Photo by Chris Boese on Unsplash

Immigrants have long suffered the consequences of unfair, inhumane policies enacted to discourage them from seeking a better life in the United States. Over the past four years, the Trump Administration has sought to grind our immigration system to a halt by putting kids in cages, enacting a “remain in Mexico” policy, separating families at the border, and many other cruel tactics. Now, the administration is using the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen immigration restrictions for those trying to come to the United States. On top of it all, the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately harms immigrant children and their families because they face an increased risk of contracting the virus in detention centers, are excluded from federal relief efforts, and denied access to adequate testing and treatment. In a moment of global uncertainty, millions of immigrant children and families are faced with both an unrelenting virus and a policy agenda that lacks compassion and humanity. Especially now, we must oppose this Administration’s attacks on vulnerable immigrant communities.

Here are four ways that the Trump Administration’s policies during the COVID-19 pandemic target immigrant children and families:

1. Families detained despite the risk of illness.

Currently, more than 300 children and parents are held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) family detention centers. Even before COVID-19, evidence showed that detention produces documented negative consequences to the health and well-being of children. Now, ICE is choosing to further risk the physical health of immigrant families by keeping them in close quarters despite the risks presented by the novel coronavirus. More than 5,300 people have tested positive in all federal immigration detention centers since the pandemic began, including a share of individuals in family detention. Children and families should not be detained at all, and the only thing keeping families in these facilities is ICE’s unwillingness to release them to safety. Social distancing is exceedingly difficult in these centers and widespread personal protective equipment is often lacking. In June, Dr. Scott Allen, a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, testified that there are “gaping holes” in COVID-19 protocols in ICE detention including “failure to contemplate population production and failure to provide adequate guidelines for testing.” California Judge Dolly M. Gee, who oversees the Flores Settlement Agreement, had ordered the release of all detained immigrant children in ICE custody by July 27th citing public health concerns, but thus far the authorities have refused to comply. The Administration continues to violate Flores, which mandates that children be released within 20 days. Instead of releasing families, immigration officials presented parents with an impossible choice: stay in detention together with your children or release your children to a sponsor in the United States. Especially in the midst of a public health crisis, we should release families and children, together.

2. Immigrant children and families denied due process in the name of COVID-19.

The Administration often cites COVID-19 as an excuse to deny unaccompanied minors and immigrant families the opportunity to plead their case for asylum. The Administration currently ignores legal provisions for asylum seekers by citing Title 42, part of the U.S. Code that deals with public health and welfare and allows for rapid expulsions, including for asylum seekers and children, who are supposed to receive special consideration.

Since the pandemic began, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has refused to process children or house them in ORR facilities citing public health concerns. The graph below shows the massive decline in children transferred to ORR because immigration authorities instead use Title 42 to place them on the fast track to expulsion. Since March, Customs and Border Patrol has hastily removed more than 2,000 children, some in a matter of hours, even though ORR possesses adequate space and trained professionals to care for them. These kids often are returned without being properly questioned about their safety in their home country and in violation of the Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPRA), which is crucial to ensure that children are not being exploited.

Instead of being housed by ORR, hundreds of children and families have been confined to hotels under the care of a private security contractor while awaiting flights out of the country.  Others have been sent to Mexico, regardless of their country of origin or the presence of family members in the United States. Not only are the rights of these asylum seekers being ignored during the pandemic, but the expeditious removal proceedings also make it exceedingly difficult for children to access legal counsel. Recent reports have confirmed that immigrant children are being tested for COVID-19 and expelled even if they test negative. Denying kids due process despite proven measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 is clearly not about public health policy. These measures violate our international obligations to asylum seekers as outlined in the 1967 Refugee Protocol and represent a malicious attempt to limit immigration at the expense of children.

COVID-19 has provided the Administration with a convenient excuse to enact a larger immigration agenda that limits the entire asylum-seeking population. The Trump Administration on July 9th proposed a series of rules entitled “Security Bars and Processing,” which would vastly expand the pool of people subject to asylum denial and deportation. This proposed rule would bar entry and warrant deportation for anyone who may have come in contact with any infectious disease, exhibits symptoms of such a disease, or has passed through a country where such a disease is prevalent. This rule would also allow asylum to be limited for other known, treatable diseases even once the coronavirus pandemic subsides. The Centers for Disease Control has outlined evidence-based measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus during immigration processing through social distancing, mask-wearing, testing, health screenings, use of disinfectants, and access to personal protective equipment. While COVID-19 warrants serious concerns for the United States, it is possible to uphold our domestic, international, and humanitarian obligations to refugees while safeguarding public health. This attack on the asylum system contradicts American values and disregards the protection of vulnerable children and families. Read our comments on the proposed rule at this link insert link to PDF.

