This page summarizes US and global COVID-19 migration-related developments. It includes policy developments, CMS policy analysis, research, and dispatches about coronavirus. As the pandemic develops, this page will be updated.
This policy summary was last updated on May 21, 2020.
Immigrants in the United States, regardless of legal status, contribute significantly to the economy, to the social fabric of our nation, and to the nation’s response to the pandemic. They also are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and should receive support – as integral members of US communities – to protect and sustain themselves and their families. The following summary chronicles US policy developments which impact the well-being of immigrants during this crisis. It covers asylum, refugee, public assistance, detention, enforcement, immigration benefits, and labor issues. CMS will update this page each week over the course of the pandemic.
The Closing of Borders to Asylum-Seekers
On March 20, 2020, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued an order, based on Sections 362 and 365 of the Public Health Service Act, which prohibits for public health reasons the entry of certain individuals, regardless of their countries of origin, who require processing at the Mexican and Canadian borders. According to the order, this would prevent overcrowding at points-of-entry and border patrol stations, thus limiting the spread of COVID-19.
As such, the order applies to individuals without valid documents, including asylum-seekers and other vulnerable groups. Asylum-seekers who present themselves to US border authorities at the US southern border are now being turned away. Thus, this measure severely limits access to asylum in the United States.
Unaccompanied alien children, who are not subject to immediate deportation under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008, are also reportedly being detained and sent back under the CDC directive. The TVPRA of 2008 exempts unaccompanied alien children from noncontiguous countries from detention at the border longer than 72 hours and expedited removal.
The Trump administration has also suspended travel from China, the Schengen area of Europe, England, Ireland, and Iran, preventing nonimmigrants and potential asylum-seekers from entering the country. Yet asylum-seekers often use air travel to escape persecution.
Many public health experts have pointed out that closing a border prior to the introduction of a virus to a population might prove effective. However, the pandemic had been spreading within the United States for many weeks prior to the order. Moreover, at the time the order was issued, the United States had a much higher rate and number of COVID-19 cases than Mexico.
In addition, COVID-19 can spread in migrant shelters and in the camps that have formed in Mexican border cities as a result of the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), which requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico during the pendency of their US cases. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has warned for months that persons under MPP are living in “unhealthy conditions with poor drains and inadequate drinking water and health services.”
As of April 10, 2020, the Trump administration had virtually shut down the US asylum system, returning asylum-seekers to Mexico without due process. The Border Patrol had also denied entry to over 10,000 asylum-seekers, including more than 400 children. As a result, temporary camps on the Mexican side of the US border – which are rife for the spread of COVID-19 – have been growing.
On April 19, 2020, the CDC extended the order closing the US-Mexico and US-Canada borders to non-essential travel until May 20, 2020, reserving the right to extend it at a future date if “necessary to protect the public health.” DHS confirmed the agreement between the three countries, which applies to persons who present themselves at the two borders without proper documentation. The original order was scheduled to expire April 20, 2020.
In a tweet the night of April 20, 2020, President Donald Trump announced he would sign an order temporarily suspending immigration to the United States. The announcement was met with immediate criticism.
On April 22, 2020, President Trump signed a proclamation, which suspends for 60 days the issuance of family and employment-based green cards to overseas applicants, with several exceptions. Spouses and minor children of US citizens are exempted from the green card ban, as well as EB-5 investor program applicants, medical professionals, and Special Immigrant Visa applicants from Iraq and Afghanistan, among others. Parents, siblings, and adult children of US citizens are blocked by the ban, as are immediate family members of legal permanent residents. The Diversity Visa Lottery Program also will be halted.
Nonimmigrant programs were also excluded from the proclamation. Thus, students, agricultural workers, high-tech workers, and religious workers, among others, can continue to enter the United States to work or study for temporary periods. However, the Special Immigrant Visa portion of the Religious Worker Program, which allows religious workers to enter the US permanently, was suspended.
On April 25, 2020, several immigrant rights organizations filed a temporary restraining order in federal court seeking to block the family immigration portions of the proclamation, arguing that they separate families unnecessarily and that immigrants would help, not hinder, the economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. Critics have stated that the proclamation is an end-run around Congress, which rejected a similar proposal supported by the administration in 2018.
On April 24, 2020, President Trump signed a Phase 3.5 coronavirus bill to provide $484 billion to small businesses. The legislation included $25 billion for COVID-19 testing but did not ensure undocumented persons would receive guaranteed testing and care. It also failed to guarantee minority-owned businesses sufficient access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
On April 23, 2020, several organizations, including faith-based groups, submitted comments to an interim final rule by the Center for Disease Control which closes the border to asylum-seekers. In their comments, opponents cited several laws that the rule violates, which provide for due process for asylum-seekers. They also argued that there exists no public health rationale for the asylum ban.
Evidence is growing that the administration is using the pandemic to halt asylum protection at US borders. As a result, it is uncertain when the administration will lift its ban on asylum at the US-Mexico border, which has left thousands of asylum-seekers in peril. While NGOs are attempting to care for asylum-seekers who are stranded on the Mexican side of the border, migrant tent camps remain crowded and susceptible to the virus.
Border apprehensions fell by 50 percent in April, due to the expulsions of migrants based upon a public health law passed in 1944. Although 34,064 migrants were detained in March, only 16,789 were detained in April, with 14,416 being immediately sent back primarily to Mexico. As a result, detentions at the US-Mexico border have dropped from 3,000 a day to about 100. Since March 21, when a CDC directive went into effect, more than 20,000 migrants have been sent back, 90 percent of persons crossing the border.
