The World Health Organization (WHO) received its first report on “cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology (unknown cause) detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China” at the end of December 2019. By January 3, 2020, China reported on 44 such cases. By January 8, the “novel coronavirus” had officially crossed international boundaries, with the first case detected in Thailand. By January 30, WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. By that point, the WHO had confirmed 7,818 cases in 18 countries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first US case on January 20 in the state of Washington. By May 15, the United States, a nation with four percent of the world’s population, had experienced 29 percent of the world’s deaths from COVID-19. By May 22, the virus had infected 5.2 million persons worldwide and killed 335,941.
This CMS webpage seeks to provide real-time updates and a record of migration-related developments and policies over the course of the crisis. COVID-19 and its disastrous economic fall-out have decimated migrant, refugee, and other vulnerable populations, and have led to an extraordinary proliferation of restrictions on mobility. The webpage approaches these issues from diverse perspectives.
The US Policy Developments section covers issues, such as the:
- Closure of US borders to asylum-seekers, unaccompanied migrant children, and “non-essential” travelers.
- Suspension of refugee resettlement and the issuance of visas based on family ties and employment.
- The newly implemented “public charge” rule, which serves as a disincentive to immigrants and their families to access public benefits and medical care.
- Federal stimulus and relief legislation that excludes and ignores the needs of undocumented immigrants and “mixed-status” families.
The State and Local Developments section – developed in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Price School of Public Policy – reports on policy actions by states, counties and cities that have a specific impact on the foreign born and their families. Across the country, jurisdictions with sizable foreign-born populations are taking steps to provide emergency economic relief and access to health care to immigrants excluded from federal benefits.
Global Refugee Developments recounts the diverse contributions of refugees to the pandemic response, the suspension of resettlement, the challenges faced by refugees in camps and urban settings, where social distancing is impossible and health care inadequate; and, the attempt by some to return to dangerous conditions in their home countries.
The Policy Analysis and Research section offers:
- Original CMS research on US immigrant essential workers, by state and status.
- An extensive analysis (updated weekly) of US detention development during the pandemic, and the spread of COVID within and beyond the US detention system.
- Essays on Venezuelan migrants seeking to return home, migrants shelters in Mexico during the pandemic, and the impact of US migration-related COVID-19 policies on communities in Guatemala.
- An analysis of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and other legislation.
- Short “dispatches” from New York and other affected communities, struggling to fight the pandemic.
CMS’s Webinars cover US essential workers, inclusive local community responses to immigrants, the conditions facing immigrant communities in Louisiana and Mississippi, and immigrant detention in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama during the crisis. The page also includes links to CMS’s weekly digest on international migration issues, Migration Update. Many of the Update’s editions since March 2020 have been devoted exclusively to COVID-19 migration-related developments.
A few key themes emerge from this work. The virus does not honor borders, distinguish between people based on immigration status, or diminish the need for protection of refugees, children, families, or irregular migrants. Neither can efforts to stem the pandemic. Politically driven, nativist policies that seek to benefit one country over another will exacerbate an already calamitous situation. As two infectious disease experts told the New Yorker magazine: “‘A disease anywhere is a disease everywhere’” and “‘There’s no point just protecting your own turf.’” Globalized diseases require a coordinated global response, rooted in solidarity and facts. They also require nations to honor their domestic and international protection obligations. Mobility needs to be “secured” through sensible restrictions, but also through a commitment to the rule of law and to the protection of those who need to migrate. Migration must be managed, but in a way that “respects international human rights and refugee protection standards.”
Similarly, domestic policies that exclude or ignore select groups will exacerbate social inequalities and tensions at a time that demands a unified response. An effective response must embrace the entire community, particularly those most at risk. More than ever, nations and local communities should treat their vulnerable residents – including immigrants and refugees – as full participants in their communities, and not as disposable.
This policy summary was last updated on July 31, 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 that impact the well-being of immigrants during this crisis. It covers legal immigration, refugee policies, public assistance, enforcement, due process and immigration benefits, labor issues, and legislative developments. CMS will update this page regularly as the pandemic develops.
New Developments July 17-July 31
Asylum. A July 29, 2020, report by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) details how the Trump administration has used the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down access to asylum in the US. Between March and June close to 70,000 asylum seekers have been expelled at the southern border because of public health reasons. READ MORE.
Visa Categories. In guidance issued July 24, 2020, the Trump administration barred international students from traveling to the US to attend school if all of their classes are conducted online. This new policy primarily affects first-year undergraduates and graduate students. The Trump administration previously proposed a rule to require international students residing in the US to leave the country if all their classes were digital, but was withdrawn after strong opposition to it from colleges and universities. READ MORE.
Public Charge. On July 29, 2020, a New York federal judge ruled that the Trump administration’s February 2020 public charge rule would not apply during the pandemic to immigrants applying for entry into the United States or legally residing in the United States. The rule denies immigration benefits to immigrants it deems likely to become a “public charge” based on their use of certain public assistance programs.
A group of states, led by New York, filed suit in the Southern District Court of New York in May to temporarily suspend the rule during the COVID-19 pandemic. Immigrant advocates hailed the injunctions as crucial to ensuring survival for vulnerable immigrant families and stopping the spread of COVID-19 in US communities. It is likely that the Trump administration will appeal the decision to a higher court. READ MORE.
Detention. On July 22, 2020, a federal judge in Washington, DC, denied a request from immigrant rights organizations to order ICE to release families in detention because of the threat of COVID-19. ICE is currently under an order to release children who are with their families from detention but has not done so because parents of the children have not consented to the release. Advocates have severely criticized this approach, arguing that it provides a cruel choice to parents between either keeping their children in detention or releasing them to family or foster care.
In Virginia, the governor and two US Senators have asked the CDC to intervene in a COVID-19 outbreak at the immigration detention center in Farmville, Virginia, where 262 undocumented immigrants have tested positive for the virus due to crowded conditions. The number is three times the number of cases than other detention centers across the country. According to ICE, as of July 29, 2020, 944 immigrant detainees with coronavirus are in custody, with over 21,000 persons still detained. Three detainees have died and nearly 3800 overall have tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic.
Immigrant rights advocates have filed suit to halt ICE from placing unaccompanied children—some as young as 1 year old—in hotels pending their deportations. They argue that hotels are not safe for children and that child shelters run by HHS, which are more secure, are at 7 percent of capacity. ICE has been deporting unaccompanied minors without asylum hearings for several months, citing public health reasons. READ MORE.
Processing of Benefits. On July 24, 2020, USCIS announced it would delay the furlough of as many as 14,000 employees planned for early August until the end of the fiscal year, citing revised revenue estimates. At the same time, on July 31, 2020, USCIS issued a new fee schedule which significantly raises the fees charge for certain benefits. The new fee schedule could put certain benefits out of the reach of immigrant families, especially those struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. READ MORE.
Essential Workers. The Trump administration issued a memorandum on July 28, 2020, denying the acceptance of new DACA applications, despite a recent Supreme Court ruling blocking its attempt to end the program. Several studies have shown that many DACA recipients work as essential workers, including health-care workers, during the pandemic. Proponents of the program stated that the memorandum contradicts the Supreme Court ruling and effectively ends the program in the long-term. READ MORE.
Legislative Developments. Republicans in the US Senate unveiled a $1 trillion stimulus package July 27, 2020, which includes $3 billion for USCIS and CBP but does not include stimulus checks for mixed status families in which one spouse does not have a Social Security number. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) have introduced legislation to make eligible a family with one spouse without a Social Security number, but it is unlikely to be considered on the Senate floor.
