Coronavirus: ICE crackdown stokes fears for safety of undocumented immigrants during pandemic

Surge in arrests reported in New York and Boston

Richard Hall
New York
Friday 13 March 2020 14:42 GMT
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An officer with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Fugitive Operations team search for a Mexican national at a home in Hawthorne, California, U.S., March 1, 2020.
An officer with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Fugitive Operations team search for a Mexican national at a home in Hawthorne, California, U.S., March 1, 2020. (REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

Democrats in both houses have called on ICE to halt operations at health facilities during the coronavirus outbreak over fears undocumented immigrants could be deterred from seeking medical help.

The pandemic has coincided with a widespread crackdown by ICE agents in sanctuary cities across the country.

The New York Times reported last week that the agency had deployed hundreds of additional officers and round-the-clock surveillance “to increase arrests in cities where local law enforcement agencies do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.”

In New York and Bostonboth sanctuary cities where local authorities do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement — reports suggest a surge in arrests.

As confirmed cases of the coronavirus continue to grow across the US, a number of Senate Democrats, including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have raised concerns that immigrant communities will be deterred from seeking medical attention over fears of arrest, or of harming their chances of citizenship.

In a letter to the Trump administration’s coronavirus taskforce, they called on the Department of Homeland Security to “immediately stop all civil immigration enforcement activities occurring in or around public health departments, hospitals, medical clinics and centers, or coronavirus testing sites or laboratories.”

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkely, the author and lead signatory of the letter, told The Independent that despite ICE’s own policies prohibiting them from conducted operations in sensitive locations like hospitals, “there have been multiple documented instances under Trump administration leadership of ICE and Border Patrol agents staking out medical facilities with the goal of arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants.”

“This virus does not discriminate, and it’s going to infect individuals in our communities regardless of their immigration status. To reduce the spread of the disease across our nation, it’s critical to make sure that no one in America has any fear of going to get tested. That means that ICE must be crystal clear with the public and make an ironclad commitment that they will not target anyone at hospitals or health clinics during this crisis,” he added.

In New York, immigration advocates have noted a marked increase in ICE activity in recent months, which has not slowed as the coronavirus outbreak has worsened.

“There is a lot of fear generally because the reports of ICE enforcement actions in New York that we have received in the first ten weeks of this year have increased fivefold compared to the last ten weeks of 2019,” said Genia Blaser, Senior Staff Attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project, which tracks ICE operations in the city. “But I think the fact that ICE is continuing with the same vengeance in the middle of this pandemic has exposed the true cruelty of the system.”

“They are still going out on to the streets and to homes to locate and arrest non-citizens. Not only that, they are taking them to detention centres where there is no protocol on what to do about the coronavirus. Non-citizens in detention are not being provided with the most adequate medical care and they fear what will happen if someone tests positive in one of these facilities.”

A spokesperson for ICE told The Independent the agency “does not conduct operations at medical facilities, except under extraordinary circumstances. Claims to the contrary are false and create unnecessary fear within communities. Individuals should continue to seek care for medical conditions.”

Current guidelines stipulate that ICE agents cannot conduct operations in sensitive locations such as hospitals unless there is an “immediate need for enforcement action,” such as a threat to national security or a risk of violence.

An ICE official confirmed that the agency was deploying special agents to supplement routine enforcement activity to deal with a backlog of cases.

Undocumented immigrants are not alone in being deterred from seeking medical treatment due to their documentation.

The letter from Senate Democrats also called for the suspension of the controversial “public charge” rule, introduced by the Trump administration last month, which grants immigration officials the power to deny green cards to legal immigrants who may use public benefits in the future, including federal health care like Medicaid. Senators claim that the rule has already been shown to deter people from seeking medical attention over fears it may harm their chances of gaining citizenship.

“In light of the seriousness of the public health emergency we face, we need the cooperation of all agencies to facilitate a swift response, and the public charge rule impedes that response,” the letter said.

“We cannot allow the fear this ill-considered rule creates to scare families away from getting the help that they may need if they come into contact with people with Covid-19.”

House Democrats have also taken aim at the policy. A letter calling for the suspension of the public charge rule was to vice president Mike Pence this week by 42 members of congress.

One signatory, California congresswoman Norma J Torres, called the public charge policy “as morally bankrupt as it is blatantly dangerous to public health.”

“It’s bad enough that this rule targets and torments some of the most vulnerable members of our society – the fact that it does so in a way that further spreads the coronavirus and threatens the well-being of every single person in the United States goes to show how little thought the Trump Administration puts into its policies. They need to rescind this mess before it inflicts lasting damage,” she said in a statement.

Immigration advocacy groups see a perfect storm for immigrant communities.

“With the threats of increased ICE activity, the new Public Charge rule, and overall distrust of government, we are marginalising a significant segment of our society and harming their ability to access critical medical services," said Rodrigo Camarena, Director of the Immigration Advocates Network.

"The federal government must stop wasting valuable resources mobilising ICE and CBP agents across the country and instead focus instead on supporting cities and states who are least equipped to manage the growing crisis.“

A number of clinics that provide healthcare to immigrant communities are concerned that fears and confusion over the public charge policy may prevent people from seeking help during the outbreak.

“With Covid-19, we are concerned that anything that would dissuade a person from seeking services could have catastrophic effects, because we will not detect and will not be able to prevent the spread,” said Lousia McCarthy, president of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County.

The association is a coalition of non-profit community clinics that provide care to 1.7 million patients — the majority of whom are below the poverty line — for anyone regardless of their immigration status.

Ms McCarthy said the public charge rule would only affect a small number of immigrants, but many more might mistakenly believe that they will be penalised.

“You couple it with fears of ICE and a backlog of applications for citizenship, for asylum status, it’s created a real tenor of anxiety amongst our immigrant population, regardless of their documentation.”

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