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What Coronavirus Outbreak Means For Immigrant Communities in the US

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With over 100,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in more than 85 countries, immigrants across the US and abroad remain some of the most severely-impacted by the epidemic, from travel bans to racist attacks. As the COVID-19 virus spreads, the Trump administration’s immigration policies continue to fuel agitation and fear that push many immigrants in the US into the shadows and prevent them from seeking medical care. 

Access to health care

Immigrant communities are contending with access to affordable health care, which remains a pressing issue for many — especially undocumented individuals. In the past few years, cities like New York and San Francisco have rolled out health care programs to provide universal coverage to residents, including the uninsured and undocumented immigrants. Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York, told NBC, “We don’t care about your immigration status. We care about everyone having access to health care.”

California has provided health benefits to undocumented minors under 18 since 2016. Last year’s Medi-Cal expansion included low-income residents up to 26 years old, extending coverage to the state’s 138,000 undocumented young adults.

Washington state announced it will cover the costs of COVID-19 tests for residents without health insurance. The state lab is testing 100 people per day with plans to test for more, and is not charging patients for these tests. Washington state has also issued multi-lingual fact sheets about the virus, symptoms and how you can protect yourself in Spanish and other languages. 

Fernando Garcia, founder of the Border Network for Human Rights is working to ensure border communities in Albuquerque have accurate information and resources rather than fear and unanswered questions. Garcia is encouraging immigrant communities to monitor news coming from credible organizations with Spanish-language resources like the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization.

Fear of deportation

By no means a new problem, many undocumented immigrants will likely not seek out medical attention, even if they do have access to health insurance, in fear of being deported. Mostolfi said New York City is “sounding the alarm on reckless federal policies spreading a dangerous sense of fear and stigma” in immigrant communities.” 

In an open letter to Vice President Mike Pence, more than 800 public health and legal experts & organizations urged the administration to declare hospitals and clinics “enforcement-free” zones to ensure that no such actions take place in or near health centers. “It will undermine individual and collective health if individuals do not feel safe to utilize care and respond to inquiries from public health officials,” the letter said.

A letter from nine Democratic senators similarly urged Trump, Pence and members of the coronavirus task force to halt civil immigration enforcement in or around health care facilities. The letter also asked that Homeland Security publicly state that the administration’s new public charge rule would not label immigrants a “public charge” for receiving treatment for coronavirus.

“Fear of deportation should not impact whether an ill patient seeks care,” Dr. Mona Magat wrote in an editorial to the Tampa Bay Times, shortly after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency about the virus. Magat, a practicing physician in St. Petersburg, implored DeSantis to “ensure his words match his decisive actions and publicly requested that the legislature stop advancing fear-inspiring, anti-immigrant measures like the E-Verify mandate until coronavirus is under control.”

In a contradictory statement to the Miami Herald, ICE declared that COVID-19 is not an “exigent circumstance,” yet still encouraged individuals to seek care for the virus “without fear or hesitation.” Neither ICE nor DHS has explicitly stated that no enforcement will occur in health care facilities so far.

Travel bans and violence

At the end of January, President Trump suspended and limited entry of immigrants and foreign nationals coming from China, directing individuals who had recently traveled to China to 11 designated US airports. On Feb. 29, the proclamation was extended to restrict those coming from or traveling to Iran in the last 14 days. Notable early outbreaks in Italy and South Korea have not garnered such travel limitations so far.

“Closing the border, building a border wall is not going to stop any viruses if it’s not because of the collaboration between governments, and I think that should be a priority—collaboration rather than isolation,” he told KOB4.
Several videos showing racist and violent confrontations against Asians and Asian-Americans have circulated on social media recently, while Asian-owned businesses and restaurants from Seattle to NYC’s Chinatown have reported significant drops in business over the past few weeks.

Kaley LaQuea is an award–winning print and digital journalist who’s been creating content since 2008. She’s passionate about economic, environmental and social justice. She has an unhealthy relationship with caffeine and two cats: Totoro and Mononoke.