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 coronavirus pandemic’s heroes are the “essential worker,” the medical professionals tending the sick, the bus drivers and train conductors taking those professionals to work and home again, the ambulance crews bringing the desperately ill to the hospital, and the letter carriers, truck drivers, and bicyclists delivering mail, medicine, and food. For nineteenth and early twentieth-century immigrants, clergy were also essential workers.
The coronavirus pandemic has challenged many commonly-held perceptions about the United States. We have learned we are not invincible, for one, and are not always the best prepared in responding to crises. We also have an inequitable health-care system, as we lack the medical resources to care for everyone and too many in our country remain without health-care coverage. The other inconvenient truth that the pandemic has revealed is the injustice of our immigration system; we depend upon the labor of immigrants but scapegoat them as the cause of our problems.
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.
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.
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.
New York State experienced an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases over the last week, but a drop in hospitalizations. In the midst of the crisis, CUNY Citizenship Now! is providing remote legal services. There are challenges and not all applications can be completed under the current circumstances, but in many cases staff have “conversations that help to put the participant at ease and answer their questions.” In Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia deaths from COVID-19 have more than doubled over the last week – to nearly 1,000. Two doctors in the area stress the importance immigrant inclusion in the public health response.
New York is at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, staff of the Catholic Charities Immigrant Services program for the Diocese of Rockville Centre have “become quasi social workers/case managers.” They are “advising clients about COVID-19 symptoms,” making sure unaccompanied minors “do not fall through the cracks in our educational system,” and delivering food to families who lack transportation and are afraid to go outside.
If COVID-19 attacks places like Tijuana with vigor, we are in for a catastrophe. In the meantime, many border shelters have made some difficult decisions.
New York City is at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s also proudly a city of immigrants. Here’s how immigrants and those working with them are responding.