Immigration at the time of coronavirus

Now’s the time to safeguard all people, regardless of the papers they carry

In The City and elsewhere, as we continue to practice social distancing and isolation, there is no better time to consider how effective our immigration, enforcement and detention policies are in the throes of a crisis that looks to be on an exponential trajectory.

With nations shutting their doors, immigration has stalled across the globe. In the United States, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) closed its offices from March 18 until April 1. Routine in-person services have been halted, including asylum interviews and citizenship ceremonies. Courts have postponed asylum defense hearings to after April 22. As of this writing, the San Francisco Immigration court remains open working normal hours, but with all non-detained hearings postponed.

There are going to be many unknowns in the days ahead, but here is a snapshot of the immigration landscape.

Immigration enforcement

In a statement, the USCIS said that as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “will temporarily adjust its enforcement posture.” Posturing aside, it looks like enforcement activities will not cease entirely, but focus on “public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.”

“Time and time again, we’ve seen ‘public safety’ used as an excuse to further criminalize Black immigrants and immigrants of color. Our deeply flawed criminal legal system operates on using dehumanizing labels,” said Sameera Jafiz, policy director at the Immigration Legal Resource Attorneys in response to the enforcement decision. Hafiz recommended shutting down all internal enforcement activities instead.

Many vulnerable immigrants, including those who are undocumented, are embedded among us: giving care to our seniors, tending to our plants, cleaning our homes and offices, staffing our restaurants, picking and dropping us off or delivering food at the click of an app. Continued enforcement would not serve us well if anybody avoids seeking medical attention for fear of calling attention to themselves. And the situation could unnecessarily expose enforcement officers to possible infection, too.

Public Charge

USCIS issued a statement that under the Public Charge rule — which denies visas to immigrants who are likely to access certain state resources — seeking or receiving treatment for COVID-19 symptoms will not negatively affect Public Charge evaluations.

After months of taking a heavy-handed view on legal immigrants accessing public resources, the USCIS now assures immigrants that “USCIS will neither consider testing, treatment, not preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19 as part of a public charge inadmissibility determination.”

It remains to be seen if the message is heard by people who’ve been sufficiently intimidated by the federal administration’s threats.

Routine visa services

On March 20, the Department of State suspended all routine visa services. This poses a problem “for international workers who did not enter the U.S. under ESTA (i.e. the Visa Waiver Program),” explained Ryan Bay, a partner at Global Immigration Associates, in a press release.

Often international workers and their spouses renew their employment-based visas at consulates in their home countries to then re-enter the U.S. With the suspension of routine visa services, this option is no longer available and these employees would “run the risk of a negative adjudication” since the U.S. is far more stringent in its determinations than consulates in other countries.

This could profoundly impact America’s workforce in the days to come.

Refugees and asylum seekers are not permitted to enter

Claiming that migrants could pose a health risk, on March 20, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said that asylum seekers would be processed rapidly and sent back to Mexico or Canada or to their home countries.

When it comes to refugees, the UN Refugee Agency has temporarily suspended refugee resettlements, since many countries, including the U.S, has reduced travel across its borders. This puts vulnerable refugees at risk in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions for an indeterminate length of time.

Wouldn’t it be better if the “processing of refugees and asylees” could progress by testing for COVID-19, perhaps? Come to think of it, maybe all travelers could be tested for the novel coronavirus before entering the U.S.

Detention conditions

Over the weekend, a “caravan of activists” mobilized in Sacramento to direct Gov. Gavin Newsom’s attention to the dangers of a potential coronavirus outbreak faced by the 52,000 migrants who are in detention centers, many in California.

A Jewish group called Never Again Action is leading this charge. “As Jews, our history has taught us what happens when people do nothing; we are heeding the message of our ancestors when we say #NeverAgainIsNow.”

The group urged the governor to recall that Anne Frank did not die in a gas chamber. “She died of a treatable communicable disease, contracted in the crowded, dirty conditions of a detention center.”

Even as the ground shifts from under us, now’s the time to safeguard all people, regardless of the papers they carry. It would be extremely short-sighted to fabricate or continue to implement policies that remove easy access to health care at this critical juncture of the COVID-19 outbreak. Let’s keep in mind that the virus is indiscriminate in its targeting of individuals, whether immigrant or native-born.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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