Editor’s Note: This piece was updated to include President Trump’s Friday comments.
Exactly how many of us nationwide have already contracted the coronavirus or will eventually catch it no one really knows. But scientists tracking its spread predict hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, will likely be afflicted by COVID-19 before the pandemic runs its course.
Experts point out that some of us are more likely than others to fall seriously ill or die from the coronavirus. The elderly and people with underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma, for instance, face higher health risks.
But there are countless others across the country who could be disproportionately impacted as the virus spreads—the poor, people without health insurance, inmates, the homeless, and millions of immigrants and refugees.
While federal authorities, including President Donald Trump, have pledged in daily press briefings to do all they can to protect the American people from the widening threat of COVID-19, little if anything is being said about how immigrants will be impacted. Not surprisingly, though, we are getting announcements of border restrictions for a virus that is already in the United States.
Similarly, Trump isn’t talking about how his policy agenda could make matters even worse for a wide swath of immigrant communities.
The Trump administration’s “public charge” rule, for instance, makes it harder for immigrants eligible to apply for public assistance —such as food stamps, housing vouchers or Medicaid— to obtain permanent legal residency or U.S. citizenship. Critics say the rule reduces the likelihood these immigrants will see a doctor because they may fear applying for medical assistance could jeopardize their immigration status.
Immigrants being held in overcrowded federal detention facilities could also face serious health risks in the era of coronavirus.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sued to get the Trump administration to “release a group of sick and elderly immigrants from a detention center in the Seattle area,” now a major epicenter of COVID-19 infections, according to CBS News.
Similarly, activists say U.S. Border Patrol facilities already ill-equipped to provide migrants with proper healthcare are unlikely to cope with the effects of the pandemic if the virus starts to spread among those it has in custody.
In February, a federal judge in Arizona ruled in favor of immigrants who sued the Border Patrol for holding them in “cold, overcrowded, unsanitary and inhumane conditions.” Several migrants have died in Border Patrol custody in the past two years. Evidence presented in court showed the migrants were routinely kept in overcrowded holding cells with little regard for the health and welfare of the detainees.
Aware of the Border Patrol’s track record, Detention Watch Network recently issued a press statement warning that the threat “of a coronavirus outbreak in immigration detention facilities is imminent and the government needs to act immediately by releasing people from detention…”
Nearly 20,000 people are being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities nationwide, including seven sites in Arizona, according to a recent Arizona Republic report. About 19,000 more people are being detained in Customs and Border Protection facilities.
ICE officials told the Republic that as of March 3 none of its detainees had tested positive for COVID-19.
While ICE has not reported any cases of the coronavirus among detainees in the past two weeks, the Guatemalan government blocked deportation flights from the United States in what they called a precautionary move “to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” according to the Los Angeles Times. The U.S. has deported hundreds of refugees in recent months to Guatemala, even if they aren’t Guatemalan, as part of a controversial arrangement that requires many refugees to first apply for asylum there.
Honduras also blocked the return of deportees from the U.S., after three of its citizens were returned exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus, though there has been no confirmation the migrants who were deported have the disease.
But generally speaking the deportation of undocumented immigrants by the U.S. is continuing apace.
The Texas-based Border Network for Human Rights alleges that immigration enforcement efforts could keep sick immigrants from receiving proper testing or treatment for the virus. Fernando Garcia, the group’s executive director, said his organization is especially concerned about immigration arrests happening near hospitals or work sites.
“What we’re asking ICE is to come out publicly and say they’re not going to conduct enforcement in these specific places,” Garcia said.
Heather Swift, a spokesperson for ICE responding on Twitter to similar allegations levied by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called the claims “dishonest” and “fear mongering”, adding, “ICE does not conduct operations at healthcare facilities. Anyone in need of medical care should seek care.”
Dishonest fear mongering is dangerous to the immigrant community. The disinformation campaign pushes a false narrative when people are looking to elected officials for info.
ICE does not conduct operations at healthcare facilities. Anyone in need of medical care should seek care https://t.co/69NVxM5Cy4
— Heather Swift, DHS spokesperson (@SpoxDHS) March 6, 2020
In the meantime, federal immigration judges responsible for ruling on asylum requests and deportation orders nationwide have been told to keep their overburdened courts running for people currently in detention and those being held at children’s shelters. People who are not in U.S. custody will have their hearings rescheduled for sometime after April 10.
Immigration judges, prosecutors and private attorneys are calling for the closure of all immigration courts, citing the spread of coronavirus.
In a statement, The Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project, said all court hearings should be cancelled immediately. “Forcing migrants, their advocates, attorneys, and social workers to break social distancing recommendations for deportation proceedings is unconscionable in a public health emergency.”
In a letter sent to the Department of Justice, Rex Chen, director of immigration at Legal Services NYC, said, “No one’s immigration status or health should be put at risk during this national health crisis.”
Agreed. Especially those who are among the least able to protect themselves from infection.
The coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re an immigrant or U.S. born.
James E. Garcia is a journalist, playwright and communications consultant based in Phoenix, AZ. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona and Vanguardia America. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets from @JG_Vanguardia.