In April, DHS accepted only 58 unaccompanied alien children into the country, down from 1,850 in March. Since late March, DHS has returned over 900 children to their countries, mainly in the Northern Triangle, in contravention of US domestic law.
At the same time, the administration indicated it will continue the expulsion policy beyond a set end date of May 20, despite many states easing stay-at-home orders aimed at reducing the cases of COVID-19. Only two border crossers have tested positive for COVID-19, one a man from India and a second man from Mexico who sought treatment for the illness.
On May 19, 2020, the Trump administration ordered the closure of the US-Canada and US-Mexico borders indefinitely, with a review of the policy every 30 days. The development comes as part of a consistent effort by the administration to limit legal migration to the country through administrative measures.
Immigrant rights organizations and faith-based groups quickly denounced the announcement, which came after the border was closed for 30 days on March 20 and another 30 days beginning April 20. Health experts also criticized the policy, stating that there was no public health rationale for denying the entry of asylum-seekers into the country. US authorities have accepted only two asylum-seekers over its land borders since March 21, 2020.
International organizations have severely criticized the US for its expulsion and deportation policies, arguing that Mexico and other countries are incapable of providing the necessary treatment to care for infected asylum-seekers. US-based experts have argued that the border policy undermines human rights and is contrary to US and international law.
The Trump administration continues to build a border wall during the pandemic, despite a lack of authorization from Congress and disruption to life on the border. The administration’s latest proposal is to paint the wall black at a cost of $500 million. On May 8, 2020, DHS awarded a $275 million contract to a construction company to begin building a wall in Texas in January, 2021.
The Halt in Refugee Admissions
Following a joint decision by UNHCR and IOM to temporarily suspend resettlement travel due to the widespread travel obstacles, the State Department has temporarily halted refugee admissions to the United States, even for those deemed “ready to travel.” This comes at a time when the program was on a pace to resettle a few thousand less refugees than an already historic low 18,000 limit for the year. Several thousand refugees who would have arrived in 2020 are now on hold, leaving them in vulnerable situations.
Refugees go through a health screening prior to coming to the United States, where many join family members. By remaining in camps, they require protection and other services, and are in a setting far more conducive to disease and infections. Most refugees in camps also have little access to the health-care equipment needed to respond to this pandemic. According to a recent report by Refugees International, refugees in camps and in crowded urban areas with little sanitation are most susceptible to sickness or death related to a pandemic.
Congress included $350 million for the State Department’s Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) account in the recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to support health care and other services for refugees overseas and in the United States.
Refugee advocates are targeting additional assistance for refugees in a fourth stimulus package, namely 1) funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to assist refugees recently resettled in the United States; 2) the resumption of refugee resettlement processing, including for unaccompanied refugee minors; and 3) clarification that refugees resettled in the United States are eligible for direct cash payments.
Halfway through FY 2020, 7,383 refugees have been resettled in the United States, approximately 20 percent below the number needed to meet the historically low refugee ceiling of 18,000 by October 1, 2020. Only 1,110 refugees were resettled in March, in part due to travel restrictions put in place because of COVID-19. With the ongoing pandemic and restrictions in travel, it is unlikely the United States will reach the refugee ceiling this year.
The US government has allowed for a small number of extremely vulnerable refugees to enter the United States since the suspension of refugee resettlement on March 18, 2020. From April 1-24, 27 cases were resettled in the United States, 25 of which were religious persecution cases. As mentioned, Special Immigrant Visas for Afghanis and Iraqis escaping persecution in their countries because of their affiliation with US forces were excluded from the proclamation suspending the admission of most legal immigrants, which President Trump signed April 22, 2020.
Due to the low number of refugees admitted in FY 2020 and the suspension of refugee admissions due to COVID-19, refugee resettlement agencies across the country are struggling to meet the needs of recently arrived refugees. In a letter to Congress April 13, 2020, organizations asked for funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a resumption of refugee resettlement and assistance to stabilize the refugee resettlement network.
As of May 8, 2020, only 7,427 refugees have been resettled in the US since the beginning of the fiscal year October 1, about sixty percent below the number needed to meet the historically low refugee ceiling of 18,000 by September 30, 2020. Due to the suspension of non-emergency refugee resettlement by the Department of State March 19, 2020, only 44 refugees have been admitted to the US since April 1, 2020—27 in April and 17 in May.
During the week of May 4, 2020, the United States accepted 3 refugees from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, pursuant to an agreement with Australia in 2017. The resettlement of refugees from Manus and Nauru offshore detention centers are considered emergency cases and will continue during the pandemic. As of May 15, 2020, the United States had resettled only 24 refugees during the month of May, including the three from Papua New Guinea.
The Public Charge Rule and Its Impact on Immigrants Seeking COVID-19 Assistance
On February 24, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began implementing the administration’s “public charge” rule, which prohibits immigrants in the United States and abroad from permanent residency if they use a long list of public benefits, including food stamps and most forms of Medicaid.
Advocates have called for DHS to suspend the regulation during the pandemic, as it has prevented many immigrants and their families from accessing needed health-care services and basic support. The rule’s chilling effect is a particular problem during this crisis. The public health impact of this pandemic could last for months, if not years. Limiting health-care access and basic support to immigrants will imperil them, their families and the general population.
On March 13, 2020, USCIS announced that it would not count for public charge purposes the use of benefits for the prevention, testing, or treatment of COVID-19. However, the agency indicated that applicants for other public benefits during the pandemic, such as food stamps, will need to show proof that the benefits were used as a result of the loss of a job or other supports.
This has caused confusion among immigrant populations and further discouraged them from accessing services at a perilous time. Like every other group, immigrants will lose jobs at high rates during the pandemic and be forced to rely on public benefits such as food stamps.