In May, the US House of Representatives passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, legislation which would make mixed-status immigrant families eligible for stimulus checks and provide Medicaid coverage to immigrants for COVID-19 care. The US Senate adjourned for the July 31, 2020, weekend without agreeing to a compromise between the two bills.
The Republican stimulus bill also includes $3.8 billion in funding for the Department of Defense (DOD) to replace funds diverted by the Trump administration to build a border wall between the US and Mexico. On July 31, 2020, in a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court upheld the administration’s use of DOD funds to construct the border wall. READ MORE.
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. The United States has extended the order several times, and it is now in effect until August 20.
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 being turned away. Thus, this measure severely limits access to asylum in the United States. Immigrant rights organizations and faith-based groups have denounced the policy, and health experts have also criticized it.
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.
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 and Central America.
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.” More than 60,000 asylum-seekers live in limbo and in danger on the Mexican side of the border because of MPP. They have experienced violence, kidnapping, and other forms of abuse, while those residing in camps or shelters risk contracting COVID-19. Asylum hearings for person subject to MPP have been postponed until select US and Mexican states meet health and reopening criteria.
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.
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 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.
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 has proposed painting 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. A $1.3 billion contract to build 42 miles of a border wall—and paint it black—in southern Arizona was awarded to a North Dakota firm favored by President Trump on May 19, 2020. The wall will be built in mountainous terrain to the west and east of Nogales, Arizona.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expelled 21,000 migrants at the US-Mexico border during March and April, including 901 families with children and 899 unaccompanied minors. Because of the original Center for Disease Control (CDC) directive, only 85 migrants were referred to a credible fear interview and only four were allowed to stay in the United States between late March and late May.
The Trump administration published a proposed rule in the Federal Register on June 15, 2020 that would eviscerate the asylum system. Among other changes, the rule would severely restrict claims based on gender-based violence, gang threats, and torture by government officials. It also would grant immigration judges increased authority to dismiss asylum claims. Advocates quickly condemned the rule, stating that it would deny protection to bona fide asylum-seekers. There is a 30-day period to submit comments on the rule, although advocates are seeking a 60-day comment period. CMS has submitted a public comment and encouraged individuals and organizations to submit public comments before the July 15 deadline. By July 15, 2020, over 79,000 comments had been recorded in opposition to the rule with more than 10,000 comments from the faith community.
Border apprehensions fell by 50 percent in April but rose in May. 23,118 migrants were apprehended in May, up from 16,966 in April—a jump of 36 percent—despite a policy of rapid expulsions implemented in late March. About 43,000 migrants have been subject to rapid-expulsion since the Trump administration effectively shut down travel between the United States and Mexico in March. Between late March and the end of April, DHS has returned over 900 children to their countries, mainly in the Northern Triangle, in contravention of US domestic law. US authorities accepted only two asylum-seekers over its land borders between March 21, 2020 and the end of April.
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.
Canada experienced a slight uptick in asylum-seekers crossing the Canadian border from the United States in May, despite the ban on nonessential travel. Twenty-one asylum-seekers were apprehended and returned to the United States in May, while only six were stopped in April. The lack of access to asylum relief in the US incentivizes asylum-seekers to cross into Canada, although the ban on nonessential travel and the Safe Third Country agreement between the US and Canada can block their entry.
On June 25, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 vote that asylum-seekers subject to expedited removal are not entitled to a federal court hearing on their claim and can be quickly returned to their countries if their fear of persecution is not viewed as credible. The decision further undermines the right to due process for asylum-seekers to the United States, which has been virtually eliminated by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 30, 2020, a federal district judge invalidated a Trump administration rule that asylum-seekers can be denied asylum if they did not first apply for asylum in a safe third country.
The Trump administration published a rule on July 9, 2020, that would block asylum-seekers to the US-based on public health concerns.
Citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the rule argues that asylum-seekers pose a health and safety risk to the US public and thus should be denied entry into—and protection from—the US-based on national security grounds. Asylum-seekers originating from or traveling through countries with coronavirus cases among their populations would be summarily denied asylum.
Advocates decried the rule, stating that the US is already a hotspot for the virus and that alternative steps could be taken, such as to test and quarantine potential asylum-seekers if needed. The rule is the latest of a series of administration policies adopted during the pandemic to weaken the US asylum system.
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. The announcement was met with immediate criticism about its impact on legal immigrants attempting to reunite with families and immigrant workers.
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.
A class-action lawsuit filed in federal court May 28, 2020, argues that the green card ban instituted by the president on April 22, 2020, prevents the reunification of children who will turn 21 while the ban is in effect with their parents. Children who turn 21 during the period of the ban will be forced into a visa category with a several decades long waiting period.
On May 29, 2020, President Trump issued a proclamation restricting visas to Chinese students and researchers, as part of a series of moves to respond to China in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. The proclamation bans students who attend universities affiliated with the Chinese military.
Due to a shortage of personnel, on June 11, 2020, the Trump administration placed a temporary halt on processing for green cards for immigrants applying in the United States. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) resumed processing as of June 17, 2020. In April, it placed a hold on green card applications from immigrants living abroad.
On June 22, 2020, the Trump administration suspended several categories of nonimmigrant visas until the end of the year, including H-1B visas for technology workers, H-2B for seasonal workers, L-1 for corporate executives, and J-1 for scholars and exchange programs. The hold went into effect June 24, 2020.
The presidential proclamation excludes agricultural—including those in the food supply chain—and health-care workers due to their classification as essential workers during the pandemic. It does not impact temporary workers already in the United States. Advocates argue that there is little evidence that immigrants take jobs from US workers and that the administration is taking action to appease anti-immigrant supporters.
On July 6, 2020, the Trump administration proposed policy guidelines that would revoke visas for international students who would not be participating in in-person classes during the fall semester, despite the fact that many universities have suspended or may suspend in-person classes this fall. After vigorous opposition from universities, states, and the high-tech industry, the administration rescinded the proposal on July 14, 2020.
Following a joint decision by UNHCR and IOM on March 17, 2020, 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 fewer 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. As of April 1, 2020, halfway through FY 2020, 7,383 refugees had 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. With the ongoing pandemic and restrictions in travel, it is unlikely the United States will reach the refugee ceiling this year.
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 on 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.
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 of May 15, 2020, the United States had resettled only 24 refugees during the month of May, including three from Papua New Guinea. About 40 refugees have traveled to the United States since May 21, 2020, from Papua New Guinea, Nauru, and Australia as part of a 2017 US-Australia agreement. The resettlement of refugees from Manus and Nauru offshore detention centers are considered emergency cases and will continue during the pandemic. As of June 12, 7,661 refugees had been admitted to the US in FY2020, with 117 admitted in June.
On June 18, 2020, UNHCR and IOM announced a resumption of refugee resettlement worldwide. The agencies suspended refugee resettlement travel on March 17, 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Except for emergency cases, the Trump administration has yet to lift its ban on refugee admissions started in March.
On June 24, 2020, UNHCR launched an appeal for resettlement slots worldwide to respond to the record number of forcibly displaced globally. As of July 10, 2020, only 7,836 refugees have been admitted to the United States, with only 82 admitted between July 1 and 10.
On June 20, 2020, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden released a plan that would resettle 125,000 refugees per year and would seek a statutory 95,000 per year floor.
Over 20 former US officials, including diplomats, wrote Congress July 14, 2020, to support legislation which would provide asylum to residents of Hong Kong in danger of persecution from the Chinese government because of their participation in protests against the Chinese regime.
The Public Charge Rule
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.
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.
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. The US Department of Justice (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. 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 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.
