As coronavirus spreads, Trump immigration policies endanger public health

As coronavirus spreads, Trump immigration policies endanger public health
© Getty Images

This week, the Coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. led to canceled events, schools shutting down, and a plunge in the stock market. With infections on the rise, the president spoke to reporters in the White House briefing room, where he floated the idea of a payroll tax cut to jumpstart the economy. “The main thing is that we’re taking care of the American public,” Trump said on Monday, “and we will be taking care of the American public.” 

If only that were true. As the Trump administration struggles to contain the spread of Coronavirus, its immigration policies may well exacerbate this crisis. The “public charge” rule discourages immigrants from accessing health care. The “Remain in Mexico” policy has created conditions ripe for a viral outbreak along the border. Immigration enforcement actions have sown distrust and fear in Latino communities. Taken together, these measures endanger the well-being of countless Americans.

Consider the administration’s controversial “public charge” rule, which was implemented in February. It makes it harder for legal immigrants to obtain a green card if they access federal benefits for which they qualify, like Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. As a result, immigrants around the country have been opting out of health and nutrition plans. It’s easy to see how a person concerned about jeopardizing their path to citizenship might resist coming forward to report symptoms or exposure to Coronavirus. With a pandemic upon us, the deterrent effect of the public charge rule places immigrants, their families, and the broader community at risk.


Yet this was all foreseeable. In the ongoing litigation over this regulation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) conceded that the rule could lead to “increased prevalence of communicable diseases, disenrollment from public programs, and increased use of emergency rooms as a primary care method.” DHS notes that the public charge rule has an exception for “emergency medical assistance.” Still, why would any immigrant place their trust an administration that has denied flu shots to migrants in detention and used confidential therapy notes to try to deport young immigrants?

Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy is also potentially harmful to public health. Under this process, asylum-seekers are forced to wait on the Mexican side of the border while their cases are processed here. Nearly 60,000 migrants are currently waiting in Mexico, with thousands living in unsanitary, squalid conditions. As these vulnerable people await humanitarian relief, an outbreak of the virus in their shelters and camps could be devastating. Again, this would not only affect migrants: Due to its highly contagious nature, a coronavirus outbreak along the border would likely expose Border Patrol agents, U.S. troops, and aid workers to the virus too.

Within our borders, the Trump administration has created a less-than-ideal climate for battling a pandemic. The administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement actions mean that millions of undocumented people are wary of any interaction with the government, which includes going to the hospital. Health advocates warn that there is a lack of information about coronavirus available in Spanish. And Trump has already demonstrated indifference to the suffering of Latinos; the administration basically ignored Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria, and the president’s response to the El Paso massacre was to stage an insensitive photo-op with a baby orphaned by the mass shooting. It's no wonder that advocacy groups are bracing for the administration to resort to more fear mongering and xenophobia about immigrants.

While any administration would be challenged by the Coronavirus outbreak, there are steps that the president can take that would mitigate its spread.

Trump could suspend the implementation of the “public charge” rule or temporarily halt immigration enforcement actions in and around hospitals and medical facilities. The administration could fund coronavirus outreach programs for Latinos. This would be especially useful as Latinos have the highest uninsured rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S., and are significantly affected by conditions that compromise the immune system, like asthma, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. What the administration should not do is attempt to further politicize this crisis or use it as an excuse for closing our borders. The coronavirus does not discriminate based on immigration status and will not be stopped by a wall.

The coronavirus crisis demands a swift change in the administration’s dangerous immigration policies. At stake is nothing less than the lives of immigrants, Latinos — and all Americans.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.