Legislative Bulletin – Friday, March 20, 2020

BILLS INTRODUCED AND CONSIDERED
LEGISLATIVE FLOOR CALENDAR
UPCOMING HEARINGS AND MARKUPS
THEMES IN WASHINGTON THIS WEEK
GOVERNMENT REPORTS
SPOTLIGHT ON NATIONAL IMMIGRATION FORUM RESOURCES

BILLS INTRODUCED AND CONSIDERED

There were no immigration-related bills introduced or considered the week of Monday, March 16, 2020.

LEGISLATIVE FLOOR CALENDAR

According to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate will remain in session until the third Coronavirus stimulus package is passed.

The U.S. House of Representatives will be in session from Tuesday, March 24, 2020 to Thursday March 26, 2020.

UPCOMING HEARINGS AND MARKUPS

There are no immigration-related hearings or markups currently scheduled in the U.S. Senate or the U.S. House of Representatives.

THEMES IN WASHINGTON THIS WEEK

 Federal

U.S. to Close Southern Border to Asylum Seekers

The Trump administration is reportedly planning to issue new restrictions on the U.S.-Mexico border in the wake of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. Under the planned rule, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents would immediately return to Mexico anyone who crosses the Southern border between ports of entry (POEs). The policy would include returning asylum seekers to Mexico without due process or a screening for having a “credible fear” of being returned.

Mexican officials were reportedly “blindsided” by the plans, thereby delaying their implementation. One official said the arrangement “requires cooperation and coordination, and at this point we don’t have anything formal.” The official noted that most of Mexico’s coronavirus cases are from people who crossed the border from the U.S. As of March 20, Mexico has had 118 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The U.S. has had more than 12,000.

The new rule would be the latest in a long line of asylum restrictions instituted by the Trump administration. In 2018, the administration similarly attempted to reject asylum seekers who crossed the border between POEs, but that policy was struck down by the Supreme Court. Since then, the administration has enacted a series of subsequent policies to restrict or slow down asylum claims, including flying would-be asylum seekers to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador under a set of Asylum Cooperative Agreements with those countries. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, Guatemala has blocked deportation flights from the U.S. and moved to suspend the agreement.

Administration Suspends Processing of Agricultural Guestworker Visas

As part of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the administration announced on March 18 that it is suspending processing of some H-2A temporary agriculture guestworker visas and blocking entry of H-2A workers from Mexico. The restrictions would not affect returning workers who have used the H-2A program in previous years. The processing delays are likely to have a significant impact on farmers, particularly those in labor-intensive fruit and vegetable industries with spring and summer harvests.

On March 19, Senator Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina), along with over one hundred other Members of Congress, sent a letter to the administration responding to the H-2A suspensions and requesting relief for farmers. The letter states that, “suspending visa services that our farmers rely on will be detrimental to families across our nation trying to put food on the table.”

The H-2A cancellations are just one of 26 changes the administration has made thus far to U.S. immigration policy in response to the spread of the virus. In addition to agricultural guest worker visas, the administration has also suspended processing of other temporary visas, including those for camp counselors, resort workers and exchange program participants. However, according to a March 18 report, the administration is considering significantly increasing the number of EB-5 foreign investor visas.

USCIS Offices Close Due to Coronavirus Risk, Immigration Courts Remain Open

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on March 18 it will immediately close its offices across the United States until at least April 1 in response to the spread of COVID-19. USCIS stated it would suspend “in-person services at its field offices, asylum offices and Application Support Centers (ASCs),” effectively postponing asylum applications, naturalization ceremonies and other services. USCIS said it will send notices to applications with scheduled appointments and naturalization ceremonies impacted by the closure. USCIS will still process emergency requests and applications that do not involve contact with the public.

Immigration advocates noted that the closure of USCIS offices could prevent DACA recipients whose work authorization and deportation protections expire in the next few months from renewing their DACA protections, which require an in-person biometrics exam. They urged the Trump administration to automatically renew all permits for DACA recipients whose protections expire in 2020.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is also limiting some operations of U.S. immigration courts. DOJ has closed 11 of 69 immigration courts and is postponing all preliminary hearings for nondetailed migrants that were scheduled from March 16 to April 10. Many hearings, including all hearings for detained migrants and for asylum seekers in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), continue to move forward in immigration courts that are still open. Immigration judges, lawyers and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) attorneys have called for the courts to close temporarily. At least one immigration judge in Denver appears to have contracted the virus.

