Coronavirus halts the asylum system and exacerbates conditions for migrants waiting in Mexico

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Migrants waiting south of the border for their asylum opportunity in the United States face new levels of uncertainty as court hearings are rescheduled and border officials stop processing new cases as part of the federal government's response to the pandemic of coronavirus.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review, an agency of the Justice Department responsible for immigration courts, announced earlier this week that all hearings for asylum seekers in the "Stay in Mexico" program would be postponed until after 22 of April. The move came after San Diego judges began canceling hearings, defying the agency's instructions to keep hearing cases under the program, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols.

Ports of entry stopped accepting new asylum seekers, and anyone caught illegally crossing will be immediately returned to Mexico or deported, depending on the nationality of the migrant. Mexico agreed to host Central American immigrants detained by the United States Border Patrol, but not others.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Tijuana officials had received 88 people who had been caught by the Border Patrol and had returned since the new policy took effect on Friday night, according to Carlos González Gutiérrez, Mexico's consul general in San Diego. All but five of those people were Mexican, he said in a webinar on Thursday.

At the same time, the United States-Mexico border has been closed to "nonessential travel" in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus. US citizens, lawful permanent residents, as well as cargo and workers in key industries can still cross north.

"This is an unprecedented response to an unprecedented situation," Pete Flores, director of field operations for the San Diego field office of Customs and Border Protection, said Monday in a press call Monday.

Meanwhile, controversy continues to surround the ongoing operation of immigration courts across the country.

Migrant advocates, the Union of Immigration Judges, and attorneys, both those representing immigrants and the union representing federal government, have lobbied for immigration courts to shut down entirely and allow urgent matters, such as bail hearings for detainees, teleconferencing.

"Close all immigration courts," the National Association of Immigration Judges said on Twitter on Wednesday. "EOIR, you're putting all of our lives at risk."

While many hearings have been postponed, including the Stay in Mexico cases, the San Diego immigration court is one of many still pending open for presenting documents and holding hearings for people detained in immigration detention centers.

Some attorneys entering detention facilities have resorted to wearing swimming masks to visit their clients.

At the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which has its own court, judges and lawyers still have to go in and out every day along with the guards and officers working inside, increasing the likelihood of someone unknowingly bring the virus.

An ICE detainee in New Jersey has reportedly already tested positive for the virus. And a Colorado immigration judge had symptoms consistent with the virus earlier this week, while attorneys who recently appeared in immigration courts in several cities reported similar symptoms.

In an emailed statement Thursday night, EOIR said it is operating "largely online" with federal courts.

"Recognizing that detainee cases may involve unique constitutional concerns and pose particular problems of public safety, personal liberty, and due process, few federal courts have closed entirely," the statement said. "Most federal courts have continued to receive submissions and hold critical hearings for detainees, even when they have postponed other hearings."

While advocates wanted the courts to close the Stay in Mexico hearings, they are also concerned that COVID-19 could exacerbate difficulties for people in the program.

Migrant rights advocates have already condemned many of the Trump administration's policies that cause large numbers of asylum seekers to spend long waits in Mexican border cities due to the likelihood that they, as migrants, will be targeted. kidnapping, assault or even murder.

The policy mix now leaves migrants stranded in conditions that often do not allow for social distancing or other hygiene recommendations from public health experts.

"We have people exposed to risky conditions," said Dr. Ietza Bojorquez, an epidemiologist at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte de Tijuana, in Spanish in a webinar on Thursday. "How can we ask those people to keep a safe distance and wash their hands if they don't even have access to water?"

Bojorquez studied the spread of infectious diseases at a temporary shelter in Tijuana, where a large migrant caravan stayed after traveling to northern Honduras in the fall of 2018. He said that despite the fact that most of the caravan members were young, and healthy under normal conditions, the living The situation in that field made infectious diseases such as influenza extremely prone to spread.

He criticized both the lack of planning by the United States and Mexico for access to care for migrants stranded during the pandemic. Countries must improve to ensure that migrants can obtain medical care in these types of situations, he said.

Some of Tijuana's migrant shelters are being closed to newcomers to prevent spread within their walls, knowing that they will have limited resources to act if the virus reaches them. That means asylum seekers who have just arrived at the border have fewer options for finding places to sleep off the streets.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association has called for asylum seekers in the Stay in Mexico program to enter the United States as their cases are postponed. But that is unlikely given the Trump administration's stance on asylum seekers.

"It is a terrible situation," Jeremy McKinney of AILA said in a recent press call on the subject. "There are solutions that can be implemented during the temporary closure of this court."

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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