Extension of border restrictions hurting asylum-seekers most, migrant advocates say

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — The extension of travel restrictions on the Southwest border with Mexico will mostly hurt asylum-seekers who are not allowed to set foot on U.S. soil while triggering a rash of deportations including that of unaccompanied minors, migrant advocates say.

Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf on Tuesday announced that the travel restrictions would continue indefinitely. The restrictions, which limit entry to “essential workers” and those with medical needs, were set to expire today.

The Trump administration put in place travel restrictions on March 20 along the borders with Mexico and Canada as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19. Wolf said Tuesday that the restrictions would be reviewed again in 30 days but are currently necessary for national security to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

President Donald Trump lets acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf move to the podium to speak about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“Border security is homeland security. Our efforts over the last several months to limit non-essential travel have been successful and now is not the time to change course. The President has made it clear that we must continue to keep legitimate, commercial trade flowing while limiting those seeking to enter our country for non-essential purposes. Non-essential travel will not be permitted until this administration is convinced that doing so is safe and secure,” Wolf said in a statement.

But Karla Vargas, a lawyer with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, charges that the Trump administration is using this pandemic as a way to stop immigration into the United States.

Karla Vargas is a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project. She is seen outside the judicial tent facility in Brownsville, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“This is only affecting asylum-seekers, it is not affecting the movement of other individuals who would be entering this country,” Vargas told Border Report on Wednesday. “If this is really a public health crisis then shouldn’t these type of restrictions be implemented across the board?”

Since restrictions were put in place, entries at South Texas U.S. ports are as much as 80 percent for pedestrian traffic and about 40% for cargo vehicles, port officials say. But for the most part, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have discretion in allowing people to cross on a case-by-case basis. Those who want to cross to shop and for business exploits are frequently allowed to once screened for the virus.

But that is not the case for immigrants.

Those caught crossing in between legal ports of entry are being immediately deported, either walked across an international bridge back to Mexico, or put on a deportation flight by U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement in what the agency calls “ICE Air” flights.

Matamoros children
Two migrant boys are seen playing in the mud on Dec. 22, 2019, at a refugee tent camp where they lived in Matamoros, Mexico, across from Browsville, Texas. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The New York Times on Wednesday reported that more than 900 unaccompanied minor children have been expelled from the United States since the pandemic began. That included some children who crossed the Gateway International Bridge into Brownsville, Texas, from Matamoros, Mexico, where they had been living in a refugee camp for asylum seekers with their families awaiting their immigration court hearings. Some families gave up and many parents sent their chidren were sent across the border alone in hopes that they would be granted safe housing in the United States under the watchful eye of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But in this current coronavirus climate, many of the children have ended up back in their home countries, while their parents await in the camp across the Rio Grande from South Texas.

The Trump administration is justifying the new practices under a 1944 law that allows the president broad power to block foreigners from entering the country in order to prevent the “serious threat” of a dangerous disease.

But migrant advocates question the use of that law especially when the United States has the most cases of COVID-19 anywhere in the world.

Helen Perry is seen on Dec. 22, 2019, at the tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, where her group, Global Response Management, offers free medical aid to asylum-seekers. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Helen Perry, a nurse practitioner who offers free medical care to the Matamoros migrants through the NGO Global Response Management, told Border Report on Wednesday that, so far, there have not been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Matamoros camp. And she wonders why the Trump administration considers these migrants such a threat to national health, when none have tested positive for the virus.

“The United States is using COVID-19 as an excuse to limit immigration and asylum-seekers and there is a way for human rights to continue while also being mindful of public health policy,” Perry said via phone. “They’re using this as an excuse to implement really extreme immigration policies they were looking for all along and this was just the golden ticket they were looking for.”

They’re using this as an excuse to implement really extreme immigration policies they were looking for all along and this was just the golden ticket they were looking for.

Helen Perry, Global Response Management

The Executive Office for Immigration Review has postponed all immigration cases for asylum seekers at judicial tent cities, such as the one in Brownsville, and in Laredo, Texas, until at least the end of June, but with border travel restrictions extended again this week, many migrant advocates fear court cases will also be delayed, which could force these migrants to remain in Mexico for many more months.

Perry said that the number of migrants in the Matamoros camp has started to decrease, and is now estimated around 2,800, down from a high of 4,000. Several severe storms have rumbled through South Texas recently, and with the indefinite extension of travel restrictions and uncertainty when immigration court cases will start up again, many have boarded buses provided by Mexican authorities to points south, she said. Others have taken jobs in Mexico and are assimilating into towns and communities there.

A few weeks ago, her organization helped to build a tent hospital to treat up to 20 COVID-19 patients, should the need arise. A few people, including two people recently, have been isolated in the facility but none have tested positive for the virus. So far, the city of Matamoros reports 270 cases, some just blocks from the tent encampment.

Perry said one of her health workers, who is from the United Kingdom and has been living in Mexico, was not allowed to cross the Gateway International Bridge and was forced to fly back to her home in Mexico City. When Perry asked CBP officials to show her the policy that prevents these aid workers from crossing, she said agents refused. She said until the travel restrictions are lifted she will not employ health workers from other nations, such as Australia and Canada.

“Basically what we have told people is we have stopped accepting international volunteers because we can’t guarantee that they’ll be able to cross the border,” Perry said.

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