An unprecedented global pandemic that knows no borders has brought into sharp focus the intersection of U.S. immigration and public health policy, and the unique challenges that immigrants face in the United States today. 

By Muzaffar Chishti and Sarah Pierce

The Trump administration, which before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had introduced some of the most stringent immigration restrictions in modern times, has raced to put in place a sweeping series of measures in response to the crisis. In the process, it has further advanced its longstanding immigration goals, including summarily ending asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The first action taken by the administration in response to the COVID-19 outbreak that originated in China was a ban on travel from that country for non-U.S. citizens or residents; those restrictions have been extended to many more countries since, including Iran and all of Europe. In perhaps one of the administration’s starkest actions, it also effectively ended asylum at U.S. land borders by invoking the power given to the Surgeon General in 1944 to block the entry of foreign nationals who pose a public health risk.

As a result, asylum seekers and other migrants are being pushed back into Mexico or returned to their countries. Working with the Canadian and Mexican governments, the United States has closed its northern and southern borders to nonessential travel—the first time such action has been taken. And in an extraordinary advisory, the State Department has urged Americans not to travel overseas and is encouraging those abroad to return to the United States.

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