Dear Acting Secretary Wolf,
We write to you with concern for the safety and health of people seeking asylum in the United States. As countries around the world race to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must take care to ensure that the rights and safety of asylum seekers are not compromised.
Any one of us would want to know that if our families ever faced hard times and were forced to make the difficult choice to leave our homes, we would have the right to do that, and to seek safety elsewhere. People seeking asylum in the United States are fleeing dangerous situations in their home countries. By banning access to asylum and circumventing legal processes at the border, the U.S. is forcing asylum seekers into extreme danger, which runs contrary to our legacy as a humane country that offers opportunity and promise.
At this critical moment, it is important to remember that access to asylum is a legal right that has been enshrined in U.S. and international law for decades. Turning away men, women, and children seeking safety is not only unlawful but will force asylum seekers into increasingly more precarious, unsafe, and unsanitary situations. Many of the signers of this letter have the privilege of social distancing: protecting ourselves and our community in these difficult times, and we know that for so many this practice is simply out of reach, which is a threat to their own health and the public at large.
We therefore call on you to immediately take these steps:
Uphold human rights at the border. Asylum seekers cannot be turned away and denied the opportunity to seek asylum, even when there is a public health crisis. To do so is to send people back to immediate danger and deny them a basic right to be able to flee violence and persecution, which many feel may be a more dire threat to their lives than even the coronavirus.
End the Remain in Mexico program. The U.S. should continue processing asylum seekers at our borders, and then should release them into the U.S., as we have for decades. This would significantly reduce the risk of people contracting and spreading the infection in the crowded and dirty encampments along the U.S.-Mexico border, where they are at high risk for extortion, kidnapping, assault, and now COVID-19.
Release people from immigration detention. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should release all individuals who do not pose a threat to the public. Elderly, health compromised, and pregnant immigrants should be released from detention immediately. Where appropriate and necessary, alternatives to detention should be used.
Whether we were born in this country or we immigrated here, whether we were refugees ourselves or are the grandchildren of refugees, no matter where we live or have lived, each one of us is human, and we are all connected by our struggle, our hope, our resilience and our humanity.
The doors to our homes may be closed, but our hearts are open to all those who seek a better future.