Despite waiving the public charge rule for COVID-19 health services, immigrants continue to refrain from seeking care for the virus, fearful that it will prevent them from obtaining permanent residency. On April 13, several states filed a motion urging the Supreme Court to temporarily stay the public charge rule, citing the chilling effect it has on immigrants needing COVID-19 care and other public benefits, such as food assistance, during the pandemic.
On April 20, 2020, the Trump administration responded to the motion in the Supreme Court, asking the justices to deny it by citing the comprehensive efforts being undertaken by the government to control the virus. DOJ also argued that states should better communicate to their residents that health-care treatment for COVID-19 is not counted under the public charge rule.
On April 24, 2020, the Supreme Court, without explanation, denied the motion by several states to temporarily stay the public charge rule during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the decision did leave states the option to seek relief in federal district courts. New York Attorney General Letitia James intends to file an emergency motion in New York Southern District federal court the week of April 27, 2020.
On April 28, 2020, the New York Attorney General filed a motion in the Southern District of New York to halt the implementation of the new public charge rule. As of May 4, 2020, the court had not ruled on the motion to suspend the rule.
On May 18, 2020, attorneys from the Offices of the Attorneys General in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, plus the New York City Law Department, argued in the Southern District Court of New York for a suspension of the public charge rule, stating that the rule has discouraged immigrants from accessing care and treatment for COVID-19. A ruling on the motion to suspend the rule during the pandemic is not expected for at least two weeks.
A study released by the Urban Institute May 18, 2020, found that 1 in 3 immigrant families have refrained from using public benefits due to the administration’s public charge rule, an increase from 21 percent prior since 2019. The report added that the phenomenon has become even more alarming during the COVID-19 pandemic, in which families are struggling economically and facing severe medical conditions.
Immigrant workers entitled to unemployment insurance are reluctant to file for benefits, fearful that a claim would jeopardize their chance to obtain a green card under the new public charge rule. In addition, the public charge rule is discouraging refugees and immigrants from accessing treatment for COVID-19.
Detention and Enforcement
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch of DHS continues to incarcerate more than 27,000 immigrants a day, the great majority of whom pose no threat to society. In the current circumstances, even many “mandatory” detainees are eligible for release. As reported by CDC in guidance provided to DHS, cramped detention centers are a breeding ground for infection. CDC’s order to suspend certain admissions at the US and Canadian borders highlights the risk of infection posed by “congregate settings” such as Border Patrol holding facilities and land ports-of-entry.
Numerous reports have also highlighted the inadequate health care provided in ICE and CBP immigrant detention centers. Advocates have called for the release of noncriminal detainees who are eligible for release and other detainees. Several detainees have tested positive for the virus, causing unrest in detention centers, and posing a threat to other detainees, detention staff, and surrounding communities.
On March 18, ICE announced that it would focus its enforcement efforts on persons with criminal convictions, not low-risk individuals. However, Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Deputy Secretary of DHS, has stated that ICE officers may still remove immigrants they encounter and that deportations will continue during the crisis.
In response to concerns from faith-based organizations and others, DHS has indicated it will not pursue enforcement around sensitive locations, including hospitals and clinics, notwithstanding media reports that it continues to do so. However, DHS has to date ignored pleas by border communities to halt wall construction on the US-Mexico border.
ICE has begun to release certain detainees as a defense against the spread of COVID-19. As of April 10, 2020, 168 detainees had been released. It has yet to release a larger population of noncriminal detainees sought by advocates, religious leaders and lawsuits filed by civil rights organizations.
On April 13, 2020, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) introduced legislation to force the release of detainees and to restrict immigration enforcement during the COVID-19 crisis. Countless detainees have expressed fear of contracting COVID-19 in crowded detention centers, and many have tested positive for the virus.
The number of migrant families in three family detention centers has dropped nearly 40 percent in the last week, as a federal court is considering whether to order the release of all families with children due to COVID-19 concerns. Advocates are also seeking the release of unaccompanied minors at facilities across the country, which is also the subject of litigation in federal court.
In a letter to Senate Democrats on May 19, 2020, the DHS Inspector General announced a review to determine whether ICE effectively has managed the COVID-19 crisis at its detention facilities and protected the health of immigrants and staff. As of May 15, 2020, 965 detainees have tested positive for the virus, with only 1,804 tested out of a number of nearly 28,000 detainees throughout the US.
Meanwhile, the administration has continued to deport thousands of immigrants to other countries, particularly to the poor nations of the Northern Triangle of Central America and to Haiti. Reports indicate that US deportation flights risk spreading the virus globally, with as many as 75 percent of the deportees on one flight to Guatemala infected by the virus.
On April 10, 2020, President Trump issued a memo threatening to restrict visas to countries that refuse to accept deportees during the COVID-19 crisis. The United States has been rapidly sending back unaccompanied alien children from noncontiguous countries, who are not subject to immediate deportation under current law.
On April 20, 2020, a federal judge in California ordered ICE to review the cases of detainees at risk of contracting COVID-19, including pregnant women, individuals with chronic medical conditions and individuals over the age of 55, for possible release. 220 detainees across the country have tested positive for the virus, with 96 new cases reported on April 20, 2020. To date, nearly 700 individuals have been released from detention. Advocates, including religious leaders, continue to call for the release of all detainees who do not pose a safety threat to the public.
On April 24, 2020, Judge Dolly Gee of the US District Court of Central California ordered the administration to release minors and their families from ORR and ICE detention, citing the Flores settlement and the danger of infection by COVID-19. The government has until June 15, 2020, to work toward the release of children and families in detention, with an interim report due to the court by May 16, 2020.
