April 14, 2020
By Caelin Foley

As our nation is swept with new cases of the coronavirus each day, we all have had to adapt to a new way of life. Suddenly, our grocery store shelves are empty, and we are being ordered to stay home. A lot of us are fearful, and rightfully so, as the number of cases and deaths increase. Amongst this madness, a struggling population is being forgotten: immigrants. Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented or in detention centers, have an even greater lack of resources than the general public due to fear or inaccessibility. While things are changing for Americans, things are also changing for immigrants, including important policies.

The United States and Mexico border is now secured, only allowing travel for essentials like education, medicine, etc. Mexican protesters took to the border with signs reading “Stay at Home,” objecting to the situation’s handling; although non-essential travel is banned, many say it’s not being enforced properly, with no health screenings being conducted on those who are crossing.

The controversial ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, which keeps non-Mexican asylum seekers in Mexico while they wait for hearings, will continue to operate. However, all waiting for their cases to be heard will be assigned a new date due to the coronavirus threat. Refugee admissions are currently paused until April 6th, tentatively, but may extend as the number of cases continue to steadily increase. The Guatemalan ‘Asylum Cooperative Agreement,’ similar to the Remain in Mexico program in its deportation of asylum seekers, is also on hold until April 6th. Most of these seekers are Honduran and Salvadoran and deported to Guatemala, where they can either seek asylum or return to their home country.

Despite concerns that COVID-19 is spread from human contact, detention centers have refused to release any of their migrants. This decision stands, even amidst restrictions being tightened to the point of no longer allowing visitors. Prisons, on the other hand, have released low-risk offenders in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus; these actions have been praised, as the virus can be transmitted if people are within six feet of each other. The urgency of protecting migrants from the virus continues to grow, as several cases of the coronavirus within detention centers have already been confirmed. Many of these reports come from New Jersey detention centers, where an employee was the first to test positive. The decision to not release any immigrants has led to hunger strikes and protests in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, leading to three incidents of pepper spray being used against immigrants during this week alone.

According to Eunice Cho of the ACLU, “Immigrant detention centers are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission. Public health experts have warned that failing to reduce the number of people detained — and in particular, failing to release those particularly vulnerable to the disease — endangers the lives of everyone in the detention facility, including staff, and the broader community.” The ACLU has filed for the release of elderly and immunocompromised immigrants in several states; however, their demands have been ignored. The federal court also filed similarly, ordering fifteen immigrants to be released.

The new coronavirus relief bill, worth two trillion dollars, passed through the Senate this week.

Efforts of activists like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pushed for inclusion of undocumented immigrants and immigrants in detention centers in the relief bill, were largely unsuccessful, and they will not receive monthly assistance. However, $350 million will go towards ‘migrant and refugee assistance’; the form of assistance is not defined in the bill, and it’s currently unclear if the funding will be going directly to immigrants themselves or towards detention centers. The bill does authorize funding towards ‘sanctuary cities’ (jurisdictions with regulations in place to obstruct compliance with immigration law). Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, also wrote within the relief bill that those who fall under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) would automatically have their status renewed or extended.

Although immigrants have been assured that seeking testing or treatment for the coronavirus is safe and open to everyone, some aren’t so sure. Many are skeptical and afraid, in part because of the public charge law, which allows the government to revoke green cards and visas on the basis of using services such as welfare, food stamps, etc. As more people get laid off and fired due to this pandemic, undocumented immigrants are unable to apply for unemployment benefits, and immigrants on work visas are unable to secure interviews or new jobs quickly due to few job openings. This leaves many at risk of losing their legal status. The Department of Justice has closed many immigration courts, and postponed hearings outside of detention centers. Likewise, naturalization efforts like interviews and ceremonies have been postponed until at least April 1st, meaning immigrants are unable to reinstate their green cards or visas. The Supreme Court was scheduled for an oral argument on abolishing DACA (Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals), a program which aims to guarantee citizenship to people who came to the United States as a child. Activists hope that the Supreme Court rules abolishing DACA unconstitutional, but the decision, originally predicted to be in the summer, may be delayed due to COVID-19.

"The coronavirus does not discriminate. It affects people from all over the world, as we can all see in our daily lives. However, immigrants are disproportionately affected - not because they have more or less cases, but because they must navigate stricter immigration policies, healthcare inaccessibility, and other issues that the average American rarely faces."

While you scramble for toilet paper or bread in the grocery store, we challenge you to think about the most vulnerable of our nation- undocumented immigrants, especially those in detention centers, as they are unable to escape the coronavirus by self-isolating at home. Remember, compassion sin fronteras!

Edited by Bella Perreira