'End Of Asylum': Using The Pandemic To Turn Away Migrants, Children Seeking Refuge

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When a Salvadoran woman grabbed her 4-year-old daughter and fled their home country in February, the coronavirus wasn't yet a global pandemic.

By the time they reached the U.S.-Mexico border a month later, that had changed. She crossed the Rio Grande, planning to ask for asylum. But Border Patrol agents took her and daughter right back to Mexico, despite her pleas.

"They told me they didn't care," the woman said in Spanish, asking us not to use her name, out of fear for her safety. "They didn't care what happened to my life. That I had to go — whether to Mexico, to El Salvador, to wherever I wanted, but I wasn't getting into the U.S."

Since March, immigration officials have turned away tens of thousands of migrants like this woman and her daughter. They carried out nearly 70,000 rapid expulsions through the end of June, under a public health order that closed the border to migrants during the pandemic. That included families and unaccompanied children.

Immigrant advocates say it's the culmination of a three-year push to end asylum protections for most migrants from Central America. They say most migrants are turned away with no access to due process, often without any explanation.

"The administration believes they found the silver bullet with the public health laws where they can just simply bypass the entire asylum system," said Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Right Project, which has clashed frequently with the Trump administration in court.

While the country's attention has been focused on the coronavirus, the Trump administration has also proposed sweeping new regulations that would permanently limit asylum protections for migrants arriving at the southern border.

'Closed the borders to asylum seekers'

The proposed rules would restrict who falls into various categories — asylum protects people who face persecution for their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group — and make it easier for immigration judges to reject asylum requests out of hand.

The White House has complained for years that these migrants are trying to escape from poverty-stricken countries in Central America, and are using fake or exaggerated claims to game an overly generous U.S. asylum system.

President Trump has repeatedly called asylum a "scam." At an event with Border Patrol agents in El Centro, Calif. last year, he said: "Our system is full. We're not taking them anymore, okay? Can't do it."

U.S. asylum law traces its roots to WWII. But administration officials argue that asylum seekers arriving at the southern border are fundamentally different from the refugees fleeing persecution during and after the war. And the administration has worked for years to chip away at asylum protections.

Now it has effectively closed the borders to asylum seekers.

Just as the pandemic was taking off in March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order that closed the border to migrants and other travelers without valid travel documents, citing "the danger to the public health" posed by holding such travelers in crowded detention facilities near the border.

To read or listen to the full story: NPR 'End of Asylum'