A Migrant Model To Follow: Portugal’s Response to the Coronavirus

Two children run past a banner that says, "Together, we'll be fine," in Lisbon, April 2020.

Good news about a country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is rare these days, but Portugal recently provided a bright spot. The government announced that during the pandemic, certain migrants and asylum-seekers in the country would be provided the same full access to public services that permanent residents receive. At a time when many countries, including the United States, are indulging nationalist impulses and even using the crisis to further exclude and marginalize immigrants, Portugal is exemplifying a smart, pragmatic policy that both respects the rights and dignity of all people and helps minimize spread of the virus.

The government order, which will remain in effect until at least July 1, ensures that all foreigners, including asylum-seekers, who have applied for immigration status will be treated as permanent residents. This means they can access the national health service, welfare benefits, bank accounts, and work and rental contracts. While it is unclear how many migrants this will cover, last year, nearly 600,000 migrants resided in Portugal—a significant number given Portugal’s entire population of 10.3 million people. A government spokeswoman said that the decision was made because “[p]eople should not be deprived of their rights to health and public service just because their application has not yet been processed.” The prime minister later declared that “democracy won’t be suspended” during the crisis.

Portugal’s decision reflects the reality that responses to the COVID-19 pandemic prioritizing unity and equity are not only more just but likely more effective as well. The new policy will help to ensure that vulnerable populations are not left behind in addressing the public health threats of the coronavirus outbreak. Suspending the need for migrants to register or complete paperwork during the outbreak will minimize exposure of border officials and applicants to the virus. Ensuring no one is denied access to care and treatment for the virus will help limit its spread. And by guaranteeing access to essential services such as financial assistance, migrants will feel less pressure to find work to pay for food or care. This in turn helps contain the spread of the disease and makes the national recovery easier.

Portugal’s approach stands in stark contrast to that of other governments. India’s decision to issue a nationwide lockdown left millions of migrant laborers stranded without jobs, food, or shelter, forcing them to crowd onto highways or public transportation to return home. Dozens have already died as a result, and millions have likely spread the outbreak further. In Greece, serious overcrowding and limited health care supplies have created disastrous situations for migrants in camps such as Lesbos. Neither the Greek government nor the European Union has taken steps to extend health care benefits to migrants amid the coronavirus crisis; migrants were removed from the Greek social security system last year and remain unprotected today.

In the United States, gaps in the public health infrastructure mean millions of immigrants face dire prospects. Migrants living without documentation or insurance will confront huge barriers to testing and care. Although the second coronavirus package passed by Congress gave states the option to cover the costs of COVID-19 testing to uninsured people, eligibility was limited to Medicaid-eligible populations, making the tests unavailable to undocumented immigrants, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, and most lawful permanent residents who have had their green cards for less than five years. Even after President Donald Trump promised to make testing available regardless of immigration status, Congress has not fulfilled his promise. The latest $2.2 trillion stimulus bill additionally leaves mixed-status families out of the direct stimulus checks, meaning that even if nearly everyone in a family has a Social Security number but one person files with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, that family will not receive payments. The bill also included $1.3 billion in funding for community health centers, which treat people regardless of immigration status; but many have already reported shortages in testing capabilities.

The Trump administration’s harsh policies also stoke fear within immigrant communities, discouraging people from going to hospitals out of concern it may damage their ability to become legal residents. Because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has thus far refused to adopt a policy of reducing detention facility populations, which would protect the health of detained people and staff, federal judges around the country are beginning to order ICE to release people from custody. Worse still, deportations have continued even as other domestic travel grinds to a halt. Although ICE has indicated it is doing some moderate screening of people before they are placed on removal flights, three individuals who were deported from the United States to Guatemala have tested positive for the virus and were hospitalized shortly after their arrival in the country.

Trump officials are even using coronavirus concerns as an excuse to quickly deport unaccompanied children and asylum-seekers who make it to the U.S. border, ignoring domestic and international legal obligations. This is particularly irresponsible given the magnitude of the virus’s spread within the United States, because continuing deportations will exacerbate the spread to other countries, many of which have poor health care systems.

Furthermore, because of the holes in the social safety net and the fact that immigrants disproportionately serve as frontline workers, migrants will be more likely to feel compelled to work outside of the home, raising their chances of contracting the virus. This puts health care workers, service workers, and farm laborers—industries that rely heavily on immigrants—and their families especially at risk at a time when they are filling a crucial need for all Americans.

A smarter policy for the United States, and other countries, would be to follow Portugal’s example and extend critical services to all residents, regardless of their status. Testing and treatment for COVID-19 should be made available to everyone, including undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families. These families will also need access to economic help; stimulus funds should be provided to everyone, not just those with Social Security numbers, because the purpose of these funds is ultimately to help save the U.S. economy. Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security should make significant changes to enforcement and detention policies and practices and exercise exceptional caution—in close consultation with receiving countries—before placing people on removal flights.

The coronavirus does not discriminate based on immigration status; neither should government responses. Only by treating and caring for everyone can we hope to defeat this pandemic.

Alexandra Schmitt is a policy analyst for human rights, democracy, and development on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Elisa Massimino is a senior fellow at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Tom Jawetz, Philip E. Wolgin, and Emily Gee for their contributions to this analysis and recommendations.

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