In a filing to a federal district court May 16, ICE stated that 180 children remained in custody after parents of the children elected to keep them in detention with them rather than release them. The filing was required under a previous ruling by Judge Dolly Gee of the District Court of Central California. Lawyers for the families, advocates, and elected officials criticized ICE for not releasing the families together, citing the danger of COVID-19 in detention centers.
On April 19, 2020, Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei stated that 50 Guatemalan deportees from the United States had tested positive for COVID-19. Guatemala and the United States have temporarily suspended deportation flights from the United States, after 44 deportees on a flight from Brownsville, Texas, tested positive. At the same time, the United States continues deportation flights to Haiti, where 3 deportees from the United States tested positive for the virus. Deportations to other nations, including Mexico, continue, with unaccompanied children among the population being deported.
Health-care experts have argued that restrictive immigration policies, including detention and enforcement, can threaten public health during a pandemic.
ICE plans to begin testing some migrants in detention for COVID-19 before deporting them, given the rate of infections among deportees to Guatemala, Haiti, and Mexico. ICE plans to acquire 2,000 tests a month from HHS and would prioritize detained immigrants for testing based on symptoms. The decision, reported on April 23, 2020, comes as receiving countries have complained that the United States is spreading the virus to their communities.
In response to the danger of the COVID-19 crisis, the Mexican government has released 3,653 detained immigrants over the past five weeks and returned them to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The policy is consistent with the US practice of returning immigrants during the pandemic, risking the spread of the virus to vulnerable Central American countries.
COVID-19 continues to spread in immigrant detention centers across the nation, causing unrest among detainees, who live in close quarters and difficult conditions. As of April 30, 2020, there were 490 confirmed cases among the 31,000 ICE detainees, but only 1,030 had been tested for the virus, a positive test rate of close to 50 percent. Advocates continue to call for the release of all noncriminal detainees, but ICE has released only those they determine are vulnerable to the virus.
On April 30, 2020, a Florida District judge ordered ICE to begin releasing immigrants from three detention centers, bringing the number of detainees from 1,400 to 350 within two weeks. Krome Detention Center in Miami has reported seven detainees and eight staff persons as positive for the virus.
On May 2, 2020, US Senate Democrats sent a letter to the US State Department and Department of Homeland Security requesting that they test deportees for COVID-19 prior to deporting them. The United States has sent hundreds of immigrants back to poor countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Haiti during the pandemic, some of whom tested positive for the virus. On April 30, 2020, flights of deportees to Guatemala were restarted after a two-week hiatus, but only after the US agreed to test immigrants before they were returned.
The first confirmed COVID-19 related death of an immigrant detainee occurred May 6, 2020, at Otay Mesa detention center near San Diego, which holds 145 of the over 700 detainees nationwide who have tested positive for the virus. To date, DHS has released over 900 detainees at risk for the virus out of a total of over 30,000 total detainees.
During the week of May 4, 2020, ICE released 65 medically vulnerable detainees at the Otay Mesa facility under an order by a federal district judge. Advocacy organizations have warned that the death toll will increase, as detainees continue to be held in less than sanitary conditions.
Local residents in Pearsall, Texas, which hosts an ICE detention facility, are questioning whether GEO Group, a privately-owned federal contractor that runs the Pearsall detention center, has done enough to protect detainees and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their community. Other communities with detention centers are criticizing the COVID-19 policies of private contractors.
Deportations of Haitians continue, despite the potential spread of the virus to Haiti by deportees. On May 11, 2020, DHS removed from a deportation flight to Haiti 5 detainees who had tested positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, a presidential panel in Haiti is calling for the suspension of US deportations until Haitian deportees are tested for COVID-19. NGOs and human rights activists are also calling for a halt in deportation flights to Haiti, citing the dangers to detainees and to Haitian citizens, who have little access to testing and treatment for the virus.
After an April 30 flight in which the US began testing detainees for COVID-19 prior to deportation, Guatemalan authorities began accepting regular deportation flights from the US on May 4, 2020. Prior to May 4, 2020, 117 deportees on four flights had tested positive for the virus, accounting for 15 percent of all infections in the country. On May 7, 2020, however, one of the Guatemalan deportees on a May 4 flight tested positive for the virus, despite assurances from the United States that all deportees on the flight had tested negative.
Opposition to deportation flights to Haiti, Guatemala, and other countries has grown, yet the US still unwilling to test all deportees before returning them. On March 11, Representative Frederica Wilson (D-FL) introduced the Haitian Deportation Relief Act, legislation that would suspend deportations to Haiti during the pandemic.
Immigration Hearings and Benefits Processing
After more than 70 organizations called for the closing of immigration courts until the end of the pandemic, on March 18 the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) postponed immigration hearings until April 10. Among the suspended cases are asylum hearings for persons waiting in Mexico under the MPP, who will be required to present themselves at the border to reschedule their hearing for some time after April 22. Hearings for detainees were not postponed, risking the health of detainees, lawyers, and judges.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has suspended in-person interviews for immigration benefits, including naturalization, permanent residence, and asylum. This could place immigrants in the precarious position of overstaying their visas and being at risk of deportation. On a positive note, USCIS has announced it will reuse previously submitted biometrics for work authorization extensions, benefitting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients. USCIS also has shown flexibility in enforcing filing deadlines, extending by 60 days the period for submitting certain documents.
As of April 15, 2020, the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) continues to hold in-person hearings for detained immigrants, despite a pending lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order. Despite a request from over 100 organizations, EOIR has yet to postpone the implementation of fee increases for a variety of services.
