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COVID-19 Prompts Sweeping Changes to US Immigration Policies

U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House in Washington, March 19, 2020.

The spread of COVID-19 is triggering changes to U.S. immigration policies, procedures and enforcement, as the Trump administration has relaxed some initiatives targeting undocumented immigrants while expanding programs to block entry of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

While seeking to “flatten the curve” of new COVID-19 infections, U.S. officials have limited immigration enforcement domestically while taking additional steps to turn away asylum-seekers at America’s southern border.

Blocking asylum-seekers, some travelers

During a White House briefing Wednesday, President Donald Trump said officials were planning to bar entry to migrants at the border, adding the rule would come “very soon.”

First reported by The New York Times, U.S. officials said the country could not put Border Patrol agents at risk and allow the virus to spread through detention facilities. U.S. citizens, green card holders and others with valid documentation will still be able to cross to the U.S. through ports of entry.

Other travelers, such as Europeans currently subject to travel restrictions due to COVID-19 spread, will not be allowed passage.

ICE operations

On March 18, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it was cutting back enforcement operations as a result of the pandemic. In a statement, the agency said it would focus on apprehending undocumented immigrants who pose a risk to public safety or whose detention is mandatory on criminal grounds.

An agency memo indicated it would not carry out “enforcement operations at or near health care facilities such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.”

But Acting ICE Director Ken Cuccinelli later appeared to modify the announcements, tweeting, “ICE will, as it has during other times of crisis, conduct enforcement operations that protect our communities and uphold our laws. … That does not mean that no other removable aliens will in fact be removed. But during the current public health situation, removals will be done in such a way as to minimize the exposure [to COVID-19] of our agents and of the removable aliens we are encountering.”

United States and Canada

The neighboring countries announced plans to suspend nonessential travel between them, spurred by the COVID-19 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!"

Immigration courts

Most U.S. immigration courts are still operating but with a reduced workload, despite pressure from immigration judges and others to close all courts.

Of the immigration 69 courts nationwide, 11 are shuttered. The remaining 58 are conducting closed immigration hearings for individuals currently detained. Hearings for those not in detention are postponed.

Refugee admissions

Another move by the Trump administration affecting immigrants to the United States during the COVID-19 crisis is suspending refugee admission to the U.S.

The decision came after the International Organization for Migration and the U.N. refugee agency halted resettlement travel until at least April 16.

“The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program coordinates refugee arrivals with its international humanitarian implementing partners, IOM and UNHCR,” a State Department spokesperson said. "The temporary suspension of resettlement travel programs globally will impact the arrival of refugees in the United States and other countries with refugee resettlement programs."

Stopping deportations

On March 18, ICE told VOA it had suspended immigrant removal flights to Italy, China, and South Korea — countries that have reported high totals of COVID-19 cases. The agency said more countries may be added to the list.

In-office USCIS services suspended

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for administering the nation's legal immigration system, including green cards, citizenship, and asylum and refugee processing, announced it was suspending its in-person services, including naturalization ceremonies and green card interviews.

“USCIS staff will continue to perform duties that do not involve contact with the public. However, USCIS will provide emergency services for limited situations,” the agency posted on its website.