12 changes to the US immigration system during the coronavirus pandemic

COVID-19 Pandemic

MIAMI – JULY 2: People wait in line to have their passports checked by Immigration inspectors July 2, 2002 at Miami International Airport in Miami, Forida. Inspectors are using the new multi-agency DataShare database which gives not only biographic information but also pictures of visa holders. At more than 300 ports of entry across the U.S. the new system is being used for visa holders who receive their documents at consular posts around the world. While information on immigrant visas has been available through DataShare since 1995, information on temporary visitors, or non-immigrants, has been widely available on DataShare only since January of this year. The addition of non-immigrant information to the DataShare system was put on a fast-track immediately following the September terrorist attacks. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

As the United States responds to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has made sweeping changes to the country’s immigration apparatus, altering daily operations and disrupting the lives of thousands.

In a little over a week, there have been a dozen changes, ranging from postponing immigration hearings to pausing deportation flights to certain countries and suspending refugee admissions. The tweaks to the system are being made incrementally, though rapidly, as the pandemic spreads across the country.

Against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration is also trying to move forward with some of its most restrictionist policies that have struggled to be put into practice, including blocking entry to asylum seekers.

President Donald Trump confirmed he’s planning to bar entry to migrants during a White House briefing Wednesday. “The answer’s yes,” Trump said when asked if he was planning to take that step, which he said would come “very soon,” adding, “Probably today.”

Below is a list of the changes to the immigration system over recent days:

ICE changes immigration enforcement operations

March 18: Immigrations and Customs Enforcement told congressional staffers that it has temporarily adjusted its “enforcement posture,” according to a memo obtained by CNN, marking a change in operations as a result of the pandemic. The agency said it will focus on those who pose a public safety risk and are “subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.”

Immigrant advocates have called on ICE to dial back operations amid the coronavirus outbreak, arguing that the agency has instilled fear in the immigrant community and might discourage some from seeking medical attention.

The agency said in its memo to staffers that it will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, “except in the most extraordinary circumstances,” adding that individuals should not avoid seeking medical care over fears of enforcement.

DOJ closes more immigration courts, postpones hearings

March 18: The Justice Department closed an additional 10 immigration courts, spread across the country, through April 10, and postponed all hearings of cases of immigrants who are not in detention. The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the immigration courts, had previously made incremental changes, to the frustration of immigration judges, lawyers, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement prosecutors, who urged the administration to close courts for the safety of staff and immigrants.

US and Canada suspend most cross-border travel

March 18: United States and Canada announced plans to suspend nonessential travel between the two countries because of the pandemic. Trump tweeted: “We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic. Trade will not be affected. Details to follow!”

Refugee admissions paused

March 18: The United States paused refugee admissions. The move comes after the International Organization for Migration, which is in charge of booking refugees’ travel, and the UN refugee agency announced a suspension of resettlement travel. The agencies shared concerns in a statement this week, saying international travel “could increase the exposure of refugees to the virus.”

The pause is expected to be in place from March 19 through April 6.

ICE suspends some deportation flights

March 18: ICE told CNN that removal flights to Italy, China and South Korea have been suspended. While the situation is quickly evolving, however, ICE is continuing to deport immigrants. Prior to boarding, however, immigrants undergo a temperature screening. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher is referred to a medical provider, according to ICE’s website.

USCIS suspends in-person services

March 17: US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it’s suspending its in-person services, including all interviews and naturalization ceremonies, to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus. USCIS is responsible for administering the nation’s legal immigration system, including green cards, citizenship and asylum and refugee processing. It administers naturalization ceremonies across the country — one of the most public and cherished duties the agency carries out. The suspension will extend until at least April 1.

ICE reschedules in-person check-ins and pushes back timeline for recent arrivals

March 17: ICE notified congressional staffers that it will temporarily reschedule in-person appointments of immigrants who are not in detention to “minimize the impact” of coronavirus. The agency will also allow those recently released from the southern border to check in at 60 days, instead of 30 days.

Guatemala says it’s suspending asylum agreement with US

March 17: An asylum agreement between the United States and Guatemala was suspended out of caution over the coronavirus, Guatemala’s government announced, a setback for the Trump administration, which has increasingly relied on its accord with the country to curb asylum. The move came a day after Alejandro Giammattei, president of Guatemala, said the country was closing its borders in an attempt to prevent the virus’s spread.

US extends travel restrictions to the UK and Ireland

March 16: Americans, legal permanent residents and their immediate families returning from Ireland and the United Kingdom began to be funneled into 13 select US airports, where they went through enhanced screening, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The two countries had been initially excluded from travel restrictions related to coronavirus.

ICE announces a temporary end to social visitation at detention facilities

March 13: ICE said it ceased social visitation in all of its detention facilities. The agency had previously announced that it had put protocols in place, in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to protect staff and detainees.

US implements Europe travel restrictions

March 13: The Trump administration added more countries to its list of travel restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Earlier this year, the administration had restricted travel from China and Iran. Most foreign nationals who were in Europe’s Schengen Area — 26 countries stretching from Iceland to Greece — in the past 14 days are barred from entering the US. American citizens, green card holders and immediate family members are exempt from the travel ban but will face additional health screening and restrictions when they arrive. The restrictions led to prolonged wait times at select airports, with passengers squeezed together and waiting to get through US customs, after returning from overseas.

Migrant children no longer placed in Washington state and California

March 10: The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency tasked with the care of migrant children, temporarily stopped placing kids who arrive in the US without parents or guardians in shelters in California and Washington state, unless in limited circumstances. The Health and Human Services Department funds a network of more than 100 facilities where migrant children are cared for until they’re released to sponsors in the United States. The children are turned over to HHS after being taken into custody by the Department of Homeland Security.

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