3.Threatening DACA during a pandemic is especially cruel.

Despite the Administration’s continuous attempts to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Supreme Court ruled on June 18th that the program must be reinstated and new applications must be processed. However, since that day, the Trump Administration has limited renewals to one year and has refused to accept new applications as they “review” the program. Currently, more than 300,000 new applicants are eligible, including 55,000 young people who have turned fifteen over the past three years and can now apply for the first time. More than 200,000 DACA recipients are also parents of one or more U.S. citizen children. The Trump Administration has forced children of DACA recipients to live in fear of being separated from their parents by deportation. DACA affords recipients greater opportunities for higher education, employment, and community engagement. The refusal to grant DACA-eligible individuals and families the benefits provided by the program has a profound effect on children even in non-pandemic circumstances. President Trump’s “review” of DACA in light of the Supreme Court decision means that DACA-eligible individuals, children about to age into the program, and children of recipient parents are forced to wrestle with increased uncertainty in the midst of a global pandemic in which they are especially at-risk. No permanent measures exist to protect these children from the daily agony of not knowing whether their parents are safe in the United States which is compounded by the fear of contracting a deadly virus. The continued attacks on the program must stop, especially in light of COVID-19, and new applications ought to be processed if we want to protect these vulnerable children and their families.

4. COVID-19 further squeezes legal immigration.

For the past four years, the Trump Administration’s narrow immigration policies, increased enforcement efforts, and deterrence mechanisms have created budget shortfalls for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which receives most of its funding through fees for processing applications. With fewer immigrants earning legal status each year, USCIS has consistently received fewer fees. When coronavirus further restricted the number of immigrants permitted, the agency nearly furloughed two-thirds of its workforce. The furloughs were delayed in late August, but could easily be resurrected if USCIS continues to forfeit revenue. A furlough of the anticipated magnitude would halt all immigration processing. Nearly 1 million people who apply for citizenship each year would be affected by these furloughs, as well as 3 million people applying for temporary work permits, 760,000 green card renewals, 630,000 green card applications, and 400,000 DACA renewals. Thousands of families would be denied citizenship and the ability to work under these circumstances, which would be especially devastating during the global pandemic in which immigrants are excluded from federal aid and often depend on employment for health care. Children of parents who fall into any of these categories would likely lack access to benefits and their parents could face deportation.

Even if immigrants do gain entry despite the COVID-19 restrictions and extreme vetting procedures, many will be unable to afford the application process. Immigration fees are set to go up more than 50% for most visas in October of this year. Application fees to become a United States citizen would increase more than 80% and the U.S. would become one of five countries to charge asylum seekers a fee. An applicant would have to pay $50 to apply for asylum and $490 to apply for employment authorization. The spike in fees especially hurts immigrant families with children because, under the new system, an “applicant under the age of 14 years who is filing a concurrent adjustment application with a parent must also submit the fee in full,” thus doubling the cost. The USCIS deputy director for policy claimed that these fees are “overdue” in order to “fairly administer our nation’s lawful immigration system.” Raising fees during a global pandemic in which many are losing jobs and unable to access health care is yet another brutal attack on immigrant children and families. 

Immigrant children and their families are particularly at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. They face contracting COVID-19 in detention. They are left vulnerable to trauma, trafficking, and exploitation as a result of rapid expulsions without due process. They grapple with the potential of family separation if DACA is eliminated in the midst of a global health crisis that has left many jobless, financially struggling, and unable to access public health services. Soon, they may not be able to legally immigrate and claim asylum at all due to increased immigration restrictions and exorbitant fees. If we are a nation concerned about the well-being of children during one of the most defining moments in their childhood, we must ensure that immigrant kids and families are not detained, not separated, and not denied the legal proceedings they are entitled to under domestic and international law. Harming children of any citizenship status to carry out a policy agenda is never acceptable, especially during a global pandemic. The Trump Administration and Congress should do these five things to alleviate the stress on immigrant children and families during the COVID-19 crisis:

  1. ICE should release children and families together from detention centers. Detention is detrimental to children under normal circumstances, and it is especially unsafe to house families in close quarters due to COVID-19.
  2. Immigration authorities must stop detaining children in hotels without appropriate caretakers and must prohibit expulsions of unaccompanied minors. They must stop using the excuse of protecting public health to deny kids the opportunity to plead their case for asylum as permitted under U.S. law.
  3. The Trump Administration must rescind the proposed “Security Bars and Processing” rule and allow asylum-seeking children and families to plead their case while using approved public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.   
  4. The Department of Homeland Security must accept new DACA applications, process DACA renewals, and stop dismantling the program especially during a global health crisis.  
  5. The Trump Administration must rollback changes to USCIS’s immigration processing policies that would limit legal immigration.