The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a public health order on March 20, 2020, restricting people seeking asylum in the United States, as well as unaccompanied non-citizen children attempting to cross into the United States, from accessing legal protections guaranteed to them under U.S. and international law. Under the order, such individuals are instead immediately expelled from the country in an effort to protect border facilities and the citizenry of the United States from COVID-19. As the order reasons, these immediate expulsions minimize the introduction of persons into “congregate settings” at border facilities and thereby reduce the spread the disease at these facilities and farther into the country.
However, the order offers a false dichotomy between our collective obligation to try and keep our citizenry safe from COVID-19 and our righteous commitment to the protection of human rights. In no way are asylum seekers and unaccompanied children more likely to transmit COVID-19 than other travelers, and solutions such as conditional release will alleviate any concerns over congregate settings while upholding our legal obligations to asylum seekers and unaccompanied children. By authorizing the rapid expulsion of vulnerable persons despite limited epidemiological justification as well as clear legal alternatives, the order stands as a gross violation of the United States’ historical policy to welcome and protect those seeking refuge at our borders.