Almost nothing has remained immune from the global COVID-19 pandemic—including international transit. Countless plans have been canceled due to travel restrictions imposed by nations across the world as a result of the coronavirus.
But legitimate international travel is not the only kind that has been affected. Migratory routes utilized by those who enter the United States illegally are experiencing significantly reduced traffic.
One human smuggler in Guatemala alleged in April that he had been unable to transport migrants through Mexico for three weeks. In addition, the Northern Triangle countries (which include Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) have instituted their own border closures and strict lockdowns, greatly hindering the migration that usually flows from these areas.
“The main reason people aren’t leaving is no matter how bad things are where you are, you don’t move to another country where you have an uncertain future,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “And for those who were planning an unauthorized journey going through informal routes, you would rather stay with your family there that can at least survive through solidarity, than start a journey to the United States.”
The truth is that travel to the American border for these individuals has never been without high levels of uncertainty—and even danger. Many fall victim to violent crimes and atrocities. One report by Doctors Without Borders contains disturbing statistics regarding how many of these migrants are subjected to sexual abuse, including 17% of adult males.
Long infamous for distributing illicit drugs, cartels have turned to human trafficking as a profitable source of income. Sadly, migrants have shown to be susceptible to falling into the dangerous hands of these cartels. Desperate to get to the United States, they will pay thousands of dollars to try and secure safe transit, often only to be coerced into the sex trade or other types of servitude.
Measures taken by the Trump administration in response to coronavirus have also deterred unlawful transit across America’s southern border. For years, migrants have entered the country through unauthorized means with the hopes of claiming political asylum and being allowed to stay in the United States—thus continually adding to an enormous backlog of asylum claims. In fact, pending immigration court cases in total numbered over one million as of March 2020.
But under current orders, “the United States will expeditiously return aliens who cross between ports of entry or are otherwise not allowed to enter the country.” Out of 59 migrants, only two have been granted asylum since these policies went into effect on March 20.
But the COVID-19 pandemic and its corresponding effects will not last forever, and the border measures currently in place are only temporary.
For years, there has been a call and increasingly urgent need for strengthened border security, as well as for reformed immigration and asylum procedures. During this respite from normal migration patterns, policymakers would do well to determine what measures could successfully attain these ends.
This is essential because a secure border and efficient, fair immigration processes will provide protections not only for citizens of the United States but also for a much more vulnerable population: the migrants themselves.