As congressional leaders work to formulate a fourth legislative package to address the COVID-19 crisis, immigrant rights groups are urging Congress to include 1) a state option for Medicaid-eligibility for DACA and TPS recipients, permanent residents, and undocumented individuals for the treatment of COVID-19; 2) cash payments to those with ITIN numbers; and 3) an automatic extension of work authorization for DACA and TPS recipients.
On April 15, 2020, the Department of Justice opposed a motion in federal court calling for a temporary suspension of immigration hearings for detained immigrants, arguing that such a ruling was beyond the authority of the court. On April 16, 2020, a Guatemalan detainee with COVID-19 was forced to call into his asylum hearing in Houston, where he was required to answer questions despite his illness.
On April 24, 2020, USCIS announced that its offices would reopen on or after June 4, 2020. This is a 30-day extension from its previous notice issued March 18, 2020, which stated that offices would reopen by May 4, 2020. In-person interviews required for certain benefits, including asylum, adjustment of status, and naturalization, have been postponed since March 18, 2020, leaving thousands of immigrants in legal limbo.
On April 28, 2020, a federal judge in Washington, DC, denied a request by three immigrant rights organizations to suspend immigration hearings for detained individuals due to the dangers caused by COVID-19. The judge ruled that the government was taking steps to mitigate the danger to immigration lawyers, detainees and others. The administration has already halted in-person hearings for non-detained immigrants and for asylum-seekers impacted by the Migrant Protection Protocols.
The Inspector General’s office in the Department of Justice announced May 6, 2020, an investigation into the decision by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to continue immigration hearings for detainees during the COVID pandemic. Immigration judges and lawyers have strongly opposed the policy, citing the danger it caused for judges, lawyers, and detainees.
House Democrats are calling for language in the next COVID-19 stimulus bill which would allow for virtual naturalization ceremonies. In-person ceremonies were postponed March 18 and will not resume, at the earliest, until after June 4.
On May 10, 2020, the Trump administration announced it would postpone asylum hearings for individuals in the Remain in Mexico program until June 19, 2020. Migrants remain at risk for COVID-19 in camps and shelters in Mexico, which is expecting to reach its peak in infections in June or July.
USCIS recently requested $1.2 billion in emergency funding from Congress, warning that the agency could run out of money in a few months. In addition, the agency plans to add a 10 percent surcharge to all benefit applications, placing a burden on immigrants seeking to adjust their immigration status or to become citizens.
USCIS has shut down offices overseas, resulting in a decrease in applications and fee revenue. It also has stopped considering certain green card applications because of a Trump administration policy adopted in April. Advocates also claim that the administration has slowed processing times and deterred immigrants from applying for benefits.
A recent report by the Center for Migration Studies found that 69 percent of US immigrant laborers work in essential critical infrastructure categories, including 74 percent of undocumented workers.
On April 28, 2020, President Trump ordered meatpacking plants to remain open, despite the dangers presented to workers by the virus, one-third of whom are undocumented immigrants. Meatpacking workers and farmworkers are at risk of contracting the virus because of their proximity to each other and the unsanitary conditions in which they work.
The United States is also insisting that meatpacking plants and other essential businesses in Mexico that supply the United States also remain open, even though it has closed the US-Mexico border to asylum-seekers.
In a call with lawmakers on May 7, 2020, HHS Secretary Alex Azar argued that COVID-19 was spreading in meatpacking plants because of the crowded and unsanitary living conditions in which workers live, not because of conditions in the plants themselves. Others supportive of the administration’s recent executive order to keep the plants open agree, including top Republican officials and meatpacking companies.
Opponents critical of the conditions in meatpacking plants, including the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, have called for better working conditions and hazard pay for plant workers. In the week after President Trump ordered meatpacking plants to remain open, the infection rate in communities with plants doubled.
While farmworkers have been declared essential workers by the administration, crowded and unsanitary workplace and living conditions leave them vulnerable to COVID-19. Advocates hope to add language to a fourth stimulus bill which would improve conditions for these essential workers.
On May 7, 2020, Western Union announced a two-week 50 percent reduction in fees for money transfers for front-line responders and essential workers. Remittances to developing countries have fallen since the beginning of the pandemic, threatening the survival of families who rely on them to buy food and other basic necessities.
On May 15, 2020, the House of Representatives passed the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion stimulus bill which includes direct cash payments to unauthorized migrants who file taxes with ITIN numbers. The legislation also provides Medicaid coverage for testing and treatment for individuals with COVID-19, regardless of immigration status; an extension of work authorization for DACA and TPS recipients; and protection from removal and work authorization for agricultural workers and meatpacking plant employees, among other essential workers.
The legislation faces an uncertain fate in the US Senate, which is unlikely to address another stimulus package until June, at the earliest.
This summary was last updated on May 21, 2020.
Refugees and forced migrants can contribute significantly to the response to the global pandemic, and yet face unique vulnerabilities during this crisis. This summary of refugee-related developments during the COVID-19 pandemic will be regularly updated and supplemented. It uses the term “refugee” in its broad sense to cover the estimated 71 million persons under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and considered populations of concern (PoCs) to UNHCR, including refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless persons, internally displaced persons, and returnees. It also covers other forced migrant populations in situations of peril and great vulnerability.
The Contributions of Refugees to Addressing the Pandemic
UNHCR has established a live blog that features the ways in which refugees and their host communities have taken action to “stay smart, stay safe, and stay kind.” Three US states, for example, have announced they will issue temporary medical licenses for foreign medical personnel, and several municipalities have established inclusive outreach and health strategies.