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.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch of DHS continues to incarcerate around 23,000 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. 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. ICE has begun to release certain detainees as a defense against the spread of COVID-19. It has yet to release a larger population of noncriminal detainees sought by advocates, religious leaders and lawsuits filed by civil rights organizations. More than 3,000 immigrant detainees have tested positive for COVID-19, and three have died. Advocacy organizations have warned that the death toll will increase, as detainees continue to be held in unsanitary conditions. A senior correctional officer who worked at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona died June 14, 2020 as a result of COVID-19. Over the weekend of June 12-15, 2020, coronavirus cases at Eloy jumped from 21 to 122.
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.
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.
The number of migrant families in three family detention centers dropped nearly 40 percent in one week in April, 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 May 21, 2020 letter to DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, Democratic senators asked for information about whether DHS was forcing parents with children to choose between keeping the child with them in detention or releasing them to a US sponsor. DHS has denied that such a binary choice was presented to parents in three family detention centers—Dilley and Karnes in Texas and Berks in Pennsylvania. On May 22, 2020, Judge Dolly Gee of the Federal District Court in central California ordered ICE to explain its process for releasing children.
ICE has transferred detainees with a positive COVID-19 test, spreading the virus to other communities. On May 29, 2020, Senate Democrats called on ICE to stop transferring detainees during the pandemic.
The Office of Inspector General of DHS released a report June 18, 2020, which found that the number of detainees infected by the coronavirus jumped from one individual on March 25, 2020, to 1,312 detainees on May 26, 2020. Detainees across the nation are expressing fear of contracting the virus, while advocacy organizations continue to seek their release.
A coalition of groups filed a group habeas petition on behalf of four detainees in Houston on June 23, 2020, to compel ICE to release immigrants from the Joe Corley Detention Center, where there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases. Houston is a hotspot for COVID-19 cases.
As of July 15, 2020, more than 900 employees of immigrant detention centers nationwide have tested positive for COVID-19. Despite the rising number of infections among staff and detainees, ICE continues to resist releasing eligible immigrants from detention.
Parents with children in immigration detention must decide by July 17, 2020, whether to release their children to relatives or keep them in detention with them. ICE is giving the parents the cruel choice as a result of a court ruling by Judge Dolly Gee on June 26, 2020, requiring ICE to release the children because of the coronavirus. ICE has opted not to release the parents and children together.
Judge Gee, who oversees the implementation of the Flores agreement, has no authority over how ICE handles adults in detention. As many as 355 children in three family detention centers would be impacted by the court order. On July 16, 2020, Judge Gee announced a 10-day extension of the deadline to release children from custody to July 27, 2020.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the administration has deported 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 have spread the virus globally.
On March 17, Guatemala temporarily suspended deportation flights from the United States, after 44 deportees on a flight from Brownsville, Texas, tested positive. However, Guatemala resumed flights two day later after US immigration officials said they would not deport anyone with COVID-19. Guatemala again suspended US deportation flights on April 17 after between 50 and 75 percent of deportees on one flight tested positive for COVID-19. Guatemala began routinely accepting deportation flights on May 4 after US immigration officials said all deportees would first test negative for COVID-19. 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. Guatemala again paused deportation flights from mid-May until the week of June 8.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei expressed frustration with the United States on May 20, 2020, stating that the United States was not an ally of his country because of its deportation of immigrants to Guatemala who have tested positive for COVID-19. According to the Guatemalan government, 186 Guatemalan citizens returned from the US have tested 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. In late April, the agency initially sought to begin testing some migrants in detention for COVID-19 before deporting them, by acquiring 2,000 tests a month from HHS. ICE has stated it only tests a sample of deportees for COVID-19, and ICE has been using a faulty coronavirus test to determine whether deportees have been infected.
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. NGOs and human rights activists are 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. On May 11, Representative Frederica Wilson (D-FL) introduced the Haitian Deportation Relief Act, legislation that would suspend deportations to Haiti during the pandemic.
Opposition to deportation flights to Haiti, Guatemala, and other countries has grown, yet the US is still unwilling to test all deportees before returning them. 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 Trump administration continues to deport migrant children at a record rate, but documents show that DHS proposed expedited deportations for unaccompanied children as far back as 2017. The pandemic has given the administration political cover to execute its deportation plan, with close to 1,000 children having been deported since late March.
Despite calls from elected officials, international organizations, and advocates to suspend deportations, 2,221 individuals were deported to various countries during the first 13 days of June.
In response to the danger of the COVID-19 crisis, as of April 25, 2020, 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.
In Guatemala, 1 in 5 positive COVID-19 cases can be traced to deportees returned from the United States, according to a report by Refugees International released June 23, 2020. Meanwhile, Guatemalan officials say that two dozen Guatemalan deportees from the US have tested positive for COVID-19 since US gave the Guatemalan government assurances that health protocols were in place to prevent the return of infected Guatemalans. The Guatemalan government has placed a cap on US deportations to only two flights a week of no more than 50 deportees.
A July 10, 2020 report by the Marshall Project and the New York Times found that the US forced the deportation of immigrants with COVID-19 to their home countries, spreading the virus internationally. Unsanitary and unsafe conditions in detention centers and shoddy testing of deportees has led to the spread of the virus to Guatemala, Haiti, and other poor countries, the report concluded.
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 non-detained immigration hearings. Despite opposition from immigrant rights groups, on July 13, 2020, non-detained hearings restarted in several locations.
Among the suspended cases are asylum hearings for persons waiting in Mexico under the MPP, which remains postponed. Hearings for detainees were not postponed, risking the health of detainees, lawyers, and judges.
The Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) continued to hold in-person hearings for detained immigrants, as a pending lawsuit from several immigrant rights organizations seeking a temporary restraining order was being considered. On April 28, 2020, a federal judge in Washington, DC, denied the lawsuit seeking 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 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-19 pandemic. Immigration judges and lawyers have strongly opposed the policy, citing the danger it caused for judges, lawyers, and detainees.
When EOIR announced on June 24, 2020 that it would reopen non-detained immigration hearings in numerous locations on or before July 6, 2020, several US Senators, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wrote Attorney General Barr opposing such a move. They argued it would place immigrants, attorneys, and court staff at risk of COVID-19.
Despite strong opposition from immigration judges, lawyers, and advocates, the Department of Justice continues to reopen immigration hearings for non-detained immigrants, with Newark, Detroit, and Baltimore opening court hearings July 13, 2020. As of July 15, 2020, 14 cities have reopened immigration courts, with Dallas announcing it would shut down its court again on July 17 and San Diego postponing its original July 6, 2020, opening for two weeks.
Processing of Benefits
On March 18, 2020, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) 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 announced March 30, 2020, 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.
On April 24, 2020, USCIS announced that its offices would reopen on or after June 4, 2020. Select offices have since reopened, but with USCIS facing a shortfall in funds, it is possible more than 13,000 of its employees will be furloughed in August. USCIS is also planning to announce an application fee increase for several benefits, including citizenship, in the near future.
On May 16, 2020, USCIS 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 announced it would 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 claim that the administration has slowed processing times and deterred immigrants from applying for benefits.
With the closing of offices in March, immigrants eligible for naturalization have been unable to become citizens, with as many as 126,000 legal permanent residents are waiting to become citizens. The suspension of naturalization ceremonies during the pandemic has caused concern that tens of thousands of immigrants will be unable to participate in the 2020 election. USCIS has refused to conduct virtual naturalization ceremonies during the pandemic, claiming that they do not have the legal authorization.
