Two People From China Seek Asylum in Hawaii Prior To Coronavirus Quarantine

Feb 4, 2020

Two asylum seekers from China remain at the federal detention center Wednesday after they were taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on arriving at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. 

A spokesperson from the Hawaii Department of Health said the two are being held at the federal detention center, located on Elliott Street near the airport, and "present no risk to the public."

Both came to Hawaii before the White House banned entry to foreign nationals who had traveled in China within two weeks. The policy took effect on Sunday at noon.

State epidemiologist Sarah Park said the two Chinese travelers immediately went to U.S. immigration authorities to seek asylum upon their arrival in Honolulu. 

"They're not actually persons of concern," she said.

The exact reason why the two travelers are seeking asylum is not clear. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol could not be reached for comment.

Immigration lawyer John Egan said under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, escaping disease is not a statutorily recognized reason to seek asylum. 

Under the law, a person is a refugee if he or she is fleeing their country due to persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, or membership in a social group or holds a certain political opinion.

Although there are currently no cases of coronavirus in Hawaii, the state has been preparing for a potential outbreak of the disease that has infected 24,500 people worldwide and killed over 490 people, most of them in China. 

Officials believe the respiratory illness originated in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to 36 countries, including the U.S.

Park doesn't expect more asylum seekers from China to come to Hawaii because of the new travel restrictions.

Because the cases can be linked to travel to China, direct flights have been stopped to and from that country. However, the Honolulu international airport has been identified as one of 11 airports designated by the federal government to accept rerouted flights from China. 

Hawaii was originally one of the states identified for repatriation of U.S. citizens living in China, to return to America. But the state was removed from the list after Lt. Gov. Josh Green and state health director Bruce Anderson expressed their concern about the state's lack of resources to handle that type of operation.

"A lot of diplomat families and other folks who were in China [are] being evacuated directly to pre-designated military bases on the mainland and going into mandatory quarantine there," Park said. "That has no bearing on the state of Hawaii at this time thankfully."

On Monday, state officials announced that they plan to quarantine people suspected of having the virus at a secure facility at the Pearl Harbor military base.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled attorney John Egan's name. HPR regrets the error.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.