps. It threat­ens the health of the pub­lic at large.

If there is one biol­o­gy les­son that the whole world is learn­ing, it is that infec­tious dis­ease trav­els. By keep­ing asy­lum seek­ers out of the coun­try and effec­tive­ly forc­ing them into infor­mal encamp­ments to sur­vive, the U.S. gov­ern­ment has put them in tremen­dous dan­ger. It has also stoked the fuel for wild­fires of infec­tion that will eas­i­ly spread and be dif­fi­cult to put out. The impact will inevitably go beyond the camps and affect oth­ers in the U.S. and Mexico.

What can be done?

This is actu­al­ly a prob­lem all over the world. Many gov­ern­ments have pur­sued poli­cies sim­i­lar to Trump’s, and aid agen­cies are brac­ing for what hap­pens when coro­n­avirus hits the world’s refugee camps.

The promise of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion — and of oth­er gov­ern­ments around the world that are clos­ing their bor­ders — that this will defend the nation from infec­tion is a false one.

It is impor­tant to say, giv­en incred­i­ble racism and xeno­pho­bia infus­ing the right wing’s lan­guage about the cri­sis (e.g. Trump call­ing coro­n­avirus the Chi­nese Virus”), that migrants at the bor­der, or any­where else, should not be seen as vec­tors for dis­ease. They are human beings who have been put in a sit­u­a­tion where infec­tion was unavoid­able. But just as gov­ern­ment poli­cies cre­at­ed those cir­cum­stances, new ones can end them.

And it is urgent that they be end­ed. What can be done?

First, as RAICES, the Deten­tion Watch Net­work and hun­dreds of oth­er orga­ni­za­tions have called for, all immi­gra­tion raids should imme­di­ate­ly be sus­pend­ed, and those detained should be released. Rather than add more peo­ple to U.S. deten­tion facil­i­ties, they should be emptied.

And regard­ing its poli­cies at the bor­der, the Unit­ed States needs to com­plete­ly reverse course. As the Wash­ing­ton Office on Latin Amer­i­ca and more than 150 oth­er orga­ni­za­tions recent­ly demand­ed, the Migrant Pro­tec­tion Pro­to­cols” should be end­ed. The Unit­ed States should allow asy­lum seek­ers to enter the U.S. quick­ly and effi­cient­ly, and pur­sue due process in safe­ty on this side of the bor­der, which is their right under both inter­na­tion­al and U.S. law.

How could the U.S. gov­ern­ment han­dle large num­bers of peo­ple who no doubt have com­pro­mised health and very like­ly have been exposed to coro­n­avirus? It can start by pro­vid­ing to them what every­one who has been poten­tial­ly exposed to the virus deserves: test­ing, and treat­ment for those who test positive.

The gov­ern­ment should also take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the safe­ty of asy­lum seek­ers and refugees. Many of those trapped at the bor­der have fam­i­ly and friends they are hop­ing to reunite with in cities and towns across the Unit­ed States. It should be up to pub­lic health experts and med­ical pro­fes­sion­als to decide if it makes sense for peo­ple to trav­el to these des­ti­na­tions. If so, the gov­ern­ment should trans­port them safe­ly and efficiently.

If the pro­pos­al that the gov­ern­ment fer­ry immi­grants seems strange or unrea­son­able, con­sid­er the fact that it already invests resources in trans­port­ing them — out of the coun­try. The U.S. gov­ern­ment uses com­mer­cial air­craft all the time to deport immi­grants. Could it not use them, in an emer­gency, to trans­port peo­ple to their U.S. des­ti­na­tions instead? With a steep decline in air trav­el, there are plen­ty of ground­ed planes available.

Per­haps it makes more sense to direct peo­ple to par­tic­u­lar loca­tions, such as the bor­der region or else­where, for now as the cri­sis unfolds — anoth­er ques­tion for pub­lic health and immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy experts. And no doubt there are peo­ple at the bor­der who do not yet have homes in the Unit­ed States to come to.

We have the capac­i­ty to house these peo­ple, as we do home­less peo­ple on this side of the bor­der. As research from the Lin­coln Insti­tute of Land Pol­i­cy has shown, mil­lions of vacant hous­ing units exist across the coun­try. Orga­ni­za­tions like People’s Action have been argu­ing that hous­ing a right for all since before the outbreak.

Refer­ring to the wealth that the Unit­ed States invests year after year in mil­i­tarism, race and hous­ing schol­ar Keean­ga-Yamat­ta Tay­lor argues that we can divert bil­lions of dol­lars toward the con­struc­tion of low-rise apart­ment hous­ing through­out cities.” This is true for every­body in this coun­try, regard­less of where they hap­pened to be born.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty, not fear

In oth­er words, the pan­dem­ic rip­pling through the world should force us to trans­form our soci­ety in ways that we should have before this crisis.

There is noth­ing to cel­e­brate about the doom unfold­ing, and this will be a time with much dark­ness and pain. But it is also one that extends us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reimag­ine what kind of soci­ety we want. It can be one that takes care of the most vul­ner­a­ble as part of build­ing a bet­ter world for all.

At the moment, we are head­ed in the oppo­site direc­tion — a fur­ther entrench­ment of the vio­lence and inequal­i­ty that made so many so vul­ner­a­ble to COVID 19 and oth­er dan­gers. Trump’s lat­est attacks on asy­lum seek­ers deep­en the injus­tice and endan­ger us all. We have a choice. Release detainees, wel­come asy­lum seek­ers, and give them the care that they need.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty, not fear, will allow us all to sur­vive this outbreak. 

This arti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Rat­ner Mid­dle East Fel­low at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Studies.
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