Under Trump, Undocumented Immigrants With COVID-19 Are Being Denied Care

For immigrants, the coronavirus crisis is becoming a nightmare.

Sabrina Gunter April 6, 2020

(Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO — It start­ed with a fever and then a real­ly high fever,” Daniel­la says. When Daniel­la devel­oped symp­toms — chills, dif­fi­cul­ty breath­ing and six days of a 103-degree fever — she went to a dri­ve-through test clin­ic at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego. A 34-year-old Hon­duran refugee, she had been liv­ing in an LGBTQ+ safe­house since she was released from the Otay Mesa deten­tion cen­ter sev­en months ago, on a $3,000 bond through a spon­sor. (She is using her first name only, for fear of being deported.)

Daniel­la test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19, just as she feared.

But when Daniel­la took her paper­work to the hos­pi­tal, they refused to treat her. I went to ask for help and they denied me because I am not a cit­i­zen,” Daniel­la says, not­ing she is undoc­u­ment­ed and does not have health insur­ance. They did not give me med­ica­tions, they did not give me any­thing. I told them I was dying with a fever and was in so much pain because of this virus. It hurts because I am a human being before the eyes of God. It is hor­ri­ble that they treat me like this and I do not have the right to do anything.”

Four oth­er res­i­dents of the safe house lat­er report­ed sim­i­lar symp­toms — includ­ing high fevers — but have not been tested.

Daniel­la is one of many immi­grants across the world who are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic. On March 20, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump announced the clo­sure of the U.S.-Mexico bor­der to all asy­lum seek­ers in the wake of COVID-19, say­ing the Unit­ed States will deport any­one caught crossing.

Mil­i­ta­riz­ing the south­ern bor­der and mak­ing immi­gra­tion more dif­fi­cult had been on Trump’s agen­da since at least his 2016 cam­paign, but extend­ed legal bat­tles have so far pre­vent­ed some of his poli­cies from tak­ing effect. Now, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is exploit­ing the pan­dem­ic to invoke the legal author­i­ty grant­ed to the sur­geon gen­er­al, clos­ing the bor­der in the name of pub­lic health.

This bor­der clo­sure vio­lates migrants’ rights as guar­an­teed by the UN Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Human Rights, and leaves thou­sands of asy­lum seek­ers in an even more per­ilous posi­tion as they become strand­ed in already over­crowd­ed migrant camps at the border.

The Exec­u­tive Office for Immi­gra­tion Review (EOIR), a divi­sion of the Jus­tice Depart­ment, announced March 23 that some immi­gra­tion hear­ings would be post­poned, includ­ing all hear­ings sched­uled through April 10 for non-detained migrants in the Unit­ed States. Hear­ings for those migrants await­ing hear­ings in Mex­i­co under Migrant Pro­tec­tion Pro­to­cols (also known as the remain in Mex­i­co” pol­i­cy) sched­uled through May 1 are also delayed, and migrants will have to obtain new hear­ing dates and new gov­ern­ment documents.

On March 13, Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) sus­pend­ed all social vis­i­ta­tion in U.S. deten­tion cen­ters, but court dates for those cur­rent­ly held by ICE have not yet been postponed.

Out of the 69 immi­gra­tion courts in the Unit­ed States, 20 remain ful­ly open, 38 are open for fil­ings and detained hear­ings only,” eight are open for fil­ings only and five are ful­ly closed. Union judges, immi­gra­tion lawyers and even the Depart­ment of Home­land Security’s own attor­neys con­tin­ue to call for the com­plete shut­down of all of the courts.

Migrants’ access to legal coun­sel is also increas­ing­ly lim­it­ed as the deten­tion cen­ters go on lock­down. ICE is man­dat­ing all attor­neys wear dis­pos­able vinyl gloves, N95 or sur­gi­cal masks, and eye pro­tec­tion” before enter­ing deten­tion cen­ters — but must pro­cure those items for them­selves. Giv­en shrink­ing sup­plies, this new pol­i­cy is a de fac­to lim­i­ta­tion on lawyers’ abil­i­ty to pro­vide coun­sel to their clients. Mean­while, despite the dire short­age of N95 masks at hos­pi­tals around the coun­try, ICE has demand­ed 45,000 masks for its field offices.

