Despite media reports to the contrary, people cannot seek asylum because they’re afraid of the coronavirus.

Two people from China were taken into federal immigration custody when they arrived at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, but it’s unknown exactly when and why they sought asylum. They arrived sometime before the federal government instituted a temporary ban on U.S. entry to China travelers amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Most asylum cases among Chinese immigrants in Hawaii are filed on grounds of religious persecution or political opinion, according to Aloha Immigration attorney Clare Hanusz, who specializes in immigration and asylum law.

“To have two people seeking asylum at the detention center is not unusual when there are hundreds of Chinese asylum seekers in Hawaii,” said Hanusz. “This story has kind of taken a life of its own for no reason. It perpetuates fear about the coronavirus without apparently any evidence that these two individuals have it and are infectious.”

Two asylum seekers from China are being held at the Federal Detention Center prison facility by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

U.S. law does not grant asylum on the basis of escaping disease or medical crises. It may be granted for persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion.

“I don’t see how you would make the persecution argument just based on fear of a virus,” added Hanusz. “If the person was a doctor or a health department worker who was being persecuted for speaking up about the virus, that’s another story.”

The asylum seekers arrived in Hawaii sometime before the Feb. 2 temporary federal ban on U.S. entry to any foreign nationals who recently traveled to China, including Chinese nationals, according to Bruce Anderson, director of the Hawaii Department of Health.

Anderson told Civil Beat that a DOH staff member received two separate calls on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2 from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to alert the health department about two Chinese people who had sought asylum.

“I’m assuming they called because of the outbreak, but we don’t know what the basis of seeking asylum was for,” Anderson said. “We’ve been focusing our efforts on airports and harbors and other places, so this was something interesting and new, and we appreciated them letting us know.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to a Civil Beat inquiry.

In response to the news, Rep. Gene Ward raised questions on his Twitter account about the individuals.

“It’s a little bit unusual, we don’t know when they came,” Ward said. “We don’t know where they flew from, whether it was a direct or indirect flight.”

If it weren’t for the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, federal officials may not have notified the Hawaii health department about them at all.

Hawaii is among the states with the highest number of people who are granted asylum, with about 12 asylum recipients per capita. People from China were among the most common to be granted asylum in the U.S. between 2016 and 2018, according to data from the federal Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

Most China-U.S. air travel has been put on hold except for flights to evacuate American citizens from various countries after traveling to China.

Hawaii’s only connecting flight to China via China Eastern Airlines was suspended earlier this week.

The U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor will serve as a quarantine station for anyone identified in the coming weeks to have the novel 2019 coronavirus.

State Epidemiologist Sarah Park said any future cases would likely involve people who had arrived in the islands before flights were canceled and travel restrictions were imposed.

As of Wednesday, cases of the coronavirus have been reported in 12 states, mostly among people who had traveled to China or their direct relatives. All of the cases were self-reported.

The two newest Chinese asylum seekers did not have any suspect coronavirus symptoms, Anderson said.

“Anyone who is in custody is screened and evaluated for any adverse health conditions that might be a problem for themselves or others,” he said. “There’s no reason to think they are infected. They are in confinement and not exposing the public to anything. I feel very comfortable that there’s no risk posed by their presence here.”

The death toll in China continues to rise, reaching more than 560 people on Wednesday. The number of confirmed cases in China surpassed 28,000 this week.

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