The blog also recounts the generosity and heroism of refugee health care workers, including a Rwandan refugee nurse working with COVID-19 patients in Kenya, an Iraqi refugee nurse working in the COVID-19 quarantine ward in a hospital in Iran, and a Syrian refugee in the United Kingdom who disinfects COVID-19 wards in hospitals.
In fact, refugees and migrants are essential workers in a wide variety of jobs, from health care to agriculture. Stories of refugees contributing food, health-care supplies, and other essential goods abound. Nevertheless, they may not always be eligible for the benefits that citizens receive or may have difficulty accessing them, including during this pandemic.
Refugees continue to serve as front-line workers during the pandemic. A Syrian refugee granted asylum in England is giving back as a hospital worker and fundraiser. Refugee tailors and artisans are making face masks and protective gear for health-care workers.
Refugees are serving as doctors and health-care workers, exposing themselves to danger in the interest of assisting their new countries. They are also making protective masks. In some nations, however, refugees with medical skills are unable to assist with the pandemic because of their tenuous legal status and antedated credentialing rules. In the developing world, refugee-led organizations are working to protect refugees from the virus, filling gaps in service to them.
Asylum-seekers are contributing to the fight against COVID-19 as health care workers, although some may eventually be sent back to their home countries. Certain countries forbid asylum-seekers from working as they await their hearings, leaving them unable to legally assist in fighting the pandemic.
Syrian refugees who have fled persecution in their homeland are contributing to the fight against COVID-19 in their new homeland of Germany.
The Olympic Refuge Foundation, chaired by Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee, and Filippo Grandi, UNHCR high commissioner, is launching several initiatives to involve refugees in sports in an effort to improve mental health among refugees during the COVID-19 crisis.
Some nations, working with UNHCR, are expediting licensing and residency requirements for immigrants and refugees who are health-care workers to help fight the virus. In New Jersey, temporary medical licenses have been made available for immigrants and refugees who have foreign licenses and are trained in medicine to assist with care during the crisis.
The Vulnerability of Refugees to the Pandemic
The vulnerabilities of refugees result from insufficient permanent responses to their situation, their living conditions, and exclusionary policies. Refugee-producing conditions, such as war and conflict, work at cross-purposes to prevention and protection strategies. UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres has said the “virus illustrates the folly of war” and has called for global ceasefire.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, argues that “the best way to protect us all” is to ensure that the global response to the pandemic includes all persons. To that end, UNHCR supports full access to “health facilities and services” to refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons.
Yet UNHCR has also pointed out that 84 percent of the world’s refugees live in low- and middle-income states with “weaker health and water and sanitation systems.” The pandemic poses a particular risk for the millions of refugees and migrants in vulnerable situations. For example, 2.6 million refugees reside in camps, which are typically crowded, often unsanitary, and lack sufficient health-care services to combat the virus. Sixty percent of the world’s refugees reside in poor urban areas, which also are experiencing challenges fighting the pandemic. These refugees face a high risk of infection, and insufficient health care and services.
In March, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Red Cross issued interim guidance on readiness and response for outbreak of COVID-19 in refugee camps and camp-like settings. The guidance highlighted the “strong public health rationale to extend all measures to everyone, regardless of status and ensuring inclusiveness.”
Because of health concerns, on March 17 IOM and UNHCR announced a cessation in refugee resettlement travel worldwide, leaving tens of thousands of refugees in limbo and danger. Many refugee host countries cannot sufficiently care for their native populations or for refugees. Because of a lack of resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in refugee camps, some countries are beginning to impose restrictions on the movement of refugees outside of the camps and on access to the camps.
A lack of testing for refugee populations and limited health care access and facilities both hinders the response to this crisis and risks pitting citizens against refugees. Moreover, because of their insecure and uncertain status in some countries, some refugees risk deportation when seeking treatment for COVID-19.
UNHCR and other organizations are working to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 in camps worldwide by strengthening health-care support, water and sanitation, and education. However, restrictions on travel, border closures, and delays in supply chains are hindering the overall effort. The United Nations launched a Global Humanitarian Response Plan on March 25, 2020.
There are signs that refugees are at risk of contracting COVID-19. On April 22, a refugee woman in a Palestinian camp in Lebanon tested positive, with a UN medical team dispatched thereafter to contain any outbreaks. A man tested positive in a refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. The camp was subsequently placed on lockdown. Greece has started implementing restrictive measures in refugee camps after outbreaks among refugees and migrants. Advocates fear that more outbreaks in refugee camps are inevitable, given the lack of preventive measures in host countries and the difficulty of social distancing in the camps.
On May 3, UNHCR launched an initiative to assist refugees stranded in Libya who are vulnerable to COVID-19. These refugees, who are mostly heading to Europe, cannot find jobs and live in crowded urban areas. The UNHCR initiative provides food and preventative care kits for up to a month. It hopes to reach 4,000 refugees in northern Libya during the Ramadan period.
On May 1, 2020, UNHCR warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in South Sudan due to COVID-19, where 1.7 million displaced persons live in crowded camps. Health-care facilities in the country have been decimated by the long civil war.
Refugee children living in urban settings are unable to effectively access education because of school closures and the lack of online access, leaving them vulnerable to regression in their development.
Authorities in Greece extended a lockdown in refugee camps until May 21, 2020, although no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the Aegean Greek islands hosting many of the camps. Nearly 150 refugees have tested positive in camps on the mainland.
On May 9, 2020, 50 refugees and asylum-seekers flew to the United Kingdom to reunite with family members. Greece intends to relocate 1,600 refugees to European countries.
