Horace Walpole famously observed that the world is a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel. That about sums up my view of the Trump Administration’s immigration policies: They are so ludicrous and so removed from reality that they would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that people are dying. The most recent proposed regulation neatly fits into this dichotomy; it is as absurd as it is harmful.
Using the pandemic as an excuse, the Administration proposes expanding an existing bar–applicable to aliens deemed a “danger to the security of the United States”–to deny asylum to “aliens who potentially risk bringing in deadly infectious disease to, or facilitating its spread within, the United States.” As usual, the main targets of this latest policy are aliens seeking asylum at the Southern border, but other applicants might be effected as well. Also, unlike some of the prior bans, this one specifically targets non-citizens seeking protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
Let’s start with the law. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”), there are several “bars” to obtaining asylum. These bars prohibit granting asylum to aliens who (1) “ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated” in the persecution of others on account of a protected ground; (2) were convicted of a “particularly serious crime”; (3) committed a “serious nonpolitical crime outside the United States”; (4) are a “danger to the security of the United States”; (5) are involved in terrorist-related activities; or (6) were “firmly resettled in another country prior to arriving in the United States.”
Do you notice anything about these different bars? Except for number 6, they all involve people doing bad things. While “danger to the security of the United States” could theoretically be interpreted to include sick people, when considered in relation to the other bars, that interpretation doesn’t make a lot of sense. Indeed, there is a principle of statutory construction called ejusdem generis, which basically says that when you have a list that contains a vague term, you should interpret that term consistent with other items on the list. The BIA famously invoked ejusdem generis (and called it a “well-established doctrine”) in Matter of Acosta, when it interpreted the meaning of particular social group. So it seems more than a small stretch for the Trump Administration to define “danger to the security of the United States” in such broad terms, and we can hold out some hope that this provision will be struck down because it violates the INA (and, by the way, the proposed regulation invokes similar logic to try to block people from obtaining Withholding of Removal).
Assuming the new rule goes into effect, what constitutes a danger to security? According to the proposed regulation, “In determining whether there are reasonable grounds for regarding an alien or a class of aliens as a danger to the security of the United States… the Secretary of Homeland Security may consider whether the alien exhibits symptoms consistent with being afflicted with any contagious or infectious disease or has come into contact with such disease, or whether the alien or class of aliens is coming from a country, or a political subdivision or region of that country, or has embarked at a place, where such disease is prevalent or epidemic.” So if an alien seems sick, or if she traveled through an area that the U.S. government believes contains an epidemic, she will be barred from asylum. Worse, this regulation gives the government the power to bar a “class of aliens” from asylum. Presumably, that would be aliens from a particular country, or who passed through a particular area.
While this rule applies to all asylum seekers, I suspect that if it is implemented, it will mostly affect those who arrive at the border (or an airport) and request protection. Such aliens undergo a credible fear interview (an initial evaluation of asylum eligibility). If the alien “passes” the credible fear interview, he can present his claim to an Immigration Judge, who then grants asylum, some other relief, or orders the person deported. Up until now, the asylum bars did not apply to credible fear interviews. However, under the proposed regulation, an alien subject to a bar would “fail” the credible fear interview and likely be deported. This means that if an alien comes from, or passes through, an area where an epidemic is prevalent, or if she appears sick, her request for protection in the U.S. will be automatically rejected.
Let’s think about this for a moment. Under this new rule, if a person was imprisoned, beaten and raped due to her political opinion, and then she escapes her country, she will be denied protection in the United States and sent home simply because she traveled through an area that is experiencing an epidemic. Even if she herself is not sick! How nice.
One last element of this proposed regulation that I want to discuss is the rule related to Convention Against Torture (“CAT”) relief. Under the CAT, the U.S. cannot return a person to a country where he will be tortured. There are essentially no exceptions to this rule. But the proposed regulation seeks to change this–
If the alien makes this showing [that he is more likely than not to suffer torture in the home country], then DHS can choose in its discretion to place the alien in [Immigration Court] proceedings… or return the alien to a third country under appropriate standards.
In other words, when the alien arrives at the border to request protection, she must show that it is “more likely than not” that she will be tortured in the home country. This is a very high standard of proof for someone just arriving in the U.S. who likely does not understand the asylum system or have access to a legal counsel. Further, even if the alien somehow manages to demonstrate that she will be tortured in the home country, DHS can simply choose to send her to a third country (and this can happen–the Trump Administration has bullied or convinced Guatemala to accept some asylum seekers). Basically, we get to wash our hand of our responsibility to protect torture survivors.
The only saving grace here is that this regulation is so poorly thought out that it is susceptible to a court challenge. Also, it seems to me that there is a much easier way to determine whether an asylum seeker is a “danger to the security of the United States” due to disease: Give him a test for that disease. If he is negative, there is no reason to bar him from asylum. If he is positive, maybe–I don’t know, this may sound crazy–help him get better. Treating human beings humanely. Sadly, it’s a novel concept in Trump’s America.