USCIS resumed naturalization ceremonies when it reopened some of its field offices on June 4, 2020, with 2,000 new citizens sworn in as of June 10, 2020. USCIS has allowed certain naturalization ceremonies—including through drive-by windows and ceremonies in large facilities or outside—to help ease the naturalization backlog, but over 100,000 potential citizens are still waiting to take the oath and 700,000 have applied for naturalization. Prior to the pandemic, USCIS swore in 60,000 new citizens each month. The administration has received bipartisan criticism over its backlog of naturalization applications.
USCIS faces the possible furlough of 13,400 employees at the end of the fiscal year unless Congress appropriates funding for the agency. Although legislation has been introduced to provide the funds, it is unclear whether Congress will be able to act in time. Without funding, the processing of benefits, including citizenship, will shut down, leaving potential citizens unable to vote in the November election.
A report released by the Center for Migration Studies on May 1, 2020, 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.
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 necessities.
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.
As meatpacking plants reopen and reports of meat shortages and increased prices for meat emerge, plant owners and local authorities remain unaware of the exact number of workers, including migrant workers, who have contracted COVID-19. According to a non-profit group, nearly 18,000 meatpacking plant workers have tested positive for the virus, while 67 have died from it.
Foreign-born doctors treating COVID-19 patients are concerned that their families will be deported if they die from the virus. There are approximately 127,000 foreign-born doctors in the United States, mostly on H-1B visas, with their family members on H-4 dependent visas. Legislation introduced in April, entitled the “Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act,” would provide more visas and protection for foreign-born doctors, nurses, and their families.
On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the Trump administration ended the DACA program in an unlawful manner, thus allowing DACA recipients, many of whom work in essential occupations, to remain in the United States. According to a Center for Migration Studies of New York study, 43,500 DACA recipients work in the health-care and social assistance industries, with 10,300 working in hospitals and 2,000 in nursing care.
On July 14, 2020, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) issued a report calling upon Congress to assist low-income citizens and immigrants in the next coronavirus bill, including providing stimulus payments to immigrant families left out in the first four bills.
Congress included $350 million for the State Department’s Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) account in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed into law March 27, 2020, to support health care and other services for refugees overseas and in the United States.
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.
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).
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.
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.
On May 15, 2020, the House of Representatives passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (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 essential workers.
The legislation faces an uncertain fate in the US Senate, which will unlikely address another stimulus package until June, at the earliest. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) admitted May 27, 2020, that Congress will need to pass another stimulus bill to help US residents through the pandemic.
The Senate and the Trump administration have signaled that many of the immigrant provisions will not be included in any new stimulus bill. Advocates are working to include these immigration provisions in any final bill.
On June 18, 2020, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced the Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act, legislation that would halt deportations and enforcement actions during the pandemic.
On June 30, 2020, a bipartisan group of US Senators, led by Florida Republican Marco Rubio (R-FL), introduced legislation prioritizing for refugee status Hong Kong residents persecuted by the Chinese government. The legislation includes Hong Kong residents who are persecuted because of their participation in protests against the government.
On July 13, 2020, Senator Mitch McConnell stated that the US Senate would consider a new coronavirus appropriations measure in late July, despite his earlier statements that another bill was not necessary. The Republican bill would cost $1 trillion while the Democratic bill, passed in May, would cost $3 trillion. It is unlikely that the Senate bill will include assistance for immigrants and their families, which is included in the House bill.
This summary was last updated on July 8, 2020
State and local governments have exercised unusual powers since the early days of the Coronavirus lockdowns, ordering businesses to open and close, the wearing of masks and much else. Amidst it all, renewed activism on immigration issues in some parts of the country has produced measures that offer emergency economic relief and access to health care for immigrants left out of federal programs, especially the undocumented. In other cases, governments have facilitated employment by immigrants considered “essential” from surgeons to farmworkers.
The initiatives are numerous and widespread, particularly among jurisdictions with sizable foreign-born populations. However, as of this update July 8, 2020 the sums of money allotted have been limited and so too have the number of beneficiaries. Nonetheless, these efforts are potentially significant as experiments that could pave the way for broader policy change in the long run. For example, California and Illinois each broke new ground with measures adopted as part of budgets adopted for fiscal years beginning July 1. California extended its Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to income tax filers without a Social Security number. Illinois expanded Medicaid coverage to all low-income seniors regardless of immigration status. Meanwhile, a number of municipalities are developing innovative partnerships with local philanthropies to finance and/or administer benefits programs.
Although the federal government has authority over who is admitted into the country, state and local governments have often enacted policies of their own intended to materially affect the lives of immigrants. Several efforts to adopt enforcement measures harsher than the federal government’s policies have failed in the federal courts. Meanwhile, many initiatives to improve the lives of the foreign-born are still on the books. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia issue driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants in defiance of standards set by Congress in the Real ID Act of 2005. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that in 2019 alone nine states expanded employment licensing and credentialing opportunities to non-citizens without consideration of immigration status, and not just blue states. And, it was opposition by state and local governments that forced the end of the Secure Communities program in 2014, which the Trump administration has been trying to resurrect since taking office in January 2017. In another era, it was state governments that largely reversed the cuts in immigrants’ access to safety net programs enacted by the federal government in 1996.
Given the gravity of the crisis, the individual measures described below will have an immediate impact on beneficiaries and their communities. Looking to the future, the historical record suggests that if such efforts multiply, the pandemic could produce a new era of immigration activism beyond the Beltway with lasting impact on the nation as a whole.
Economic Safety Net
Undocumented immigrants were excluded from the federal CARES Act, enacted March 27, 2020, which aimed to provide emergency financial assistance and save the country from a recession. Even immigrants who pay taxes using a federal Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) were excluded, as were their US citizen family members if they filed their tax returns jointly. This left approximately 15.4 million people without support. State and local governments, primarily in jurisdictions with substantial foreign-born populations, have taken several different approaches to filling the gap at least partially.
On eligibility standards, some programs specifically direct benefits to undocumented immigrants. Others simply award benefits without regard to immigration status, and others define eligibility in terms of those not covered by federal relief measures. Similarly, innovative partnerships with the charitable sector are developing. Some governments are paying entirely with taxpayer dollars. In other cases, particularly those that expressly provide benefits to the undocumented, governments have drawn on philanthropic dollars for some or all of the funding and sometimes for help in distributing funds.
The massive revenue shortfalls predicted for sub-federal governments nationwide have undoubtedly limited the scope of these programs already. They also face deeply rooted and long-standing opposition from conservative and pro-restrictionist advocates who contest any use of tax dollars for the benefit of the undocumented. Lawsuits are working their way through the courts in California and Maryland. Two programs in large, traditionally immigrant-friendly states have broken important barriers in providing government assistance to unauthorized immigrants:
All immigrants, regardless of status, will be eligible for a tax benefit designed for low-income earners with young children. Under an amendment to the tax code enacted June 29, 2020, individuals who pay taxes with an ITIN, as opposed to a Social Security number, will be eligible for the state’s EITC if they have a child under the age of 6 and that in turn will make them eligible for the state’s Young Child Tax Credit.
Thirty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have enacted their own versions of the federal EITC, which provides credits or refunds based on income and the number of children in a household, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. While eligibility and benefits vary, all states—except for California starting in the 2020 tax year—require a tax filing with a Social Security number, as does the federal EITC. Social Security numbers are available only to US citizens and to immigrants with visas that provide work authorization. According to the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), 25 million eligible workers and their families received about $63 billion in federal EITC in 2019 with an average amount of $2, 476.
