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Indefinite Extension of Border Shutdown has No Credible Basis in Public Health: PHR

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) today announced an indefinite extension of an order which shuts down the U.S. border and suspends the asylum system. This ban on asylum seekers is inhumane, illegal, and has no basis in public health, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today.

“The CDC’s actions are driven by immigration politics rather than public health,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, medical director at PHR and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan. “This rule violates U.S. and international legal obligations toward asylum seekers looking for safe haven in the United States. The administration is brazenly using COVID-19 to enact its immigration agenda, effectively dismantling decades of U.S. asylum policy under the guise of public health.”

On April 23, PHR medical experts submitted a Public Comment to the CDC, outlining why the ban on asylum seekers at the border is illegal and lacks a basis in public health. 

PHR interviewed six renowned experts in infectious disease epidemiology to review and analyze the CDC order. All six experts found that the order is not grounded in public health, as the measures do not apply to all individuals who have been exposed to COVID-19 and target a group solely based on their immigration status.

The six public health experts concluded that asylum seekers are no more likely to spread COVID-19 than any of the groups – such as students, temporary workers, and truck drivers – that are currently exempt from the border restrictions. There is simply no public health justification for a categorical ban on asylum seekers or unaccompanied children, PHR experts have stated.

“Physicians for Human Rights calls on the administration to rescind this pernicious rule immediately, restore protections for asylum seekers, and ensure future policies are consistent with U.S. legal obligations and evidence-based public health guidance,” said Dr. Heisler.

The CDC writes that the extension will be in effect from midnight on May 21, 2020 “until the CDC Director determines that the danger of further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States from covered aliens has ceased to be a serious danger to the public health, and the Order is no longer necessary to protect the public health.”

However, this faulty logic contradicts the administration’s claims that the country is ready to reopen. There is no data to suggest that asylum seekers pose this “serious danger to the public health.” Instead, U.S. policies contribute to dangerous environments on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, where under-resourced migrant encampments and crowded shelters expose migrants to many threats to their health and safety.

“The administration is creating a false choice between protecting public health amid the pandemic or protecting those seeking asylum and humanitarian protections,” said Dr. Heisler. “We can and must do both.”

On Monday, PHR joined leading medical and human rights organizations to publish detailed guidance on how to protect public health and asylum seekers: “Public Health Measures to Safely Manage Asylum Seekers and Children at the Border.” These measures include social distancing, wearing masks or similar coverings, using hand sanitizer, demarcations and barriers, health screenings, sheltering in place at homes of family members through proven case management strategies, and more.

More than 40 of the nation’s top infectious disease experts, including several PHR medical experts and Advisory Council members, sent a letter to the administration highlighting how there is “no public health rationale for denying admission to individuals based on legal status.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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