Cooperation over isolation

Inclusive immigration policy can slow the spread of COVID-19

On March 18, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it is delaying most of its removal operations because of COVID-19. Immigration activists and public policy researchers celebrated the move.

Early the next morning, however, Acting Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli set out to correct misunderstandings of the policy change. Referring to the original reporting as mistaken, he tweeted that the current policy does not mean, “that no other removable aliens will in fact be removed, but during the current public health situation, removals will be done in such a way as to minimize the exposure of our agents and of the removable aliens we are encountering.”

That’s an unfortunate announcement. As immigration attorney Carol Donohoe replied to Cuccinelli, “You just undid what the ICE announcement was supposed to do — reduce panic in the immigrant pop[ulation], so they’re not afraid to seek med[ical] care.” Despite the likely intention of the announcement to point out that targeting dangerous criminals would continue, the danger is that Cuccinelli’s comments will eat away at the security that immigrants feel to obtain medical care when needed.

It’s especially concerning because President Trump recently ordered increased efforts in sanctuary cities to track down and find undocumented immigrants. Across the country, about 500 agents have been deployed in 10 cities with sanctuary city policies that limit how local law enforcement and federal immigration officials interact.

During the current public health crisis, it becomes even more important to ensure that immigrants feel safe to seek medical attention as well as information on public health efforts. If not, then public health risks may be driven underground. Instead of seeking medical attention, sick individuals might avoid treatment for fear of being targeted by ICE officers.

In place of its emphasis on enforcement and its view of immigrants as public safety risks, ICE and other immigration-related agencies need to emphasize cooperation. Isolation is a good policy for individuals to avoid the spread of COVID-19, but not for community-level public health efforts. Removal operations risk spreading the virus faster, as well as exporting the virus to new or vulnerable areas.

Immigration officials at every level should reprioritize immigration agency resources away from enforcement and towards containment and education purposes.

Delaying ICE removals is good policy in a pandemic

The March 18 reversal seemed like a big change when it was first reported. Just two days before the change, ICE appeared to be conducting business as usual, despite the risks of COVID-19. As ICE’s David Marin told the L.A. Times on March 16 about efforts to continue removal operations in Los Angeles, “We couldn’t factor this in, right? This COVID-19 and the precautions that everybody’s taking. We just have to continue to go with the same game plan that we’ve been doing.”

The midst of a pandemic is not an appropriate time for business as usual. It’s likely that, as ICE continues removal proceedings, they will push legitimate health risks underground to fester.

Reports have already surfaced that legitimate health risks are being created by current immigration policies. For example, Politico interviewed a member of the Cincinnati Central Community Health Board about his work with immigrant communities. Dozens of people have reached out, but even those with COVID-19’s symptoms have not gone to doctors.

Suspending or delaying removal operations could have reassured immigrants that they could come forward to receive medical attention. As the original announcement from ICE states, “Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”

Almost all immigrants are peaceful, even if they are here illegally

The enforcement operations that ICE performs are a questionable policy in the first place, given the statistical evidence on crime and public safety. There are certainly dangerous immigrants, but news organizations focus on the minority of cases and not the big picture.

As with those born in the U.S., the vast majority of immigrants are peaceful and productive members of communities and workplaces across the country. For both natives and immigrants, only the dangerous makes the news, which paints a false picture overall. After all, Marin’s operations in L.A. on March 16 targeted two sex offenders, people who rightly deserve punishment and should be targeted for removal. These are the minority of cases and should be ICE’s focus. To be charitable, that’s the finer point that Cuccinelli meant to clarify. As his comments on Twitter continue, ICE will “continue to prioritize arresting and removing criminal aliens and other aliens who pose a threat to public safety, just as it always has.”

The concern is that Cuccinelli’s clarification will be seen as a reversal by immigrant communities. That may render its public health benefits null or even cause it to backfire.

What more can be done? Embrace welcoming policies

Delaying and further limiting ICE’s removal operations is a good start, but it may not be enough by itself. Communities and government agencies should look to groups like Welcoming America, which has championed local responses to immigrant needs. Welcoming America has built out best practices for integrating immigrant communities and for preventing isolation. These same practices can improve immigrant access to public health advice. For example, their suggestions vary from designating a lead for outreach to immigrant families to providing immigrant students resources in local schools.

Consider Dayton, OhioSociologists studying Dayton’s outreach work to immigrants believe it’s a clear example of the potential for immigrants to benefit their new communities. The city has pursued policies that remove barriers to immigrants participating in local affairs. However, immigration enforcement efforts, which even legal residents reported fearing, can make people withdraw from the community out of fear that they will be forced to leave.

Withdrawing from physical interactions during a pandemic is a good public health measure, but not if it comes at the cost of failing to seek medical care. Given the reports of many immigrants fearing to seek medical attention, it seems that legitimate public health risks are being forced underground.

Much like the efforts made in Dayton, better immigration policies would encourage cooperation between immigrant communities and public health experts. Agency resources should focus on public health education and outreach, not removal. News about closing the border to asylum seekers encourages sick individuals to stay away from treatment and so risks spreading COVID-19 further. Although social distancing is a major part of the response to the pandemic, everyone needs to be educated about best practices and the risks of the disease, especially those who are sick and need treatment.

Cooperation over isolation

Facing limited resources and a growing pandemic, it becomes more and more important to focus on education, prevention, and cooperation. Isolation is the right strategy for healthy members of the community, but not for those in need of treatment.

As more organizations begin to report that aggressive immigration policies have deterred people from seeking medical care, it makes clear the need for community leaders to reach out and provide support. ICE should reiterate that the enforcement efforts will not target those seeking medical care. Cooperation will better protect public health and prevent the spread of COVID-19 than business-as-usual enforcement policies.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.