For more than three years, Donald Trump and his chief domestic policy adviser, Stephen Miller, have worked assiduously to build out the architecture of mass deportation and immigrant incarceration.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have been unleashed to penetrate deeper into immigrant communities and round up undocumented people in public spaces like courthouses. The nationwide gulag of immigration prisons and county jails contracted with ICE has been robustly expanded.
Deportations inside the country, not just at the border, have been ramped up. The Trump administration recently ordered more aggressive ICE activity in sanctuary cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Immigrant Enforcement and Coronavirus
The immigration enforcement machinery keeps cranking on, even amid the worst global pandemic in over a century. The public health impacts of this business-as-usual approach have been largely ignored.
On the same day that California instituted its “shelter in place” lockdown, ICE agents fanned out across Los Angeles to conduct raids in immigrant neighborhoods. They were decked out in N95 medical masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 – the same masks in critically short supply to protect front line health care workers in hospitals and clinics. In carrying out these raids, ICE agents broke the state’s social distancing regulations.
Raids in immigrant communities risk worsening the pandemic in the United States in other important ways.
ICE agents breed mistrust of public health and other authorities at the worst possible time. When agents dressed in “Police/ICE” jackets show up at apartment complexes, they are eroding trust in local law enforcement, which depends on immigrants’ cooperation to maintain public safety and pursue investigations not directly related to the pandemic.
And the highly visible presence of ICE greatly amplifies undocumented immigrants’ fear that seeking needed medical care – including testing for COVID-19 – will make them targets for arrest and deportation and jeopardize any future chance of getting a green card.
Activists are calling on ICE officials to release immigrants from detention centers across the country during the #coronavirus pandemic.
Doctors say detention centers make it easy for the virus to spread. pic.twitter.com/9ef0cYdpsO
— AJ+ (@ajplus) April 1, 2020
ICE’s arrests inevitably enlarge the population of detained immigrants, who are being held in overcrowded conditions ideal for the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Citing that risk, last week a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered ICE to step up efforts to release thousands of migrant children currently detained in federally run or licensed shelters around the country, some of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.
Spreading the Virus
As we deport asymptomatic people infected with the virus, we are seeding new clusters of cases in the countries from which deportees originated. These are places from which new asylum-seekers may leave for the United States in months and years to come.
This is analogous to what happened decades ago when Salvadoran immigrants involved in gang activity in Los Angeles were deported in large numbers. Within a few years, these deportees formed new gangs in El Salvador, some of whose members eventually headed north to the United States. This time we are exporting not gang violence but a deadly contagion. Longer-term mitigation involves reducing unnecessary cross-border movement, not compelling more of it.
Both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have called for a ban on deportations. Biden would end workplace raids, to protect workers’ ability to organize and improve their wages. But we must go farther.
To increase our odds of surviving this pandemic, we must suspend all ICE raids for the duration. Continuing them only separates families at a time of maximum vulnerability, exacerbates overcrowding in detention facilities, worsens a critical shortage of medical supplies, and spreads the virus to potential new migrants.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.