The ITIN is a tax processing number issued by the IRS to individuals who do not qualify for a Social Security number but who may have a tax reporting obligation. ITINs are issued regardless of immigration status, including to foreign-born, non-citizens who are not resident in the United States but who might earn some form of non-employment taxable income here such as through investments. First made available in 1996, ITINs have become an important form of financial inclusion and civic integration for unauthorized migrants, facilitating the opening of bank accounts and serving as proof of residency for driver’s license applications, rental leases and many other formalities. As of 2012, the IRS had issued 21 million ITINs, but since then the federal government has introduced a series of restrictions that have made it more difficult to obtain an ITIN and the number of successful applicants has dropped steeply, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
California’s extension of its EITC to ITIN taxpayers came after several years of advocacy in Sacramento, as has been the case with several other prior initiatives that have afforded benefits to unauthorized immigrants and that have become models for other states. The new tax breaks will benefit an estimated 32,000 to 46,000 families and will cost the state about $65 million, according to the state legislative analyst as reported by the Sacramento Bee. Undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $157.9 million to California in state income taxes, according to the California Budget and Policy Center which supported the new legislation.
The state budget for the 2021 fiscal year provides Medicaid coverage for low-income seniors regardless of immigration status, marking the first time that elderly undocumented migrants will be eligible for the nation’s key health program for the poor.
In recent years, Illinois, five other states and the District of Columbia have extended eligibility for Medicaid or similar medical coverage to immigrant children regardless of status. In 2019, California extended eligibility for Medi-Cal, its version of Medicaid, to adults up to the age of 26 regardless of status. A measure to offer Medi-Cal to undocumented seniors failed in Sacramento this year amid concerns for the Coronavirus induced budget deficit.
The Illinois bill gives Medicaid access to non-citizens over 65 years old and whose income is $12,670 or less, which is the federal poverty level according to the (Springfield) State Journal-Register. Advocates of the measure estimate that it will provide benefits to up to 1,000 people and will cost the state between $1.5 and $2.6 million in this fiscal year. Supporters originally proposed extending access to all adults below the poverty level regardless of immigration status which would have covered 93,000 people.
Created in 1965, Medicaid now provides health coverage for nearly 100 million low-income individuals, more than two-fifths of them children. The program is designed to expand in times of need, such as the current pandemic, and serves an essential role in the nation’s safety net for the poor. Funded jointly by the federal government and the states, each state operates its own program, including eligibility requirements, within federal guidelines. Aside from the exceptions noted above, unauthorized migrants are not eligible for Medicaid. Large numbers of other non-citizens are excluded, including legal permanent residents for the first five years after they have held their green cards.
Medicaid eligibility for non-citizens has been contested periodically since the mid-1990s and serves as a key marker of immigrant access to safety net programs. Moreover, Medicaid, because of its structure is a perennial battleground for federalism as the states and federal government jostle over their prerogatives. Although the actual expenditures might be quite modest, the Illinois legislation marks another small step in opening this critical program to immigrants.
State and local jurisdictions extending Coronavirus economic relief measures to unauthorized migrants:
Paving the way—as usual—for state involvement in assistance to the undocumented, California established a $125 million fund to help undocumented workers who cannot access unemployment insurance. This Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants (DRAI) fund, announced April 15, is estimated to benefit 150,000 undocumented people. Fifty million dollars of the fund will come from philanthropic partners, while $75 million is coming from the state itself. Recipients are receiving direct one-time payments, which twelve nonprofit organizations throughout the state distribute. The original deadline for the program has already passed, but the majority of the funds remains to be disbursed, mainly due to technical difficulties. The organizations charged with disbursing funds have struggled to keep up with demand. For example, one non-profit organization received 50,000 calls on the first day, overwhelming its capabilities.
The state legislature contributed $20 million to the Oregon Worker Relief Fund which was created by advocacy groups to provide temporary financial relief to undocumented workers. One and a half million dollars were raised in donations from private and philanthropic donors, and $250,000 came from the city of Portland. Over 100 community groups are involved in dispersing the aid. The first $10 million was allocated by the legislature in April, and the second round of $10 million was allocated on June 5th when lawmakers passed a $247 million coronavirus aid package. Thirty million dollars of that package were allocated to protecting agricultural workers. However, state lawmakers voted against paying wage replacement to undocumented workers who had been laid off due to COVID-19.
A total of $3.5 million was collected to aid undocumented families with rent relief and direct financial aid. Two and a half million dollars came from the State Department of Housing (decided on June 3rd) and was given directly to landlords whose tenants are undocumented and behind on rent payments. This payment to landlords was designed to enable the government to avoid the issue of taxpayer money being provided directly to undocumented immigrants. Another $1 million came from a charity, and that money will be distributed as direct assistance to families.
The Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) partnered with local organizations to create the Immigrant Family Support Project on June 9 to provide emergency assistance to low-income immigrants. IDHS contributed $2 million and a private foundation raised another $750,000. More than 60 community-based organizations along with the Illinois Welcoming Centers distributed funding, which quickly ran out.
- Austin, Texas
City Council members approved a $15 million relief fund in early April, some of which is allocated for direct aid payments. Council members requested that the assistance go first to those who were excluded from the CARES Act, such as undocumented immigrants. The city’s deputy chief financial officer has stated, “Right now, as we understand the rules, 75% of eligible expenses will be reimbursable” by the federal government, as that is standard repayment procedure for disaster relief funds.
- Montgomery County, Maryland
The County Council appropriated $5 million on April 30 to provide direct payments to low-income County residents, with a focus on those who are ineligible for other state and federal assistance programs. Council members have said that they will seek federal and state reimbursement for the money spent on relief from the crisis.
- Washington DC
The DC Council left undocumented immigrants out of their COVID-19 relief program, but Events DC, a semi-public company that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, announced April 9 that it is using $15 million to aid those who were excluded from the Council’s programs. Events DC specifically allocated $5 million of the $15 million to undocumented immigrants.
- Tucson, Arizona
The City Council unanimously approved a contribution of $5.5 million to Mayor Regina Romero’s We Are One/Somos Uno Resiliency Fund on May 5—$3 million for individuals and families, $2 million for small businesses, and $500,000 for nonprofits. The funding comes from the city’s federal COVID-19 aid money.
- Seattle, Washington
The Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE) has expanded an emergency food voucher program, and the City of Seattle committed in mid-March to donating $5 million to support this program. Other funding comes from a variety of private sources. While the program was originally for participants in city-supported childcare and food assistance programs, eligibility was expanded to include people who had recently lost their job due to COVID-19. The focus is now on those who are unable to access other forms of government aid due to structural or institutional barriers, such as language barriers or fear of deportation. The agency partnered with community-based organizations to distribute the vouchers.
- Harris County, Texas
The county created a $30 million fund on May 19 for one-time payments for those in greatest need, including immigrants. Local, community-based organizations are disbursing the funds to roughly 30,000 households.
The following governments have established programs that, while not explicitly targeting unauthorized immigrants, do not consider immigration status in determining eligibility:
The state allocated $50 million on April 2 to the Small Business Finance Center for financial relief for small businesses and nonprofits that may not qualify for federal funds.
The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services is administering the Disaster Cash Assistance Program (DCAP), which was expanded April 17 to include the COVID-19 emergency. Benefit amounts are relatively small, with maximum amounts of $363 for a household of one and $670 for a household of four.
- Minneapolis, Minnesota
On April 3 the city established a $5 million fund for housing assistance and forgivable loans for small businesses. Money for housing assistance was provided directly to landlords or utility companies, and demand far exceeded supply.
