Poma: Trump Wants to Close the Border to Slow the Pandemic. I Don’t Trust Him to Reopen It.


President Donald J. Trump, joined by United States Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan and Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan Department of Homeland Security, visit the border area of Otay Mesa, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, a neighborhood along the Mexican border in San Diego, California. (Photo by Shealah Craighead | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

By Sasha Poma , Assistant Opinion Editor


Coverage of COVID-19 can be difficult to sift through. Given the global scale and rapid pace of the crisis, it can be easy to get lost among all the new information and not know about some pressing issues. Recently, President Donald Trump announced that they would close the Canadian and Mexican borders to nonessential travel, which he says is to address the novel coronavirus. Considering Trump’s stance on immigration from Latin America, the decision to close borders likely involved ulterior motives and it seems like it will be difficult to convince him to re-open the border.


Potential Benefits for Temporary Border Closure

Closing the borders and limiting the movement within an area has proven effective under certain circumstances. China locked down its borders and the number of new cases each day has slowed, but according to one World Health Organization expert, it is mainly due to “case finding, contact tracing and suspension of public gatherings.” Italy locked down a few weeks ago but there were fears that too many citizens were ignoring the local lockdown orders. After increased restrictions and charging those who broke lockdown orders, there are signs that the lockdown is working. Effective and timely border closure can possibly lower the infection rates — even if it doesn’t appear to work right off the bat — but it is not nearly enough on its own.

The underlying rationale for closing the borders is similar to that of social distancing — reducing the number of people one comes in contact with can slow the spread of the virus. But as another public health expert explained, “closing borders only works in the very early days of an outbreak, or for countries that haven’t yet detected any cases at all.” The U.S. currently ranks highest in the number of confirmed cases. At one point, restricting travel in and out of the country may have been part of a plausible solution, but now it seems nowhere near enough.


Where Are Trump’s Priorities?

A family on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Trump does not have the best track record when it comes to tactfully expressing his policy positions for the southern border or faithfully executing national policy. In early March, Trump tweeted that “We need the wall more than ever.” Later that day, the director of the CDC corrected his sentiment explaining that building the wall would not be effective in mitigating the outbreak. The infamous border wall has been an epic failure of his presidency, especially considering that support for the border wall has declined. Trump already showed his willingness to abuse emergency powers for his immigration policies when he declared a national emergency to funnel military spending into his wall after Congress refused to give him funding. That alone exhibits his tendency to use false pretenses to justify what he already wants. While a border closure may have once held merit, it is likely that Trump is taking advantage of the situation for his own gain.

Historically, pandemics have led to restricted borders. However, these closures remained in effect well after the illness tapered off. Instead, borders continued to be used to further exclude migrant groups and that can be the case here too. As one economist put it, “border controls tended to long outlast whatever crisis they were supposed to prevent. […] More recent disease eradication efforts, and the broad path of the coronavirus itself, show that prolonged border controls are more an expression of xenophobic policy than an enduring solution to an infectious threat. Today, there’s far more to gain through international cooperation than by keeping borders locked down.”

Even when Trump eventually starts to transition the country back to normal life, it does not mean he will open the southern border to immigrants. The “Remain in Mexico” policy, enacted in January 2019, states that asylum seekers must stay in Mexico until their date in an immigration court – which can take over 2 years to arrive. Just a few weeks ago, Trump cracked down even more on migrants at the southern border, turning away all asylum seekers without hesitation. He says his new restrictions are to prevent COVID-19 from spreading throughout detention centers, despite his indifference to the multiple outbreaks in centers last year alone. Trump has revealed where his priorities lie during this pandemic — ensuring he can implement his anti-immigrant agenda amidst global panic.


The Impact on Immigrants

Despite Trump stating that undocumented immigrants can get tested for COVID-19 without fear of deportation, uncertainty still lingers among many immigrants. Many migrants hesitate to seek medical care because they don’t want to jeopardize their futures, families or livelihood. There has already been a noticeable increase in xenophobia since the beginning of the outbreak. The closure of the border — and not to mention Trump’s insistence on using xenophobic and racist language to discuss COVID-19 — only adds to the stigma surrounding the virus and immigrants.

Contrary to Trump’s messaging, many immigrants are helping the U.S. fight COVID-19. The U.S.’s battered economy continues to be supported in part by the numerous immigrants who continue to work in retail and agriculture. More than one in four American doctors were born outside of the U.S. and thousands of young undocumented immigrants work in healthcare. Cuban doctors have been sent across the world to help countries treat the coronavirus, and despite an impending shortage of healthcare workers, the Trump Administration has refused their help. We need immigrants more than ever.

The pandemic has grown worse and we need to do all we can to protect people from getting sick. However, the Trump Administration’s handling of immigration thus far has lead me to believe that though the virus might pass in the near future, Trump’s policies will not. Speaking from mine and my family’s experiences, immigrants feel a lot of fear and uncertainty right now. I sincerely hope that Trump doesn’t allow his own biases to interfere with how the border is controlled after the pandemic is under control, but right now the future does not look so bright.


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Editor’s note: Signs and symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, dry cough, tiredness and shortness of breath. These symptoms are believed to occur between two and 14 days after a person is exposed to the disease. If you have these symptoms and have recently come into contact with a person who is known to have COVID-19, or if you have recently traveled to an area with community spread of the disease, you should call your doctor. Areas with community spread of COVID-19 are believed to include China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and Seattle. If you do not have a doctor who you visit regularly, please call the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707 or the University of Utah Health hotline at 801-587-0712. Do not go to a healthcare facility without first making arrangements to do so.