On May 14, 2020, Bangladeshi officials announced that two individuals living in or adjacent to Rohingya refugee camps in southeast Bangladesh tested positive for COVID-19, raising fear that the virus could spread among the region’s 1 million Rohingya refugees. Conditions in the camps are crowded and unsanitary, with little access to medical care. NGOs and UNHCR are working to establish a 50-bed treatment center in the area.
UNHCR reports that as many as 5,000 indigenous Venezuelan refugees in the Amazon region of Brazil are at risk for contracting COVID-19. UNHCR is working with multiple governments to build shelters for the population, which live in crude conditions and are without health-care.
The Denial of Protection during the Pandemic
In addition, reports abound of refugees and migrants denied protection. Greek authorities, for example, have turned back Syrian refugees fleeing through Turkey. Rohingya refugees in camps in southeast Bangladesh have difficulty accessing health care and services, with the elderly especially at risk. African and Syrian refugees have become stuck – attempting to reach Europe – in war-torn Libya, where they are susceptible to COVID-19.
Developed nations turn back asylum-seekers at their borders, including the United States, which returns asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children to Mexico or to their home countries, without due process or required screenings. Member nations of the European Union are citing the pandemic as justification for keeping their borders closed to asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East. Advocates have argued that travel restrictions and border closures imposed by countries during the pandemic should exclude asylum-seekers. IOM has developed a running tally of COVID-19 related travel restrictions; as of March 31, it reported that 190 states, territories and areas had imposed 41,925 travel-related restrictions, focused on entry, departure, and medical requirements.
In addition, mixed-migration populations have begun to return in growing numbers, both voluntarily and involuntarily, to their home countries from COVID-19 hotspots, including Venezuelans from Colombia and Afghans from Iran. This has placed pressure on their governments and created backlash against the returnees.
Bowing to pressure from the international community, Greece has begun evacuating up to 1,600 unaccompanied refugee minors from refugee camps on Greek islands to countries of the European Union, citing concerns regarding COVID-19. A dozen children were sent to Luxembourg on April 15, 2020, while 50 were evacuated to Germany on April 18, 2020.
Ten EU countries and Switzerland are receiving children under a plan agreed to March 13, 2020. Approximately 5,200 unaccompanied refugee minors are currently located in camps in Greece, including on three Greek islands—Lesvos, Samos, and Chios.
Refugee advocates have criticized closures of borders and ports during the pandemic, claiming that certain governments are using the crisis to deny protection. Italy and Malta have closed their ports. Malaysia has denied Rohingya refugee boats from entering its waters. And the United States has virtually shut down its asylum system.
To compound matters, refugees are among the most vulnerable to a global food shortage, which could impact 250 million persons.
Several fishing boats filled with Rohingya refugees have been trapped at sea for several weeks – denied entry to Malaysia and other Asian countries and refused return back to Bangladesh because of fear that the refugees are infected with COVID-19. On May 2, 2020, one boat was taken to a small Bangladeshi island, but other boats have been rescued or remain stranded on the ocean. Rescued refugees have told stories of people dying of hunger and their bodies being thrown into the water.
On May 6, 2020, UNHCR, IOM, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a statement urging countries surrounding the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to accept Rohingya refugees. Several boats carrying refugees have been turned away from countries in the region, including Malaysia and India, because of COVID-19 concerns. Bangladesh has sent at least one boat of 280 refugees to an offshore island, which advocates have criticized as isolated and without access to services.
On May 9, 2020, UNHCR and IOM reported that 167 countries had either fully or partially closed their borders because of the pandemic, with 57 countries denying protection to asylum-seekers and refugees.
On May 11, 2020, UNHCR issued guidance for the care of stateless persons worldwide during the pandemic. Approximately 3.9 million stateless persons live in 78 countries worldwide—although the number could be much higher—without full legal rights and on the margins of society without access to health-care or basic support.
On May 13, 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that border restrictions in the Schengen area of Europe could be lifted by June 15, 2020, allowing travel among nations. It is unclear how this step would impact refugees and asylum-seekers, as several European nations have closed their borders to them or refused to accept refugees rescued at sea. It has been reported that the United States will keep its southern border closed to nonessential travel, including asylum-seekers, indefinitely, while the US-Canada border will reopen June 21.
Refugee Funding to Address the Pandemic
As of April 9 UNHCR reported that 212 countries and territories had confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 102 refugee-hosting countries that reported “local transmission” of the virus. Several nations, including the United States, have contributed to UNHCR’s $255 million appeal for COVID-19 preparedness and response over the next nine months. To date, however, contributions to UNHCR fall short of the requested amount, to fight COVID-19 among refugee populations and their host communities. Newly arrived refugees in resettlement countries also are receiving insufficient support, as they may not qualify for economic or service relief targeted for citizens.
As of April 17, 2020, UNHCR has received pledges of $175 million of the $255 million COVID-19 appeal, including contributions from the private sector. Some nations with large refugee populations, such as Jordan, have made specific requests for funding as part of the overall appeal.
On the eve of Ramadan, the UNHCR renewed its call for financial support to aid refugees during the COVID-19 crisis. As of April 24, 2020, UNHCR remained 31 percent below its appeal for $255 million for COVID-19 assistance.
From April 27-30, 2020, UNHCR received over $10 million in funding from private donors in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States. Aid for refugees worldwide is becoming more difficult to obtain, while UNHCR remains 27 percent below its COVID-19 funding appeal for $255 million.
As of May 6, 2020, UNHCR raised $227 million of the initial $255 million requested in its COVID-19 emergency appeal, nearly 90 percent of the total. However, UNHCR has raised its appeal to $745 million until the end of the year, noting that 134 refugee-hosting countries had reported local transmission of the virus and 71 million refugees and displaced persons were at risk for contracting it. On May 7, 2020, the United Nations raised its global humanitarian appeal from $2 billion to $6.7 billion.