- Los Angeles, California
On June 23 the City Council approved using $100 million from federal CARES Act money towards an Emergency Rental Assistance Subsidy Program. This is the largest rental assistance program passed by any city in the United States. Undocumented immigrants will be eligible for assistance, with qualifications based primarily on income. The money will help approximately 50,000 families in the city. This compares to county-wide estimates of need that show about 365,000 households at risk of losing their homes.
- Chicago, Illinois
Chicago established a $2 million fund on April 7 for housing assistance grants and a $100 million fund to provide low-interest loans for small businesses. The Mayor’s executive order explicitly stated that all benefits, opportunities, and services provided or administered by the City of Chicago are accessible to all residents, regardless of birth country or current citizenship status.
- King County, Washington
The county has partnered with two nonprofits to create and disburse a $5 million fund for rental assistance as well as $10,000 grants to small business owners. The program was announced on April 10, but has since been on pause due to high demand.
- Fort Bend County, Texas
On June 1 the county allocated $19.5 million of their federal COVID-19 aid money to support residents with rent and mortgage payments, and another $2 million to aid with utility payments. Money is given directly to the landlords, mortgage providers, or utility companies. However, extensive application requirements have largely kept undocumented residents from accessing aid. The Commissioner of one precinct noted that the number of undocumented immigrants receiving any funds is very low, if not zero due to the application requirements. The Commissioner of another precinct said that he assumed undocumented immigrants were not eligible, and that there was no information or debate about it.
- Santa Clara County
The Santa Clara County Homeless Prevention System created an $11 million relief fund to assist residents with rent and other basic needs. The county and the city of San Jose each voted on March 24 to put in $2 million each, and the remainder was private funding. The aid amount was set high at $4000 per month (compared to other local government’s programs which ranged from $200 – $1500), but the funds ran out three days after the program’s launch. The program has now obtained more funding, but the amount has decreased to $1000 and the eligible households must have an income of less than 30% of the area median income (instead of the original requirement which was set at 80%).
- Boston, Massachusetts
The Mayor created a Rental Relief Fund using $8 million from federal stimulus funding. The original $3 million was announced on April 2 and $5 million was added on June 3 due to increased demand. The fund is managed by the Office of Housing Stability together with three nonprofit partners. The program has now finished two rounds of disbursing aid.
- Paul, Minnesota
The Saint Paul Bridge Fund is a $4.1 million fund created to aid families and small businesses in Saint Paul. Saint Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority contributed $3.25 million dollars on April 1, and other funding came from philanthropic, corporate and individual donors. One-time payments were provided to families and small businesses, but only about one-fifth of applicants received funding.
- Seattle, Washington
The City of Seattle allocated $2.5 million in federal Community Development Block Grants to the Small Business Stabilization Fund for grants to qualifying small businesses. 250 small businesses were selected on April 15, out of 9,000 applicants.
- Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act of 2020, the US Department of Agriculture has authorized 47 states to operate a Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) All children who would receive free or reduced-price meals, if not for their school closure due to COVID-19, are eligible. States can provide meal-replacement benefits of up to $125 per month per child.
Other governments are promoting or organizing programs for undocumented immigrants, even if they are not funding them. New York City partnered with George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, which donated $20 million to create an emergency relief program for immigrant workers. Recipients received direct, one-time payments. San Francisco’s City government is organizing approximately $10.5 million that has been donated by foundations and individual donors to provide aid to city residents, and undocumented people have been deemed a priority. Los Angeles’ Angeleno Campaign—which provides debit cards to low-income residents or those facing financial hardship—was started by the Mayor. Baltimore’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs established the Emergency Relief for Immigrant Families fund. City governments in Pennsylvania are promoting the PA Immigrant Relief Fund. Other governments, such as the state government of Nevada, have compiled and promoted multilingual resource guides for immigrant communities.
Multiple issues have plagued local governments’ attempts to aid their undocumented communities. One issue is the sensitivity of immigrants’ information, as it could be used for immigration enforcement efforts. The attempt to protect immigrants’ information in New York City, for example, led to a lack of publicly available information and complicated application procedures. Most programs, even when government-funded, have been carried out or distributed by nonprofit organizations that have greater access to undocumented communities and can better protect their information. However, this has led to serious technical difficulties and slow progress in the disbursement of aid, as depicted by the Los Angeles Times. In that account of California’s economic relief program for unauthorized migrants, nonprofits organizations admitted that they simply do not have the infrastructure to handle such massive projects. As a leader in one organization described it, “People are expecting the operation of a credit card company or a bank. These are not financial institutions. We are nonprofits.”
Noncitizen immigrants earn lower incomes than US citizens on average. They make up a disproportionate share of workers whose sectors are hit the hardest in this crisis, and lack access to many of the social safety nets accessible to citizens. Not surprisingly then, overwhelming demand has shown that the need is much greater than the resources available. Almost every program has lacked funding to meet the number of applications received. Furthermore, almost every program’s aid amount has been below the $1200 provided under the federal CARES Act. Despite the limitations, these programs provide meaningful assistance to those they do reach. And, given that they were undertaken at a time of historic shortfalls in local and state government budgets, they make important positive statements about how those jurisdictions value the undocumented people in their communities.
Access to healthcare for undocumented immigrants has long been hotly disputed, and it has become a more urgent issue now as most strategies for combatting the pandemic require that all people have access to testing and treatment for COVID-19. Nearly half of undocumented people lack health insurance compared to less than a tenth of US citizens. There have been recent efforts to address barriers to COVID-19 testing on the federal level. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act seeks to make COVID-19 testing free, although in practice that has not uniformly occurred. Additionally, the Act does not address treatment for COVID-19. Fears of debilitating treatment costs compound issues that were already discouraging undocumented people from accessing vital services. Examples of these issues include fear of immigration enforcement and deportation efforts near testing sites or hospitals, and fears that getting testing or treatment will later make undocumented persons ineligible for legal status due to the new Public Charge guidelines. While the government has taken some action to address these issues, uncertainty and fear remain. The Trump Administration’s rapidly changing immigration policies and the highly discretionary nature of its recently implemented Public Charge guidelines leave many unsure of the impacts of accessing critical health services and emergency financial assistance.
Despite these obstacles, some states are working to find ways to cover their undocumented residents. On June 30, Colorado enacted legislation that broadly addresses the affordability of health insurance and includes major benefits for low-income and uninsured residents of the state regardless of their immigration status. In its legislative declaration the General Assembly made special note of the economic dislocations of the pandemic and the losses in health care coverage it has brought about.
Emergency Medicaid is a federal program that is accessible regardless of immigration status, and states have the power to decide what constitutes “emergency” treatment, within general guidelines set by the federal government. California, New York and Washington were among the first to update their definitions of “emergency” to include COVID-19 testing, evaluation, and treatment. This inclusion of extended COVID-19 services in Emergency Medicaid enables low-income undocumented residents of these states to access care. Although each state’s policy has different coverage guidelines, there are now twelve states that have expanded their Emergency Medicaid to cover at least some COVID-19 testing and treatment. Those twelve states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Immigrants as a whole make up 18 percent of the US workforce. Yet, they are 29 percent of the country’s physicians and 23 percent of building cleaners in the healthcare industry. They make up 31 percent of agricultural workers, 26 percent of the workers in food processing and manufacturing, and 38 percent of the meat processing industry workers. Some states are especially dependent on immigrant workers. In California, for example, immigrants make up 68 percent of the state’s agricultural workers. These jobs and the people who work them have always been essential, and yet the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the country to reckon with its dependence on this workforce.
