The United States has criminalized asylum seeking. Covid-19 gives us a reason to reconsider.

A camp in Matamoros, Mexico, for migrants from Central America seeking asylum in the United States. Photo taken on Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)A camp in Matamoros, Mexico, for migrants from Central America seeking asylum in the United States. Photo taken on Nov. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

If Covid-19 makes anything clear, it is that all of creation is connected. This pandemic is revealing the extent of our physical dependency on one another and our environment. Of course, this connection has been affirmed theologically throughout the Catholic tradition. In St. Augustine’s words, human beings are “linked together by a common fellowship based on a common nature,” and Pope Francis drives the point home in the encyclical “Laudato Si’,” emphasizing that “everything is connected.” In global efforts to maintain social distance, we are seeing, paradoxically, an incredible moment of solidarity—of recognizing our connections and acting for the sake of the common good.

The undiscriminating nature of Covid-19 also reveals the ways in which our political and social structures reflect and perpetuate artificial divisions—marginalizing and devaluing the vulnerable among us. Take asylum policies in the United States, for example.

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“We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained.”

We have criminalized irregular migration, including seeking asylum, by imprisoning thousands of migrants in detention centers and sending thousands more into makeshift camps on the Mexican side of the border. The United Nations condemns such practices: “Criminalising people on the basis of their migration status can lead to a number of other human rights violations, including discriminatory profiling, arbitrary arrest and detention, family separation, and the inability to access critical health care, housing, [and] education.” Nevertheless, a Congressional Research Service report concluded there were around 54,000 people booked overnight in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in the United States as of last June, packed into facilities with approximately 45,300 beds—this does not include thousands more who are held in these facilities daily for initial processing. And in Mexican towns across the border, thousands of migrant families are living in tents, waiting. They are crowded together, sharing toilets and sinks, with limited access to health care or sanitation supplies.

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These practices violate the human rights outlined in the U.N. Global Compact on Migrants and Refugees—the development of which was assisted by the Vatican’s “20 Action Points for the Global Compacts,” and they compromise the health and well-being of migrants, even under normal circumstances. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general issued a report stating, “We are concerned that overcrowding and prolonged detention represent an immediate risk to the health and safety of DHS agents and officers, and to those detained.” Meanwhile, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said in January that asylum seekers caught on the other side of the border by the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy are subjected to horrific violence while they wait to make their case to the United States.

Now we are seeing the tremendous health crisis these policies have manufactured: The unsanitary conditions in the camps pose an extreme health risk to asylum seekers and to the humanitarian organizations on the front lines of the border; and though the number of overnight book-ins does not always exceed the number of beds, crowded detention centers are “cauldrons for infectious disease,” as Amanda Holpuch reports in The Guardian. An outbreak of Covid-19 is nearly inevitable in detention centers and migrant camps—the chances increased by the impossibility of maintaining social distance in such conditions.

An outbreak of Covid-19 is nearly inevitable in detention centers and migrant camps—the chances increased by the impossibility of maintaining social distance in such conditions.

The threat of Covid-19 is aggravated for these migrant families because our policies criminalize their search for a better life. It is time to reconsider our responses to those who come to our border seeking refuge. Alternatives to detention permit migrants to live with family members or sponsors who are settled in the United States already, and in the past such options have proven extremely effective in ensuring compliance with immigration proceedings. If these alternatives were favored, those thousands of people would not languish in detention centers or camps but would live with dignity and safety, contributing to their families and our communities at a much lower economic cost to the federal budget.

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If the presence of asylum seekers in U.S. communities would compromise national security and economic stability, we should be offering financial support and trade to the Latin American countries we have asked to take asylum seekers in our stead—not only Mexico but also the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), which are underdeveloped, crime-ridden and politically unstable. Given the history of U.S. political and economic imperialism in the region, as well as our geographical proximity to the region, it is both ethically and strategically imperative to offer assistance now.

We should also be working to implement health and safety protocols in the migrant camps, including setting up clinics and opening hospitals to the migrants living on the margins. Taking a holistic approach will ensure dignified conditions for migrants and equal burden-sharing on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The interconnection of human beings, made so visceral by the coronavirus pandemic, should be reflected in our policies toward migrants and refugees.

The Lenten season provides a rich opportunity to re-evaluate our approach to migration. A few weeks ago, we were going to focus on giving up some of our daily conveniences and sharing with those in need. But the outbreak of Covid-19 has given new meaning to personal sacrifice. As we now give up our social lives, our easy access to food, even our incomes and the education of our children to serve our neighbors, let us remember the blueprint for the ultimate fast, found in Isaiah 58: “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly [and] setting free the oppressed?... Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?”

While we are isolated in our homes, we should renew our energy to advocate for the structural change necessary to protect our vulnerable brothers and sisters at our borders—now and after this crisis has passed.

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