El PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Migrant advocates are urging the federal government to stop using COVID-19 as an excuse to deny asylum-seekers due process.

In a Thursday press call, representatives from national organizations urged President-elect Joe Biden to reverse as soon as possible the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Title 42 rule that allows federal officials to deport migrants within hours of first contact.

Federal agencies since Oct. 1 have deported at least 183,434 migrants using the emergency rule, which U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said prevents potentially infected migrants from spreading COVID-19 to immigration agents and other migrants at detention centers.

But nonprofit organizations point to earlier dissent at the CDC over the order as proof it’s but a Trump administration vehicle to shut the border to asylum-seekers.

“The government has used the pandemic as a pretext to block and expel asylum-seekers to the countries they fled as well as Mexico under a CDC order that the agency’s own experts refuse to sign off on,” said Kennji Kizuka, senior researcher and policy analyst for refugee protection at Human Rights First.

He and other advocates also are calling for a swift end to Trump administration policies that force those seeking asylum to wait for years in often dangerous Mexican border cities (the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP) and for lengthy detentions that cost taxpayers money and expose migrants to infectious diseases.

Karen Muzalo

“Joe Biden can and should reverse all of those policies, starting with the Title 42 closure of the border,” said Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “Public health experts say the closure was not made on a public health basis. These experts say we can reopen the border to asylum seekers with proper screening for COVID, a two-week quarantine when appropriate, the proper use of masks and no detention.”

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), 559 detainees at ICE facilities were in isolation or monitoring as of Jan. 8 after testing positive for the coronavirus. A total of 8,800 detainees have tested positive since the pandemic began and eight have died.

While federal officials have said this only adds urgency to enforcing Title 42, the advocacy groups say it strengthens their case for halting detentions.

“Rather than resorting to the inhumane policy of detention, which is especially dangerous in the time of COVID, asylum-seekers should be released to family and friends while they pursue their claims,” Musalo said. “It’s well documented that, when provided with legal and support services, the vast majority of asylum-seekers show up for their scheduled hearings. The cost of these alternatives to detention is a fraction of the cost of detention.”

Last year, The Dallas Morning News reported that it costs about $130 per day to house a single migrant in a detention center.

The groups also want Biden to do away with Trump’s MPP program, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” The policy has sent more than 60,000 asylum seekers to wait their cases out in Mexico, but most immigration courts have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and those international citizens have been exposed to crime in Mexican border cities like Juarez and Matamoros.

“It very chaotic, you don’t know the place they send you to. You find yourself always looking over your shoulder. You hear stories of people getting randomly kidnapped or forced to work for the (drug) cartels,” said Ray, a Cuban migrant who was finally granted entry into the United States.

He, too, urges Biden to restore the asylum process to the way it was before Trump to save the lives of migrant families still stuck in Mexico.

“I have friends who were kidnapped just walking around […] You have to get used to the (Mexican) police who are quite corrupt and aggressive toward migrants,” Ray said, adding that the building in Matamoros he was living in was broken into once by police demanding money.

“I opened my widow, I had my phone in my hand. A policeman pointed a machine gun at my face and asked, ‘are you recording me?’ It’s urgent to change (U.S.) policy because people are still living like that. I was lucky to come across, but the rest are still there,” he said.

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