Licensing Requirements for Medical Workers
Healthcare workers are on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, and a quarter of active physicians in the United States are international medical graduates. Governors, lacking sufficient numbers of healthcare providers, have asked retired physicians to return to work and medical school students to accelerate the end of their programs. 1.5 million immigrants already serve as doctors, pharmacists, and registered nurses in the US healthcare system. There are another 263,000 who could be working in the healthcare system but are out of work or working jobs that do not utilize their healthcare degrees. One reason is the barrier of licensing requirements to work in the United States. Foreign exams, qualifications, and experience do not necessarily transfer to the United States. The required exams to be licensed in the United States can be very expensive and are intended for recent graduates, not experienced doctors. For example, as one foreign-born physician explained, the exam is essentially testing a skilled cardiologist on every bone in the foot. The barriers to work in the United States keep many immigrant healthcare workers from being able to help in the current crisis.
Some governors have passed executive orders to better enable foreign-educated health workers who lack the required US licenses to work during the pandemic. Governors are doing this by facilitating quicker licensing procedures for workers with foreign degrees. The following states have adjusted their licensing requirements to enable more foreign workers to contribute their skills during the crisis:
- New Jersey
Governor Phil Murphy signed an Executive Order on April 1, 2020 temporarily authorizing foreign doctors who are in good standing in other jurisdictions to work in the state.
Governor Steve Sisolak signed an Emergency Order on April 1, 2020 waiving professional licensing requirements for any provider of medical services who has received training in another country but is not currently licensed in the United States.
- New York
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an Executive Order on March 23, 2020 allowing graduates of foreign medical schools without licenses to provide patient care in hospitals if they have completed at least one year of graduate medical education.
Governor Charles Baker signed an Executive Order on April 9, 2020 that expedited the licensing of physicians who are graduates of International Medical Schools and who are practicing in the United States with a limited license.
Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill into law on March 30, 2020 that allows doctors trained in specific other countries that have training similar to that in the United States, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, to qualify for state licenses.
The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies announced on May 1, 2020 that temporary licensure would be available for international medical graduates to work during the pandemic under the supervision of a Colorado licensed physician.
The State Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision published COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency Rules on April 21, 2020 establishing that the Board may issue a license to graduates of medical schools approved by the Board. A medical doctor or surgeon licensed by Oklahoma must attest that the graduate is necessary in the interests of the public health, safety, and welfare to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the physician will assume supervision over the graduate.
Governor Gavin Newsom signed an Executive Order on March 30, 2020 that has no specific wording regarding immigrants but states that the Director of the State Department of Public Health may waive any professional licensing and certification requirements.
“Essential Worker” Letters
Undocumented immigrants make up a disproportionate share of essential workers during the crisis. About 74 percent of the undocumented labor force consists of essential workers. Some 310,800 undocumented immigrants work in agriculture and farms and 193,900 work in food processing and manufacturing. Many immigrants are simultaneously both “essential” and “illegal.” They are required to work, and their employers are forbidden from employing them. The COVID-19 crisis has brought to light the contradictions of a system that has long existed in the shadows.
Multiple states have provided workers with “essential worker” letters to ensure that they can safely get to and from work during stay-at-home orders. North Dakota and North Carolina are examples of two states that are providing template “essential worker” letters on State government letterhead. The template letters are available online and are written so that employers can designate any workers, without regard to immigration status, as “essential” under federal guidelines. The letters proclaim that the bearer should be allowed to move about unimpeded to protect the nation’s food supply regardless of stay-at-home orders. Operating under its own Coronavirus guidelines, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is supposed to avoid operations that could impede the delivery of healthcare or otherwise interfere with federal, state or local efforts to manage the crisis.
While these letters do not grant any immigration status or serve as ironclad protection from apprehension by ICE, they constitute acknowledgment and acceptance by a state agency of employment by unauthorized migrants even though that employment is in contravention of federal law. Though far less formal and consequential than the issuance of drivers’ licenses, the letters to some extent mitigate the consequences of being an undocumented immigrant. And, they are an explicit recognition of the economic contributions made by those immigrants.
- North Dakota is providing letters on the State of North Dakota Department of Agriculture letterhead and signed by the Agriculture Commissioner. The letter describes the “food and agriculture sector as a critical infrastructure sector whose assets, systems, and networks are considered so vital that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health, or safety.” It suggests that the person carrying the letter should “proceed unimpeded to and from their destination in the interest of protecting the nation’s food supply chain.”
- North Carolina is providing letters on the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services letterhead, written directly from the Commissioner of Agriculture with their signature on the template. The letter states that “It is necessary that this employee be able to proceed to work, conduct any and all functions of his/her job in whatever setting or locale required, and to return home after work.”
- Other states are simply providing template “essential worker” letters that do not have any government affiliation attached to them. Examples include Florida, Michigan, and Maryland.
Overall, the crisis has provoked the greater involvement of state and local governments in issues of immigration, which could have significant impacts on the development of immigration policy down the road. States are providing undocumented communities with emergency resources, often with public funds, providing letters on state letterhead verifying that they are essential workers, and altering requirements so that foreign workers can more easily work in the United States. The COVID-19 crisis has heightened the visibility of the contradictory status of “essential” and “illegal.” However, the impacts of that visibility and of the increased authority claimed by state and local governments are still to be seen.
Roberto Suro, Hannah Findling
This summary was last updated on July 17, 2020.
Refugees and forced migrants can contribute significantly to the response to the global pandemic, and yet face unique vulnerabilities during the crisis. The 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 covers these groups and other migrant populations in situations of peril and great vulnerability, including the danger posed to them by COVID-19 and the denial of protection and support to them by nations because of COVID-19. It also discusses appeals for funding to assist them during the pandemic, how that funding is disbursed, and for what purpose.
New Developments July 3-17
Contributions of Refugees. Refugees serving as community workers in refugee camps in northern Iraq are providing mental health support to fellow refugees struggling with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many refugees have lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic and are trying to cope with unemployment and a lack of basic necessities.
Refugees living in Lesbos, Greece have made thousands of masks for the members of churches in South Carolina. Close to 300 church members in the state have visited the refugee camps in Lesbos over the last three years to provide material and spiritual support. By producing the masks, the refugees are returning the generosity of the church members, who have also distributed the masks to a local university. READ MORE.
Impact on Refugees. There is growing concern among UNHCR and World Food Programme (WFP) officials that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing large-scale hunger among refugees who are no longer able to find work to support themselves and feed their families. In Africa, millions of refugees are at risk, with rations diminished because funding has dwindled and supply chains have been compromised.
On June 29, 2020, UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi called for additional funding for Syrian refugees on the eve of the fourth Supporting Syria and the Region conference in Brussels, stating that Syrian refugees are at great risk because of the loss of jobs and their livelihoods during the pandemic. Grandi stated that 7 of 10 Syrian refugees in Lebanon have lost their livelihoods since the beginning of the pandemic, sinking them further into poverty. Eighty governments attending the conference have already pledged $5.5 billion for the remainder of 2020 and $2.2 billion for 2021.
Three asylum-seekers have tested positive for the coronavirus in Matamoros, Mexico in a camp of 2,000 asylum-seekers along the US-Mexico border, stoking fear that the virus could spread within the camp. Several thousand asylum-seekers attempting to obtain protection in the United States have been returned to Mexico to await asylum hearings, which have been postponed until at least July 20, 2020. READ MORE.
Denial of Protection. According to UNHCR, international protection for asylum-seekers has been significantly weakened during the pandemic, with 82 countries having closed their borders to asylum-seekers and 27 other countries considering closures. Only 10 countries globally have kept their borders open to asylum-seekers without restriction.
The prime minister of Malaysia, Muhyiddin Yassin, stated June 26, 2020, that Malaysia can no longer accept Rohingya refugees due to the economic downturn in the country caused by the pandemic. More than 100,000 Rohingya refugees reside in Malaysia. The government has recently turned back boats filled with Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar as well as detained Rohingya living in Malaysia.
