The Trump Administration has long been thought to push forward immigration policies that violate human rights and dignity. Amidst the worldwide outbreak of the novel coronavirus, these same immigration policies are thought to pose a considerable threat to public health, as well.
The first way the Trump Administration puts immigrants at risk stems directly from the increased number of deportations of undocumented individuals, many of whom are held at border detention centers until they are able to appear in court. In conjuction, the process for asylum applicatitons has been slowed tremendously – in large part due to applications being rejected for pedantic reasons, such as failure to include a middle name. As a result of these factors, migrant detention centers are experiencing unprecendented crowding.
Cramped and confined physical spaces create ideal conditions for the transmission of a virus, especially one with as a high a transmission rate as the novel coronavirus. Although, thus far, there have not been reports of an outbreak at migrant detention centers, shoud one occur, it would be virtually impossible to contain. This would pose a risk not only to the detainees, but those employed at the detention centers, and potentially, all of those they come into contact with.
To imagine how easily the novel coronavirus can be transmitted between detainees in a migrant detention camp, it might be helpful to consider the thousands at the border who have been infected with influenza, chickenpox, and mumps — all due coming into contact with one infected individual while being barricaded in crowded and unsanitary conditions. They key difference, however, is that unlike the aforementioned diseases, the novel coronavirus does not currently have a vaccine that can protect against the infection. In addition, its mortality rate is much higher. According to public health officials, the best and only preventative measure is to avoid large crowds and other infected individuals. In that case, migrant detention centers are grossly unprepared to address a potential outbreak.
Yet another way the Trump Administration is negating public efforts to contain the virus is by cultivating fear amongst immigrants – legal and undocumented alike – surrounding the use of health care services. As per the “Public Charge” rule, if an individual is likely to overutilize entitlements, even if they are within their legal right to use them, their application for a U.S. visa might be denied. Since the implementation of the rule, one-in-five individuals residing within the U.S. who are in the process of applying for a U.S. visa have abstained from utilizing Medicaid and Medicare-covered health care services. While this rule applies only to those applying for a U.S. visa, there have been reports of legal immigrants abstaining from utilizing entitlements, as well. Aside from the many negative consequences for individual and public health, this rule is especially dangerous amidst the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Any individual, regardless of citizenship status, should feel safe with reporting any potential symptoms of the virus and of immediately reporting to a health care facility, without the worry of their actions being met with punitive measures. The Trump Administration has done nothing to dispel any misinformation and to encourage immigrant communities to utilize health care services.
Furthermore, undocumented immigrants may be fearful of being apprehended by immigration enforcement agencies such as ICE. Although ICE claims that it does not conduct raids in hospitals, clinics, and private offices, these locations are at the same time not currently being touted as enforcement-free zones by officials. The Trump Administration has made no effort to promote this message amongst immigrant communities, leaving individuals up to fear-based speculation. This may contribute to the reason why many immigrants — especially those of undocumented status — may be afraid of seeking medical care, even if they believe that they are infected with the virus.
In spite of these oftentimes unfair and arbitrary policies, it is important to remember that many individuals are legally entitled to health care services covered by Medicaid and Medicare. Even those of undocumented status has the legal right to be treated by hospitals in the case of an emergency, which infection with the novel coronavirus certainly is. Although the Trump Administration has effectively posed a risk to the health of many immigrants and to the nation at large, it is important to not let fear and misinformation interfere with protecting the health of the most vulnerable amongst us.