Trump administration proposes blocking asylum seekers on public health grounds

The Trump administration unveiled a new regulation Wednesday that would bar asylum seekers coming from countries with disease outbreaks, marking the latest push that would make it more difficult for migrants to seek refuge in the United States.

The proposed regulation from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice provides the administration with greater discretion in determining who can claim asylum in the US based on health risk. It also applies to migrants who fall under “withholding of removal,” a lesser form of protection that’s harder to win.

“The Departments seek to mitigate the risk of a deadly communicable disease being brought to the United States, or being further spread within the country,” the text of the rule reads.

Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, the administration has closed off or added obstacles to the ways in which people can claim asylum in the US. The latest proposed rule, which still needs to undergo a public comment period and will not take effect immediately, is likely to cause a similar strain.

“This would represent a complete end to the asylum in the United States for new asylum seekers,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, a non-profit group that advocates for the rights of immigrants.

The proposed rule doesn’t clarify whether its application is specific to a worldwide pandemic, saying it’s dependent on determinations made by the secretary of homeland security and the attorney general, in consultation with the Department of Health and Human Services.

US asylum laws allow the federal government to disqualify asylum seekers on certain grounds. The proposed rule unveiled Wednesday would amend that to also include public health grounds.

In explaining the reason for the proposed change, the rule explains the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and singles out upticks in cases in neighboring countries.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the text, determined “that the entry of aliens crossing the northern and southern borders into the United States (regardless of their country of origin) would continue to present a serious danger of introducing COVID-19 into [points of entry] and Border Patrol Stations at or near the Mexico and Canada land borders.”

The United States exceeds Canada and Mexico in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths.

The administration has already largely barred migrants, including those seeking asylum, from entering the US through a public health order implemented in late March. Since then, the overwhelming majority of migrants arrested at the US-Mexico border, including families and children, have been turned away and returned to their home countries.

“This is in many ways a backstop to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] order. If that order gets struck down in court, then this allows them to turn people away who continue to seek asylum during the pandemic,” Reichlin-Melnick said.

A series of asylum regulations have been proposed to further curb who’s eligible to seek refuge in the US.

Just last month, the Trump administration proposed a 161-page rule listing changes that would pose even greater challenges to people seeking to be granted asylum in the US.

That proposed regulation, for example, said that living unlawfully in the US for more than a year prior to filing for asylum would be considered a “significant adverse factor,” despite exceptions that currently exist. Similarly, failure to file taxes or having a criminal conviction — even if it was reversed, vacated or expunged — could count against an individual’s asylum claim.

The draft rule released Wednesday is set to be published in the Federal Register Thursday.