ICE Will Not Conduct Broad Immigration Enforcement During Coronavirus Outbreak

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on March 18 that, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, it will temporarily stop broad immigration enforcement across the United States, focusing only on circumstances that involve individuals who committed crimes or pose a threat to public safety. ICE also stated it will “delay enforcement actions” and utilize “alternatives to detention” for the duration of the outbreak. ICE also said it will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, including hospitals, doctors’ offices and health clinics, clarifying that individuals should not avoid medical care due to fear of immigration enforcement. The agency said the new policy will “ensure the welfare and safety of the general public as well as officers and agents.”

The policy approach appears to resemble the Obama administration’s approach to immigration enforcement, which focused on deporting immigrants with serious criminal offenses. But on March 18, Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli, in an attempt to clarify “misreporting” about the ICE statement, wrote that the announcement “does not mean that no other removable aliens will in fact be removed.” The Trump administration expanded the agency’s priorities for deportation in early 2017 to include all undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Doctors, immigration lawyers and former ICE officials have also urged the Trump administration to release individuals in ICE detention to avoid a coronavirus outbreaks in immigration detention facilities. A former ICE official said conditions in immigration detention represent “the exact situation everyone is cautioning against…a bunch of people contained in a very small environment.” ICE has not provided information on its plans related to immigration detention and COVID-19 response. At least 10 detainees are in quarantine for potential exposure to the virus. There are about 37,000 people currently detained in the system.

Canada, U.S. Close Border Except for Essential Travel

On March 18, the United States and Canada agreed to temporarily limit travel between the two countries in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The restrictions will apply to all “nonessential” travel, exempting any “urgent” or commercial reasons for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defined the restrictions as primarily applying to tourism and cross-border shoppers. Trade across the border would still be permitted, including deliveries of food, fuel, and medicine. There is no set expiration date for the restrictions.

Administration Pauses Refugee Admissions

On March 18, a State Department spokesperson confirmed that the United States is temporarily halting all refugee admissions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The move by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program follows similar decisions made by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), who have halted refugee resettlement around the world. The organizations cited concern that international travel would increase refugees’ exposure to the virus.

The pause in U.S. refugee admissions is set to end on April 6.

Legal

ACLU Files Lawsuit Urging Immigrant Detention Centers Release At-Risk Detainees

On March 16, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seeking the release of migrants in the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center who are now at high risk due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The suit, filed in partnership with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), focused on the Tacoma detention center because of the extent of the outbreak in the adjacent Seattle area, which has already seen 420 confirmed cases and 37 deaths. The groups allege that ICE has a responsibility to protect the health of detainees and that immigrants have the legal right to be protected from communicable diseases while in government custody. Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, explained in a statement that “Public health experts have warned that failing to reduce the number of people detained — and in particular, failing to release those particularly vulnerable to the disease — endangers the lives of everyone in the detention facility, including staff, and the broader community.”

GOVERNMENT REPORTS

U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO): Actions Needed to Improve DHS Processing of Families and Coordination Between DHS and HHS (March 18, 2020).

This GAO report reviews the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) processing of family units apprehended at the Southern border. The report examines U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data on apprehended family unit members, the processing procedures used by both CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and how DHS shared information with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding unaccompanied children. The report found 2,700 instances in which children were separated from their parents and that 60% of family separations were not correctly documented by DHS. The report recommends additional controls and procedures to better track separated family units.

SPOTLIGHT ON NATIONAL IMMIGRATION FORUM RESOURCES

COVID-19 Policy Principles

This page lists the National Immigration Forum’s policy principles in response to the new Coronavirus outbreak. The resource calls for congressional officials and federal agencies to provide for the health and safety of all people, including vulnerable immigrant populations, in the midst of the pandemic. 

Economic Impact of Undocumented Farmworkers

This infographic details the economic contributions of undocumented farmworkers. It notes their significant contributions both on the farm and outside the farm gate.

Factsheet: U.S. Asylum Process

This fact sheet provides an overview of the U.S. asylum process, including the process by which an individual can apply for asylum in the U.S., how long the asylum process takes and how many people acquire asylum each year.

* * *

*This Bulletin is not intended to be comprehensive. Please contact Danilo Zak, National Immigration Forum Policy and Advocacy Associate, with comments and suggestions of additional items to be included. Danilo can be reached at dzak@immigrationforum.org. Thank you.

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