How many bills will it take for Congress to prioritize the health of the nation?

How many bills will it take for Congress to prioritize the health of the nation?
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Congress has now passed four bills in an attempt to address the COVID-19 pandemic — each of which is like applying a ripped Band-Aid to a gushing wound. With every bill came glaring omissions and members of Congress promising to do better with the next. But, we cannot wait. The health repercussions of the current crisis demand leadership and congressional action grounded in science — protecting all of us.

A glaring problem with each bill has been the deliberate ways in which immigrants have been left out. Each bill failed to provide testing and treatment for all who need it and failed to require authorities to order the release of people from immigration detention to reduce density — making it more likely the virus will spread inside the facilities and infect those detained, the staff and the communities in which they live. 

The bills have also failed to halt civil immigration enforcement. These failures are not just cruel and inhumane, they’re counterproductive and unquestionably exacerbate the health crisis.  

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Testing and treatment for everyone who needs it is essential to curbing the spread of COVID-19. Stunningly, Congress has repeatedly failed to include testing and treatment for anyone who needs it under emergency Medicaid, leaving out tens of millions of people such as many green card holders, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, Temporary Protected Status holders, survivors of crimes and undocumented people.   

The only options for people left out of testing and treatment are to seek care at a community health center — if it happens to have testing and is not already facing shortages — or to hope that their state will provide testing and treatment to everyone not covered. In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced in March that the state would cover these costs to begin addressing the rapid outbreak. Those responses help slow the spread of the virus. 

Many of those left out of these bills are also “essential workers” who are risking their lives every day working at grocery stores, cleaning buildings, preparing food and making deliveries and working as medical professionals. There are 1.7 million immigrant medical and health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients and 27,000 DACA recipients working as doctors, nurses and paramedics. In Washington, there are over 6,000 DACA recipients on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response. 

As a nation, we cannot contain or slow a pandemic by providing testing and treatment for just some of the people who need it. Protecting these essential workers helps all of us. The fix is simple, if Congress chooses to act. All members have to do is include a line in the next bill making COVID-19-related services available under emergency Medicaid, so that immigrant eligible requirements do not apply 

In addition to providing testing and treatment for all who need it, Congress must also release people held in immigration detention to reduce density. These individuals face a heightened risk of infectious spread and complications because of overcrowding in detention, the number of people with underlying medical conditions and a history of wholly inadequate access to medical care resources.  

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Infectious diseases, transmitted through the air and touch, are more likely to spread in these types of environments, putting not only immigrants at risk, but also the facilities’ employees and the communities in which they live. These detention centers are effectively a powder keg, creating a revolving door of people bringing the illness in and out of the facilities, while failing to treat those in need. We must immediately reduce the numbers of people in detention, as has been done with correctional facilities in King County, Washington. Detention should not be a death sentence. 

Finally, Congress must prevent ICE and CBP from adding to the population of those in detention by suspending civil immigration enforcement. This administration continues to carry out immigration enforcement, detaining people as they visit grocery stores and deterring people from seeking the medical care they may need. Congress must suspend all immigration enforcement for the wellbeing of the nation. These enforcement actions spread fear across communities, limiting travel of essential workers, those in need of basic necessities and those in need of medical care, while simultaneously increasing the number of people in detention and putting all communities at risk.

Our collective health and wellbeing depend on the ability of people to take preventative measures and seek medical attention without delay, which is why public health experts have called for the immediate suspension of any civil immigration enforcement activities. Further, government employees conducting immigration enforcement are using the masks, gloves and other equipment desperately needed by essential workers, especially health care workers, who are putting their lives at risk every day without sufficient protective equipment. 

These fixes are not complicated, nor do they require new scientific expertise. Congress can move them forward any time it wants. Testing and treatment for everyone who needs it, reducing the number of people in detention and suspending enforcement actions: These are obvious necessities that health experts have been shouting from the rooftops for months. But there has to be a will — Congress has to be interested in protecting the people and the future of our country.   

It is a moral imperative that Congress gets this right, for the health and wellbeing of us all. 

Matías Valenzuela, Ph.D, is the director, COVID-19 Community Mitigation and Recovery and the equity director of Public Health for Seattle & King County. You can follow him on Twitter @matiasKCequity. Manar Waheed is a senior legislative and advocacy counsel at the ACLU. You can follow her on Twitter @manaro_77.