I have been affect­ed tremen­dous­ly due the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic,” Bey says, an asy­lum seek­er from Jamaica liv­ing in Brook­lyn, who is also using only their first name for fear of being deport­ed. Bey had a court date sched­uled for March 25 that could have allowed them to receive a work per­mit, but the hear­ing was can­celed per the EOIR man­date. Now, Bey is indef­i­nite­ly left with no legal means of gen­er­at­ing income. Bey says this is a huge set­back. They aren’t tak­ing in any more appli­ca­tions for work autho­riza­tion, due to the pan­dem­ic. I’m uncer­tain not only of where my next meal is com­ing from, but also my rent and hygiene supplies.”

Undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple will not be includ­ed in the $2 tril­lion coro­n­avirus stim­u­lus pack­age signed by Pres­i­dent Trump, despite being more like­ly to have lost their jobs due to the virus and less like­ly to be able to afford treat­ment for it.

Not only are asy­lum seek­ers left in lim­bo, but migrants who have already been detained are left at risk. The bor­der clo­sure is seem­ing­ly meant to pre­vent the virus from com­ing into U.S. deten­tion cen­ters, but the virus is already there. On March 27, a fed­er­al judge ordered the release of 10 peo­ple detained by ICE because of COVID-19 con­cerns, not­ing that the jails where they were held have con­firmed cas­es. Giv­en the lack of test­ing and the dif­fi­cul­ty to social dis­tance in con­fined spaces, the num­ber of cas­es is like­ly sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than report­ed in these facil­i­ties and others.

Health experts advised against the bor­der clo­sure, warn­ing it could be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. By imme­di­ate­ly turn­ing away asy­lum seek­ers, the clo­sure will increase crowd­ing at the already dense­ly packed migrant camps at the bor­der, like­ly accel­er­at­ing the spread of the virus. As Mar­garet Har­ris, part of the World Health Organization’s coro­n­avirus response team, told The Inter­cept on March 5, You divert a lot of resources when you are focused on clos­ing bor­ders, rather than focus­ing on pro­tect­ing your health work­ers, prepar­ing your health sys­tems and enhanc­ing your dis­ease surveillance.”

Ethi­cist and pub­lic health his­to­ri­an Amy Fairchild agrees. That’s now an archa­ic notion that we’re going to pro­tect our­selves at the bor­der,” she says, “[but] these things play out at the com­mu­ni­ty lev­el. … We’re talk­ing about [state and local] health departments.”

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has also cit­ed con­cerns for the safe­ty of Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion (CPB) agents to jus­ti­fy the bor­der clo­sure. A March 20 state­ment from the White House reads, “[The bor­der clo­sure] will also pro­tect the health of our country’s ded­i­cat­ed bor­der agents and oth­er law enforce­ment per­son­nel, who are vital to the secu­ri­ty of our Nation.” As of press time, how­ev­er, the White House has announced no plans to halt arrests or deportations.

As of March 29, at least four unac­com­pa­nied migrant chil­dren have test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19 at a deten­tion facil­i­ty in New York. Sev­en staff mem­bers and con­trac­tors work­ing in facil­i­ties with detained migrant chil­dren have also test­ed pos­i­tive for COVID-19 in New York and Texas. The New York Times reports that a fed­er­al judge has ruled both ICE and the Office of Refugee Reset­tle­ment must pro­vide an account­ing of their efforts to release those [chil­dren] in cus­tody” by April 6.

Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al USA has called for the imme­di­ate release of all migrant chil­dren. Oth­er orga­niz­ers are call­ing for the release of all migrants held in ICE deten­tion. Peo­ple will die if we do not take action,” Angel­i­ca Salas, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Coali­tion for Humane Immi­grant Rights of Los Ange­les, says in a March 23 inter­view with Democ­ra­cy Now!. She con­tin­ued, Immi­grants need to have the same access to all type of health­care. … We have to shut down these deten­tion centers.”

John Sandweg, for­mer act­ing direc­tor of ICE dur­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, con­firmed in the same inter­view that ICE has com­plete author­i­ty to release any­one from immi­gra­tion detention.”

In the mean­time, detainees are tak­ing action.

On March 27, 150 detained migrants launched a hunger strike at the North­west Deten­tion Cen­ter in Taco­ma, Wash­ing­ton. Democ­ra­cy Now! quot­ed one strik­ing detainee demand­ing depor­ta­tions to be post­poned while the pan­dem­ic pass­es.” The action fol­lows hunger strikes by near­ly 100 detainees in Flori­da, 180 in Penn­syl­va­nia, 350 in Geor­gia and an unspec­i­fied num­ber in New Jer­sey. Some of the hunger strik­ers are protest­ing the lack of pro­tec­tions tak­en to pre­vent the spread of the virus in these facil­i­ties, while oth­ers are call­ing for their imme­di­ate release.

Sab­ri­na Gunter is a spring 2019 edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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