The Heroes Act, a $3 trillion stimulus bill passed by the US House of Representatives May 15, contained no funding for a global humanitarian response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including funding for refugee protection. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed in late March, appropriated $350 million for migration and refugee assistance, including funding for overseas efforts.
On May 11, 2020, the United States contributed $24.5 million to the newly revised UNHCR appeal of $745 million for the remainder of the year. The US contributed over $64 million in March.
This paper provides comprehensive estimates on immigrant (foreign-born) workers in the United States, employed in “essential critical infrastructure” categories, as defined by the US Department of Homeland Security. It finds that immigrants in the labor force and age 16 and over, work at disproportionate rates in “essential critical infrastructure” jobs. In particular, 69 percent of all immigrants in the labor force and 74 percent of undocumented workers are essential infrastructure workers, compared to 65 percent of the native-born labor force...
This paper provides estimates on “essential” immigrant workers in New York State. These workers play a central role in safeguarding and sustaining state residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, often at great risk to their health and that of their families. Based on estimates drawn from 2018 US Census data, the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) estimates that 1.8 million immigrants work in jobs in the “essential businesses” identified by New York State. These businesses fall into 10 categories that meet the health, infrastructure, manufacturing, service, food, safety, and other needs of state residents. The majority of the New York foreign-born essential workers – 1.04 million – are naturalized citizens, 458,400 are legal noncitizens (mostly lawful permanent residents or LPRs), and 342,100 are undocumented.
Immigrant detention is intended to serve two main purposes, to ensure that non-citizens appear for their removal proceedings and to protect the public. Yet in the current circumstances, detention imperils detainees, the staff and contractors at detention facilities, court officials, health care providers, the public in nearby communities, and communities to which detainees return. ICE has adopted unenforceable policies and practices that do not reflect the severity of this crisis. It cannot safeguard those in its custody and should move with far greater dispatch to release far more immigrants....
On April 22, 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting for 60 days the issuance of green cards to certain immigrants, arguing that foreign workers should not compete with US-citizen workers for jobs at a time of a public health crisis and economic downturn. Public officials and immigration advocates expressed strong opposition to the executive order, citing studies that show that immigrants overall contribute to the health of the US economy and complement, not compete with, US workers.
Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have long contributed to the US labor force, economy, and communities, and several are now on the front lines combating the outbreak of COVID-19 and working to prevent the spread of the virus and to support those affected by it. This post provides estimates of the numbers of DACA recipients working in essential industries.
On March 27, 2020, Congress passed and the President signed a $2.2 trillion supplemental appropriations measure, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES, S. 3548), to provide needed assistance to a variety of sectors in the US economy, including hospitals, transportation hubs (including airlines), small businesses, families, and individuals. Immigrants, particularly the undocumented, were largely excluded from eligibility for aid in the package.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the extreme vulnerabilities of poor and marginalized people, including immigrants and refugees. The webinar will feature immigrant community leaders and service providers who will discuss the economic, educational, health, and safety consequences of the pandemic for vulnerable immigrants and newly resettled refugees in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Central Mississippi.
Thousands of Venezuelan migrants in South America face a Hobson’s choice, remain in their host countries in conditions of extreme vulnerability and mandatory quarantines, or return to Venezuela, despite the risks of contagion from the virus, the closure of borders, and Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis.
The US response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to fortify migration polices that violate the human rights of migrants. Beyond suspending hearings for asylum-seekers subject to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), the US government has ordered the rapid repatriation of apprehended migrants, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied minors, has continued deportation proceedings and removals, and has suspended many legal migration processes. On April 10, the administration asserted its right, resulting from the “profound and unique public health risks posed by the novel (new) coronavirus” to impose visa sanctions on countries that deny or delay “the acceptance of aliens who are citizens, subjects, nationals or residents of that country” that impede the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) response to the pandemic. Expulsions, removals, and denial of access to asylum have become central to the US pandemic response, without the US offering evidence connecting the spread of the virus to persons arriving at US land borders. The situation unfolding in Guatemala is particularly illustrative....
New York State experienced an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases over the last week, but a drop in hospitalizations. In the midst of the crisis, CUNY Citizenship Now! is providing remote legal services. There are challenges and not all applications can be completed under the current circumstances, but in many cases staff have “conversations that help to put the participant at ease and answer their questions.” In Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia deaths from COVID-19 have more than doubled over the last week – to nearly 1,000. Two doctors in the area stress the importance immigrant inclusion in the public health response.
New York is at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, staff of the Catholic Charities Immigrant Services program for the Diocese of Rockville Centre have “become quasi social workers/case managers.” They are “advising clients about COVID-19 symptoms,” making sure unaccompanied minors “do not fall through the cracks in our educational system,” and delivering food to families who lack transportation and are afraid to go outside.
If COVID-19 attacks places like Tijuana with vigor, we are in for a catastrophe. In the meantime, many border shelters have made some difficult decisions.
New York City is at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also proudly a city of immigrants. Here’s how immigrants and those working with them are responding.
The CMS Migration Update is a weekly digest of news, faith reflections, and analysis of international migration and refugee protection. It also provides migration policy and research updates, with the Policy Update section available in Spanish. Recent updates have focused heavily on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on migrants:
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many immigrants have been heavily affected by restrictions on health care access, job loss, and serving on the front lines to this crisis. Immigrant communities and those who work with them continue to offer vital services and to advocate for rights-respecting policies. The following is a list of COVID-19 resource guides from trusted organizations that have made positive contributions to immigrant communities and those that serve them: