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How the Pandemic Accelerated President Trump's Migration Containment Policy

June 22, 2020


by Isabelle Vagnoux, Professor at Aix Marseille University (LERMA) and co-executive editor of the  interdisciplinary Journal of the Institut des Amériques, IdeAs, Idées d’Amérique.



For the first time in American history, the White House believes that the United States should no longer be a "nation of immigrants," as John F. Kennedy put it. 

A long, very long list of measures were adopted on this subject by the executive branch under the leadership of conservative adviser Stephen Miller, from the beginning of Donald Trump's presidential term. In the strict ideological continuity of his election campaign, they were aimed at limiting immigration, legal or unauthorized, by all means: increased enforcement throughout the country,  construction (or rather the continuation) of a wall on the border with Mexico, reducing the admission of refugees, prohibiting the entry into the country of nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries, effort to put an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program [1], and suspension of the deportation of nationals from countries in difficulty (Temporary Protected Status, TPS); agreement concluded in January 2019 with Mexico so that migrants and asylum seekers wait on the Mexican side of the border for their hearings with the American authorities (Migrant Protection Protocols, or Remain in Mexico); agreements signed in the summer of 2019 so that the states of the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras) become, not without irony, "safe third countries of asylum" receiving asylum seekers who cross their territory on their way to the United States...

To the great joy of his fan base, President Trump decides to close the US border in March.
To the great joy of his fan base, President Trump decides to close the US border in March.

Finally, last fall, the administration "proposed" to increase naturalization fees or  DACA renewal application fees by more than 50%, and to charge a fee for refugee claims for the first time. Admittedly, to date, not everything has been implemented or confirmed yet by the competent authorities or the courts of appeal, but this desire to reject foreigners deemed undesirable is tenacious. It has resurfaced with increased intensity in this period of historic health and socio-economic crisis. 


Many of the measures taken by the Trump administration since the spread of the pandemic on American soil in March 2020 do not differ much from those decided by other governments: banning foreign nationals from entering the United States from regions heavily affected by the virus (China, Iran, Europe) at first, then suspending most flights; Americans  ordered to return to the United States; historic closure of the borders with Canada and Mexico for "non-essential" crossings.  This closure, decided on 20 March 2020 by the three countries, maintains some  flexibility, as does the EU within the Schengen area: the transport of goods, which is necessary for the economy and the survival of the population, and travel for professional reasons (border workers) or schooling remain authorized. Tourism, leisure and... migration, are prohibited, in order to “reduce the incentive for a mass global migration that would badly deplete the health care resources needed for our people.”  (Donald Trump, 20 March 2020). 

Numbers and graph done by the author from the WHO's data on June 16, 2020,
Numbers and graph done by the author from the WHO's data on June 16, 2020,

For the first time since its adoption, the US authorities are brandishing a July 1944 law authorizing them to "suspend the right to introduce [migrants] in the interest of public health" ("Title 42") :

" Whenever the Surgeon General determines that by reason of the existence of any communicable disease in a foreign country there is serious danger of the introduction of such disease into the United States, and that this danger is so increased by the introduction of persons or property from such country that a suspension of the right to introduce such persons and property is required in the interest of the public health, the Surgeon General, in accordance with regulations approved by the President, shall have the power to prohibit, in whole or in part, the introduction of persons and property from such countries or places as he shall designate in order to avert such danger, and for such period of time as he may deem necessary for such purpose. July 1, 1944, ch. 373, title III, §362, 58 Stat. 704.

Number of migrants apprehended at the Southern border 2015-2020 (source CBP)
Number of migrants apprehended at the Southern border 2015-2020 (source CBP)

Yet, in terms of deaths due to COVID, Central America and Mexico, where the majority of migrants come from, do not appear—at least according to official figures— to be any more dangerous than the United States, which has a much higher rate per million inhabitants than Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. This decision should therefore probably be read more in the light of the desire to continue undermining the foundations of immigration to the United States than in the light of the health situation.centrale), sans que la Border Patrol leur demande s’ils courent un risque grave en cas de retour chez eux. Depuis peu, les expulsions se font quasiment toutes au nom du risque sanitaire « Title 42 », et ont triplé entre mars et mai 2020, alors que les pays d’origine de la plupart de ces migrants disposent de très faibles structures sanitaires et présentent de sérieux risques sécuritaires.  


However, the threat of a migratory wave that could overwhelm the country during the pandemic seems unlikely, due to the natural slowdown in migration linked to the pandemic on the one hand, and to an overall weakening of entries on American soil after the repeated attacks by the Trump administration since 2017, on the other hand. The current number of apprehensions of single adults, families or unaccompanied minors at the Mexican border is among the lowest in the last five years, and is significantly lower than in fiscal year 2019 (October to September).


The health situation in migrant detention centers is such in the United States (2,000 migrants tested positive, i.e. 8.5 percent of the detained population, but 40 percent of those tested) that the migrants apprehended at the border, including unaccompanied minors, are no longer detained and interviewed, in accordance with the law, but immediately returned to Mexico or repatriated to Central America, without being asked by the Border Patrol whether they would be at serious risk if returned home. Recently, deportations have almost all been carried out in the name of "Title 42" health risk, and have tripled between March and May 2020, even though the countries of origin of most of these migrants have very weak health structures and present serious security risks.  


Guatemala, the country most affected by deportations (the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reportedly still hold some 5,457 Guatemalans, 2,577 of whom are awaiting deportation), even suspended repatriation flights three times since March because of the health risk they pose to this country, which is comparatively less affected by the virus than the United States. The latest suspension lasted one month. Although the US executive has threatened to reject visa applications from nationals of countries that refuse or "unreasonably" delay the repatriation of deportees, the Guatemalan authorities have obtained from Washington that the flights be limited to 50 people, and that the United States issue for each passenger a medical certificate attesting to a negative COVID test within three days of travel. All passengers will be retested upon arrival in Guatemala.

Particularly difficult from a humanitarian point of view, the decision to suspend asylum procedures at the country's land borders is in contradiction with UN recommendations and the Refugee Act of 1980 (of 1980 PL96-212, 17 March 1980), which states that "it has always been the policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons persecuted in their countries of origin". In May 2020 alone, some 43,000 migrants were unable to seek asylum in the United States. Due to Covid-19, hearings are postponed to later dates and claimants must wait for their appointment on the Mexican side of the border, in accordance with the Migrant Protection Protocols, more commonly known as Remain in Mexico. They stay there in precarious health conditions that pose a serious risk of spreading the pandemic.


In mid-June, in a 160 page document, the Department of Homeland Security compiled a number of proposals already made in the past, but never adopted, aimed at drastically restricting the granting of refugee status.  Under the proposed provisions, the evidence to be provided to demonstrate the risk of persecution would be strengthened; judges would be able to deny applicants a hearing to explain their case; and asylum claims would be rejected if applicants did not attempt to apply for refugee status in one of the transit countries. If adopted, these measures would undermine what has historically been a pillar of U.S. migration policy.


The White House is also targeting migrants awaiting green cards. On April 21, Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he was about to sign a measure temporarily suspending legal immigration, including the issuance of green cards, "because of the attack by the Invisible Enemy and the need to protect the jobs of our great American citizens. " 


Déjà fort malmenés depuis trois années par les autorités américaines, nombre de migrants paient aujourd’hui le prix fort de la crise engendrée par le coronavirus et se trouvent prisonniers d’une « crise au sein de la crise », selon la formule des experts du Migration Policy Institute, Muzaffar Chishti et Sarah Pierce.  Celle-ci est largement exploitée à des fins électoralistes, à quelques mois de l’élection présidentielle.


This would be unprecedented in the history of the United States, which has always welcomed immigrants, even in the most difficult times, such as at the height of the Spanish flu of 1918 (110,000) or during the Second World War (170,000 not counting the tens of thousands of Mexican workers under the Bracero programme). In fact, the closure of U.S. consular services around the world to the public due to the pandemic was already a major impediment to applications for visas and green cards.


The content of the executive order finally adopted appears more measured than its announcement, which deeply irritated the most vocal anti-immigration presidential supporters. Applicants for green cards already present on US territory, as well as those joining a spouse or, in the case of minors, parents of US nationality, are not concerned, but economic migrants are particularly targeted (an exception is made for agricultural workers, declared "essential workers", applying for the H-2A visa).


Already badly treated for three years by the American authorities, many migrants are now paying a high price for the crisis caused by the coronavirus and find themselves trapped in a "crisis within the crisis", in the words of the Migration Policy Institute experts, Muzaffar Chishti and Sarah Pierce.  The crisis is being widely exploited for electoral purposes, a few months before the presidential election.


And meanwhile, ignoring the measures of distancing, the construction of the wall on the Mexican border continues in haste and (almost) in silence.

[1] DACA consists of a suspension of deportation for some young people when they entered the United States as minors with their undocumented parents. On 18 June 2020, the US Supreme Court, by 5 votes to 4, declared  that the Trump administration’s  “claims fail to establish a plausible inference that the rescission was motivated by animus in violation of the equal protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment.

Isabelle Vagnoux is a specialist in American history and politics, Professor at Aix-Marseille University. Her research is focused on US foreign policy, its relationship with South America, emigration policy and hispanic minorities. She co-manages the Relation à l'Autre, Mémoires, Identités program at the LERMA UR 853 lab, and the Observatoire des relations extérieures du monde anglophone (OREMA, LERMA) which holds a blog on Hypothèses. She is co-executive editor of the  interdisciplinary Journal of the Institut des Amériques, IdeAs, Idées d’Amérique.