Democrats warn Trump’s immigration policies risk aggravating coronavirus
Democrats are warning that President Trump’s immigration policies could exacerbate the spread of coronavirus both inside and outside U.S. borders.
Democratic concern is centered on two areas of the administration’s policies: the various programs to slow down asylum applications — which have contributed to overpopulated and generally unsanitary refugee camps south of the U.S.-Mexico border — and the so-called public charge rule, which could discourage immigrants from seeking medical attention.
Trump’s critics have long-opposed both policies, largely on humanitarian grounds, but now see them as a new threat to public health with the rise of the coronavirus — one extending to communities far beyond the immigrants directly affected.
“With this administration, part of their strategy has been to scare anybody who is an immigrant — documented or undocumented — to feel unwelcome, to feel like you don’t belong, and to feel like you’re not welcome to participate in things that are healthy for you and healthy for the surrounding community,” said Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), who heads the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“People not getting tested is not healthy for that individual, and it’s not healthy for anybody,” he added.
Cardenas was referring specifically to the public charge rule, adopted by the administration in August, which makes it harder for immigrants who are “likely at any time to become a public charge” to obtain green cards. The policy discourages legal immigrants in the process of obtaining permanent legal status or citizenship from using public assistance, including Medicaid, housing vouchers and food stamps.
“It is the worst of all possible combinations, because in reality, people who are feeling sick and could possibly be having coronavirus should go immediately to the community clinics, to their doctors, to wherever they need to go to get that health care,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
After a lower court blocked the implementation of the public charge rule, the Supreme Court intervened and allowed implementation.
Medical experts and immigrant rights advocates have warned for months that the rule has already led to decreased numbers of immigrants seeking medical care. Those concerns have been heightened with the coronavirus.
“What you want in a public health situation like this is for everybody to feel comfortable coming forward if they need to come forward,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), whose Seattle district has been among the hardest hit with the coronavirus. “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.”
Among the first to sound the alarm was Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), who wrote last week to Vice President Pence, the administration’s point man on its coronavirus response, warning the public charge rule “is a deterrent for symptomatic individuals to seek medical testing and treatment.”
“The Administration created the rule,” she wrote. “The Administration can stop it.”
Other Democrats have since made similar arguments.
“We have to proliferate the access to testing and services. And 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,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D), a Hispanic Caucus member from New York, where dozens of cases have been confirmed.
When reached for comment, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spokesperson said: “The public charge rule takes into account the totality of circumstances and no one aspect of an individual’s situation would deem them ineligible for change in status. Nowhere in the rule does it say an immigrant will be denied a change in status if they seek medical care.”
Democrats focused on the border are raising concerns about the possibility of the outbreak reaching the refugee camps that have popped up as a result of the administration’s asylum-limiting policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain 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.”
Conditions in border camps have deteriorated as migrants have been forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border to have a shot at U.S. asylum applications. The new asylum processing restrictions have dramatically reduced the number of illegal border crossings, but border camp populations have swelled.
“They’re telling us not to be in large crowds, so imagine if you’re looking at a large crowd confined in a small area, because that’s basically what it is,” said Rep. Vicente González (D), who represents a district that includes a major border crossing in McAllen, Texas.
“Imagine these people who have gone through a 2,000-mile trek and are now in a one-acre plot of land — thousands of them. Certainly, it’s an easy place for viruses to spread,” added González, who said Mexico also has a role to play.
“Mexico could probably do more too, because I went over there and it was a mess. It’s not like detention centers on this side, as much as we complain about them. They’re living in squalor — tents on the ground and dirt. Now there’s a place for them to plug in their phones and some port-a-potties, but it’s really bad,” said González.
Immigrant rights activists are calling for health reviews of stateside detention centers, amid fear of the disease spreading within those prisons.
Shutdown NWDC, a group that aims to end immigrant detention in Washington state, demanded Friday that federal authorities perform a medical inspection of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson led a coalition of 17 other state AGs and 45 elected officials demanding a delay to the public charge rule amid the coronavirus outbreak.
But Democrats acknowledge the administration is unlikely to budge on immigration policies.
“They probably should [suspend immigration policies] but they’re not going to do that,” said González.
There’s some disagreement among Democrats about the appropriate response from Congress. Cardenas is among those who point out that a legislative fix is unlikely given the GOP-controlled Senate.
“I think it’ll just end up being a morass of arguments if we try to put that into formal legislation,” Cardenas said. “It’s important that we just call this president and his administration out and remind them that being cruel and nasty is not helping the American citizen.”
Others, like Espaillat, argue that there is room for enacting “emergency measures” to ensure universal access to screenings and treatments, regardless of immigration status. Those voices have found a powerful ally in Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who said Congress could intervene.
“The goal ought to be to afford the opportunity for testing for anyone in this country who’s here,” Thompson said, noting that the $8.3 billion emergency spending bill signed into law Friday is designed to do just that. “If a carveout’s required for people who are here who want to get tested, we should absolutely do it.”
Jessie Hellmann contributed.