A sinking boat of 94 Rohingya refugees was rescued by local fishermen near Aceh province in Indonesia in late June. UNHCR has urged Australia and Indonesia, co-chairs of the Bali Process, to halt the smuggling of refugees in the region and to develop a plan to rescue refugee at sea in the region and protect them.
On July 1, 2020, UNHCR issued protection guidelines to European Union countries in an effort to protect refugees attempting to reach Europe. Some European nations have closed their borders and turned back refugees during the pandemic. READ MORE.
Funding. As of July 9, 2020, UNHCR had raised only 36 percent of the $745 million needed until the end of the year to assist refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Ethiopia, only 10 percent of the necessary funds are available to meet the preventative and long-term health care needs of refugees, leaving them vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.
On June 16, 2020, UNHCR warned that it is running out of funds to continue a cash assistance program for Syrian refugees in the Middle East, with only 17,000 out of 49,000 vulnerable families in Jordan served. Syrian refugees have been hit particularly hard economically by the pandemic. READ MORE.
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, especially 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.
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. In Kakuma camp in Kenya, a Burundian refugee has been making and selling soap at a reduced price for refugees in the camp.
Syrian refugees who have fled persecution in their homeland are contributing to the fight against COVID-19 in their new homeland of Germany.
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. Some nations, working with UNHCR, are expediting licensing and residency requirements for immigrant and refugee health-care workers that wish to help fight the virus.
Cuban asylum-seekers are working as volunteer doctors and nurses at a clinic in Matamoros, Mexico, helping to protect thousands of asylum-seekers waiting to enter the United States under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
An Afghanistan refugee in Michigan sews 120-150 masks a day for frontline workers fighting COVID-19. Known as the “mask master,” Ebrahim Mohammad Eshaq states that he is “proud to help the community.” In Serbia, refugees have launched online classes during the pandemic to teach locals how to speak different languages.
Refugees with medical licenses from outside the United States have been unable to work as doctors during the pandemic because of strict US training and education requirements, but two Iraqi refugees are providing coronavirus tests to the public.
The New Zealand Red Cross has honored several refugees who worked in essential jobs during the lockdown in New Zealand—a nurse, truck driver, supermarket worker, bus driver, and case manager—to highlight the essential work of refugees in helping the nation survive the pandemic.
In Uganda, women peace mediators—many of whom are refugees—are educating refugees on how to protect themselves from the virus through basic hygiene and social distancing. They also help mediate domestic disputes and other conflicts which have increased during the pandemic.
Impact of Pandemic on Refugees
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 a 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.
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. The United Nations launched a Global Humanitarian Response Plan on March 25, 2020.
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.
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.”
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. Refugees who have been resettled to a third country, including the United States, remain vulnerable during the pandemic. States and local communities have devised ways to help them through the crisis.
Refugees remain 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. 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 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.
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 one million Rohingya refugees. Conditions in the camps are crowded and unsanitary, with little access to the facilities and equipment, such as ventilators, necessary to combat the virus. NGOs and UNHCR are working to establish a 50-bed treatment center in the area. The first death from COVID-19 in a Rohingya refugee camp was recorded on June 3 in southern Bangladesh. UNHCR and NGO officials remain concerned that the virus could spread through Rohingya refugee camps near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where at least 25 refugees have tested positive for the virus and nearly 1 million refugees reside in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
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.
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.
Refugees in urban areas in Uganda are struggling to support themselves during the pandemic, as the Ugandan economy has slowed severely due to a nationwide lockdown. UNHCR and other international organizations are providing cash assistance to refugee families in Uganda and other countries in the region, but many remain at risk of hunger.
Syrian refugees in several host countries are experiencing economic challenges because of the pandemic, losing what meager income they have to support their families. UNHCR has provided income support to 200,000 Syrian families since the pandemic began, but many more families remain at risk of losing food and medicine without income.
In Libya, UNHCR and the World Food Programme are providing emergency food and medicine to at least 10,000 refugees who are unable to support themselves due to an absence of work during the pandemic.
The Denial of Protection during the Pandemic
Reports abound of refugees and migrants being denied protection during the pandemic. 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.
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.
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.
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, while 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 – 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. Schengen nations have established visa guidelines for the entry of third country nationals after July 1, 2020. Each of the 26 Schengen countries is opening its borders gradually, based on public health information from sending countries.
Greece is preparing for another wave of refugees to attempt to enter its territory, as Turkey begins to relax COVID-19 travel restrictions. In recent days, Greece has deployed soldiers to the Greece-Turkey border and installed 12-miles of razor wire. About 37,000 refugees, including 1,600 unaccompanied children, are stranded in the Greek islands near Turkey, where there is little capacity to accept a new wave of refugees.
On Tuesday, June 2, 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called upon nations to provide protection to refugees and displaced persons around the world. 150 nations have closed their borders during the pandemic, with the majority of them denying protection to asylum-seekers. Refugee advocates fear that some nations will use the pandemic to abandon asylum protection permanently.
UNHCR has joined with Yale University to conduct a survey of Rohingya refugees in an effort to help determine how best to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the Rohingya population in southern Bangladesh. UNHCR also is providing income support and job assistance to 14,000 Syrians residing in Armenia, where many have lived since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
UNHCR has called upon Greece to investigate reported incidents of pushbacks of refugees by Greek authorities. Although it is unclear if the pushbacks are related to COVID-19, UNHCR has offered Greece and other nations assistance with establishing testing and quarantines for newly arrived refugees.
Bangladesh has denied a Malaysian government request to take back 269 Rohingya refugees rescued at sea off the Malaysian coast, stating that Bangladesh has no obligation to take the refugees. Malaysia also has requested that UNHCR resettle the refugees to a third country.
Refugee Funding to Address the Pandemic
As of May 6, 2020, UNHCR had 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.
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.
The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, a $3 trillion stimulus bill passed by the US House of Representatives on 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, signed into law in late March, appropriated $350 million for migration and refugee assistance, including funding for overseas efforts.
About $3 billion in aid from 60 countries was raised May 26, 2020, to assist 5 million Venezuelan refugees, including those returning to Venezuela from neighboring countries. The US pledged $200 million to the effort.
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 sought to reach 4,000 refugees in northern Libya during the Ramadan period.
UNHCR has upgraded Dadaab camp in Kenya, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with a quarantine center consisting of 955 beds, personal protection equipment, hand-washing stations, and COVID-19 training for health-care workers.
UNHCR and local partners are providing various forms of support to refugee populations. In Syria, 300 tents have been installed in Aleppo and Idlib to be used as triage stations in health facilities. Two isolation and treatment facilities with 200 beds have been opened in Bangladesh. In Burkina Faso, Mali, and Kenya, UNHCR has provided solar-powered radio sets to refugee children to ensure they have access to distance learning programs.
To date, funding been directed to cash support programs in 40 countries, as refugees report that the loss of jobs and food insecurity because of the pandemic.
UNHCR has also directed funding to mental health and psychosocial support. In Bangladesh, 43 psychologists and 500 community psycho-social volunteers have been trained to work with refugees.
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.
More than 4,000 Venezuelan citizens, stranded in 10 countries, have demanded repatriation flights to Venezuela, according to news reports. For more than three months, Venezuelans living in vulnerable situations during the pandemic have been waiting for flights in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Spain, Panamá, and the United States. Joselin Ferrer, a 41 years old lawyer, is one of the few Venezuelans who has been able to return to her country.
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....
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: