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In emergencies, things are done at speed, often without due process. That has become apparent as the coronavirus pandemic picks up pace. In Italy, the prime minister called a middle-of-the-night press conference to announce the shutdown of much of his country. In France, the president has mandated that people are now required to have a document with them justifying their reason for being outdoors.
In a matter of weeks, the unthinkable has become the new normal: the Schengen Agreement, guaranteeing free movement within the European Union, has withered, at least temporarily. Transatlantic air links are shutting down. The US-Canada border is largely closed. Most countries are now trying to seal themselves off from neighbors, especially from hot-zone regions. Maybe all of this is merited by the urgent need to slow the infection rate.
For now, faced with an unprecedented global pandemic, we knuckle down and say it’s all for the greater good. But even in these terrifying times, we must not lose our critical faculties, our ability to parse what’s necessary from what’s politically convenient. We must pay attention to the Signal, even when the news—be it the growing numbers of infected and dead, the health systems that are reaching their breaking point, or the economic collapse that is throwing millions out of work—is so terrible that it bludgeons us into a defensive stupor.
For example: This week, the border with Mexico is largely being sealed, and all those trying to enter and claim asylum are being turned back, with no right to a court hearing, no attempt to investigate whether they really are fleeing for their lives. This has been Stephen Miller’s dream from the get-go; now it’s the reality.
The Trump administration argues that it has no choice but to do this, because the asylum seekers could be carrying the virus (although, based on the national infection numbers, it’s far more likely that people from the United States heading south would spread the virus to Latin America). And then, in what might be one of this administration’s most brazenly hypocritical rhetorical pivots, it argues that it’s doing this for the would-be asylees’ own good: that Washington simply doesn’t want to risk their health by incarcerating them in closed facilities, where the disease can quickly spread.
It’s true that closed facilities are a risk. That’s why New York’s Rikers Island is starting to release nonviolent and medically vulnerable inmates. It’s why Sacramento, where I live, is releasing many nonviolent inmates from its jails. Around the country, and indeed the world, court hearings are being postponed, and the use of jails is being pared down to an extraordinary degree. Iran went so far as to furlough tens of thousands of prisoners.
But immigrant rights advocates have been arguing throughout Trump’s presidency that asylum seekers should not be confined in prison settings. That didn’t stop the administration from locking up people, including children, in fetid quarters where mumps, measles, chicken pox, flu, scabies, and other afflictions have wreaked havoc. It didn’t stop the administration from sending thousands of desperate asylum seekers to unsanitary camps in Mexico. It didn’t stop the administration from embracing family separation as a deterrent to would-be-migrants—a policy so cruel that, as I recently wrote, Physicians for Human Rights has called it tantamount to torture.
Any other administration could have let the desperate families in and furloughed them rather than putting them into detention camps. But no; in the midst of a pandemic—one that could have been controlled many weeks ago had the administration not decided to forgo mass testing, had Trump not spun conspiracy theories about the coronavirus’s being a “hoax,” had he not boasted and blathered instead of taking his scientific advisers’ advice seriously—this moral midget decides to beat up on immigrants again.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has suspended all naturalization ceremonies and asylum-seeking in-person interviews. All refugee admissions into the United States have been suspended.
Friends, don’t minimize the scale of this tragedy that is unfolding in our communities and hospitals. But also, don’t stop thinking critically. This administration has never missed an opportunity to blame immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees for our woes. Don’t believe it now when it suddenly sheds crocodile tears for vulnerable asylees.
And the Noise? As the disease numbers spiral upward and the boom economy heads toward depression, Trump bemoans the spreading of the “Chinese Virus” and awards himself a 10-out-of-10 for his response to the pandemic.