The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported more than 400 confirmed and presumptive positive cases of the coronavirus in the United States, and likely many more are as yet unconfirmed. In response, public health officials are advising that we are past the point of trying to avoid an outbreak through containment and must now begin adopting policies to mitigate the spread. According to a letter by more than 800 public health and legal experts, one important step that the Trump administration could take to ensure that all people in the United States have the ability to seek necessary medical care—regardless of immigration status—is to issue a formal statement assuring the public that health care facilities will be “immigration enforcement-free zones” for the duration of the outbreak. Such a statement would be appropriate—and, indeed, entirely expected—under any circumstance, but it is particularly important in light of the current administration’s track record on immigration.
Echoing the call of these experts, lawmakers in both the House and Senate have urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—specifically U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—to suspend all immigration enforcement actions at or near hospitals or other medical facilities. Additionally, lawmakers have demanded that CBP and ICE formally announce this suspension to the public, consistent with historical practices taken during national disasters and other public health emergencies.
Enforcement overdrive is having a chilling effect on immigrant communities
Over the past three years, the Trump administration’s immigration policies have had a chilling effect on immigrant families’ willingness to access medical services and participate in important safety net programs. In part because of this fact, people in immigrant communities may be apprehensive about seeking medical attention if they believe they have contracted the coronavirus. Not seeking medical advice and assistance could lead to further transmissions of the coronavirus within communities, jeopardizing the country’s response to the outbreak. In response to growing requests that DHS issue a formal statement assuring the public that life and safety are the department’s highest priorities at this time and that immigration enforcement initiatives will be suspended at or near hospitals, health care facilities, and other testing sites, the DHS spokesperson tweeted last week that such concerns were “[d]ishonest fear mongering” and stated simply that “ICE does not conduct operations at healthcare facilities.”
It is true that, in 2011, ICE amended its previous “sensitive locations memo” to describe the limited circumstances in which the agency will perform immigration enforcement actions at or near a variety of locations including—but not limited to—hospitals. But despite this policy, which the current administration says is still in force, the agency in August 2018 arrested 35-year-old Joel Arrona-Lara at a gas station as he was driving his pregnant wife to the hospital for a scheduled cesarean section. Arrona-Lara, who had no criminal record in the United States, remained in ICE custody while his son was born. The ICE policy also does not extend to CBP personnel, including the Border Patrol agents whose presence in hospitals and other health care facilities is becoming increasingly notable.
A long history of enforcement moratoriums during crises
DHS’s refusal to issue a public statement and instead respond indignantly by tweet is as ineffective as it is inexplicable. Throughout the years, administrations of both parties have adopted policies of suspending immigration enforcement activities during times of natural disasters and other public health emergencies. During the Flint water crisis, for example, DHS formally announced that CBP and ICE “are not conducting enforcement operations at or near locations distributing clean water in Flint, Michigan or surrounding areas affected by the current water situation” and that “DHS officials do not and will not pose as individuals providing water-related information or distributing clean water as part of any enforcement activities.” The decision to suspend these enforcement actions and avoid creating the impression that clean water distribution efforts would be used for immigration enforcement purposes was made out of a commitment to support state and local efforts and focus the department’s resources on “life-saving and life-sustaining activities and maintaining public order.”
Over the past three years, the Trump administration itself has—with the exception of Hurricane Maria and the recent earthquakes in Puerto Rico—continued this practice. In fact, DHS has issued statements suspending routine immigration enforcement operations entirely—except where necessary to respond to a serious threat to public safety—in areas affected by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Florence, and Dorian; the California wildfires in August 2018, November 2018, and October 2019; tropical depression Imelda and tropical storm Barry; as well as in places of evacuation or shelter. In all of these statements, DHS has recognized the primacy of preserving life and safety over run-of-the-mill immigration enforcement practices.
This proposal is not complicated—and it should not be controversial. Consistent with past practice, DHS should issue a formal public statement affirming that there will be no ICE and CBP immigration enforcement actions at hospitals, health care facilities, and other COVID-19 testing sites. Such a policy would ensure that all people, regardless of immigration status, are able to access the medical services necessary to preserve their health and well-being. In addition, it would also promote the national interest of limiting the further spread of the coronavirus. It is time for the federal government to prioritize the safety and well-being of all Americans by adopting policies designed to help contain this outbreak.
Claudia Flores is the immigration campaign manager at the Center for American Progress. Sofia Carratala is the special assistant for Immigration Policy at the Center. Tom Jawetz is the vice president of Immigration Policy at the Center.
To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.