COVID-19 complicates progress toward a more humane immigration system
It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s immigration policies were not popular with a large segment of the American public. From Trump’s Muslim travel ban, derailing family reunification policies, detaining migrants at the border, and pausing the processing of Green cards, the Biden Administration has scrambled to undo these immigration policies.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of normal federal immigration function, from visa processing delays, distributing immigrant benefits, and suspending court hearings due to health regulations. At the time of these restrictions, Trump continued to fuel anti-immigrant rhetoric by claiming the restrictions were necessary for American job security.
“By pausing immigration, we will help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens. So important,” Trump said. “It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad. We must first take care of the American worker.”
These comments enable the anti-immigrant stereotypes that have also contributed to misinformation that immigrants spread COVID-19 due to the role of travel in the pandemic. In reality, immigrants are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to social determinants of health such as higher incidence of poverty, crowded housing conditions, and difficulty in social distancing at work.
Shifting America’s immigration policy is a key goal of Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress. In his first 100 days, President Biden has introduced sweeping reforms to reinstate pre-Trump era systems while also proposing legislation that would curtail deportations and provide an eight-year path to citizenship.
These drastic shifts, while welcomed by immigration advocates, have had an unforeseen and dangerous impact. With the decision to accept more asylum seekers and reopen borders for family reunification, there has been a sudden influx of migrant children at the border with Mexico.
“We are seeing minors up and down the line. In South Texas, we are being hammered,” said one Homeland Security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk publicly about the situation.
This has created a housing crunch for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. COVID-19 has spread in immigration detention centers throughout the past year. Data from ICE shows more than 9,600 confirmed cases nationwide. Because of this, restrictions have limited the occupancy of shelters to 60,000. Combined with the influx of children, President Biden might have to backpedal on some of his promises against the detention practices of Trump he so harshly criticized.
“The reality is, we had to pull the pin out of Trump’s brutal policies, and Biden is trying to do it in a responsible, sequenced way,” said Seth Stodder, a former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama Administration. “But some of the dynamics are not in his control.”
The Administration is rapidly working to change policies that have created the bottleneck at the border. The Department of Health and Human Services has announced a temporary lift on capacity restrictions to full capacity in order respond to the number of children entering the United States, citing concerns that numbers will only continue to rise over the coming weeks.
In addition, in a Friday night federal court filing, ICE disclosed a plan to transition family detention centers to short-term processing facilities that release migrant families after no more than 72 hours. The announcement cited the Flores court decision that established the rights of immigrant children in detention centers, a standard the Trump Administration ignored, while either separating parents from children or holding migrant families together.
The Washington Post describes these shifts as a “significantly different vision of how to handle the fast-changing character of mass migration at the southern border,” but these decisions do not come without political backlash.
Trump released a statement saying the border will be “worse, more dangerous, and more out of control than ever before.”
Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki quickly rebuffed these comments: “We don’t take our advice or counsel from former President Trump on immigration policy, which was not only inhumane but ineffective over the last four years.”
As President Biden pursues more humanitarian and effective immigration policies, his efforts are complicated by a number of factors — more migrants seeking entrance into the U.S., the growing pains of a new administration, and key COVID-19 restrictions and regulations.