Democrats: Suspend Immigration Enforcement Rules amid Coronavirus Epidemic

A man and a woman walking in the streets of Guadalajara, Mexico, wear protective face masks on February 28, 2020 as the new coronoavirus, COVID-19, spreads worldwide. - Mexico's Health Ministry confirmed the country's first cases of coronavirus on Friday, saying two men who recently returned from Italy tested positive …
ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images

The nation’s huge population of illegal immigrants may try to avoid medical treatment for China’s Wuhan virus unless President Donald Trump suspends immigration enforcement rules, say pro-migration Democrats and activists.

“The government needs to come out, and just be out, and say, ‘We’re not going to deport you,’” said Ally Bolour, a Los Angeles immigration lawyer and a member of the board of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This is a national health emergency crisis. … If you’re sick, come on in. We’ll take care of you,’” she told the Guardian.

Democrats are also using the epidemic to target the White House’s “public charge” rule. Democrats already oppose the rule because it is designed to exclude legal migrants who cannot provide for their own health care.

“Failure to immediately stay implementation of the Rule so that we can take the steps necessary to contain and mitigate the outbreak of the disease puts the public health and safety of our communities at increased risk,” said a March 6 letter by 15 Democrat attorneys general. The rule denies green cards to migrants who rely on federal health and welfare programs, and so it is “deterring individuals from accessing critical health benefits to which they are legally entitled,” said the letter, which claimed that “DHS’s implementation of the Public Charge Rule during this public health crisis is irresponsible and reckless.”

Democrats are using the epidemic to delegitimize migration rules, says Mark Krikorian, the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter enforcement. “There is a pragmatic way of limiting the public health fallout of the disease, and there there is the Democratic effort to undermine immigration laws, to morally stigmatize them using the virus as an excuse,” he said.

Federal officials should quietly ignore migrants’ illegal status as they try to detect, isolate, and treat all of the Americans who are infected by the epidemic, he said. “The government should make clear that they are not going to be checking legal status when they’re trying to protect public health, and it seems perfectly reasonable to say that use of public benefits [by would-be migrants], in this case, will not be factored into public charge rules.”

That no-checks policy may become painful if there is a shortage of hospital beds for sick Americans, he said. “We’re going to have to have some tough decisions if things get bad,” he said, so the goal should be to slow the disease’s spread so that hospitals can keep pace with the flood of sick Americans and sick illegal migrants, he said.

The government’s failure to enforce immigration laws for many years has created a large population of 10 million to 20 million migrants, who are mixed in the population of roughly 315 million Americans. The resulting flooded labor market keeps many of these illegal or legal migrants — and many Americans — in low-wage careers, in crowded apartments, and in service sector jobs such as restaurants.

“If you continue to discourage people from seeking services under normal circumstances, you cannot expect them necessarily to seek those services just because you as the racist, anti-immigrant president have decided that now it’s a good idea,” Max Hadler, director of health policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, told the Guardian.

Other Democrats are calling for an enforcement rollback amid the virus, even though they have also backed many pro-migration bills.

“We have to proliferate the access to testing and services,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), whose Latino-dominated district includes many suspected victims. “If someone is undocumented — or has a green card — and they feel that they’re not eligible for any of these kinds of services, that’s just going to worsen the situation, that’s going to prevent us from really addressing the coronavirus issue in an effective way,” he told the the Hill.

“What you want in a public health situation like this is for everybody to feel comfortable coming forward if they need to come forward,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) told the Hill.

“And if we have any barriers to that, it’s not that it’s bad for them — it might be bad for them — but it’s also bad for the entire public,” said Jayapal, a former Indian migrant who argues that the nation needs a large inflow of immigrants to perform manual farm labor. Jayapal’s Seattle district has had a rash of coronavirus cases, partly because the district is home to many Chinese visa workers and legal immigrants.

“Healthcare facilities must be immigration enforcement-free zones so that immigration status does not prevent a person from seeking care,” said a statement by several hundred medical professionals. The March 2 statement continued:

The COVID-19 response should not be linked to immigration enforcement in any manner. It will undermine individual and collective health if individuals do not feel safe to utilize care and respond to inquiries from public health officials, for example during contact tracing. Similar enforcement-free zones have been declared during hurricanes and other emergencies, including after the September 11 terrorist attacks. These policies should be clearly and unequivocally articulated to the public by the federal, state, and local governments.

But some pro-migration activists are using the epidemic to argue for looser enforcement, even at the southern border where almost a million poor migrants arrived during 2019. The Hill quoted one activist who suggested that the U.S. should admit roughly 30,000 migrants who are now waiting in Mexico:

Cindy Anderson, a member of Doctors for Camp Closure — an association of medical professionals who oppose immigration detention — decried camp conditions in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

“I was in Matamoros in January and we were seeing a lot of influenza-like illness at that time. And so any kind of virus, it would spread quickly through a camp like that, just because people are in close proximity with one another,” said Anderson. “I think the big concern is if someone developed respiratory distress there that very quickly the resources will be overwhelmed.”

The New York Times editorial board added to the demands on March 5:

Proponents of closed borders and small social safety nets have a tendency to highlight the tension between citizen and noncitizen, to imply or explicitly state that the only way to help one group is to deprive the other. But the truth is, people on both sides are hanging by a thread.

Infectious diseases, especially those like Covid-19, have a knack for penetrating and exposing such false dichotomies.

“Xenophobia” might spread if the administration does not relax enforcement efforts, said the board:

If citizens struggling to cover their own health care nurture resentments against any group perceived to be getting help to which they themselves are not entitled — or worse, if they grow xenophobic and subscribe to the notion that immigrants carry diseases — they might be compelled to endorse policies even more draconian than those already in play. That would create more anxiety among noncitizen communities, which would lead to fewer people seeking medical care when they need it. From there, the epidemic would only get worse.

Pro-migration Democrats, said Krikorian, “want a broader statement that immigration laws are suspended for the duration of what they consider the emergency to be.”

But Americans need a more nuanced policy that preserves enforcement while suppressing the disease among the mixed U.S. and illegal populations. “It needs to be made clear that to get tested, you don’t have to show proof of legal residency, and if you need to be hospitalized, you will be, regardless of legal status,” he said.

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