The Coronavirus Doesn’t Need a Visa: COVID-19’s Effect on Immigrant Populations

The implications of the coronavirus are far-reaching and will particularly impact some of our most vulnerable communities, like the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Add to this list: immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

The Impact of the Coronavirus on Legal Immigrants

Documented immigrants already feel the pressure of a politicized national immigration rhetoric due to numerous policy changes—from the wealth test known as public charge and the new denaturalization task force, to skyrocketing difficulty in obtaining professional work visas and never-before-seen delays in adjudicating cases at Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Legal immigrants have been avoiding engagement with health centers out of fear that if they use public benefits that they are lawfully entitled to, it may hurt their ability to naturalize or to sponsor a loved one for a visa. 

This means pregnant women, mothers with sick children and many others are foregoing important medical treatment out of fear.

The implications of the coronavirus will hit immigrants—both documented and undocumented—the hardest. (Victoria Pickering / Creative Commons)

COVID-19 Gives Undocumented Immigrants Even More Reason to Worry

Undocumented immigrants have even more reason to worry with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announcing that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) tactical units are being sent into communities, and detention rates for those with no criminal convictions rising significantly. 

Furthermore, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has refused to designate courts as “sensitive locations”—areas where they agree not to “pick-up” individuals without status. In many parts of the U.S., undocumented individuals participating in court hearings are picked up by ICE—even if they are there simply because they are testifying as witnesses to a crime. 

With these policies and the administration’s vilification of immigrants, undocumented immigrants are afraid to come forward for medical treatment.

The Need for Efforts to Mitigate Outbreaks in Jails and Detention Centers

As the coronavirus spreads more deeply into our communities, a growing danger is the threat of coronavirus spreading to jails and detention centers.  The healthcare system in detention facilities is already woefully inadequate, and the corona pandemic will only worsen it. 

Immigration attorneys are concerned that they might unknowingly carry the virus into the jails, or that they might inadvertently catch it when visiting with clients as they prepare for trial.  The majority of immigration detainees have strong and deep ties to their communities and do not have criminal convictions—despite how some frame the issue. 

The U.S. State Department recently lauded Iran for releasing thousands of prisoners in an effort to contain the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside China. 

DHS should similarly release immigration detainees that have no criminal convictions back to their families for the health and safety of millions in our country.  

Much-Needed Relief for International Visa Students

DHS has admittedly taken one helpful approach: announcing new guidance that allows millions of international students studying in the U.S. to attend online classes without jeopardizing their immigration status.  (Previous policy required that international F1 visa students, those wishing to study in the U.S., could only attend one online course a semester.) 

With many universities switching to online classes for the remainder of the academic year, international students would have been in violation of their student visas and be subject to deportation proceedings. This has come as a relief to many American host families and those that support international students. 

The Need for Informed Policy to Stop the Spread of Disease

In an attempt to contain the spread of the coronavirus, travel bans have been implemented targeting certain countries or continents—but the details of these proclamations prove these bans don’t deal with the heart of the problem.  For example, the United Kingdom has reported high rates of the virus, but its citizens can travel to the U.S. Meanwhile, Germany has been incredibly successful in containing the virus, but its citizens are barred. 

More importantly, travel bans don’t stop the virus and give a false sense of security—because the coronavirus is already widespread in the United States.

The coronavirus doesn’t need a visa to enter our country, jails, hospitals, schools or neighborhoods. We put our community’s health at risk if we don’t create safe a environment for those who are sick to come forward and get treatment. And building a wall or establishing a travel ban does nothing to stop the spread of the virus.

Senator Warren and other Democratic colleagues unveiled the Prioritizing Pandemic Prevention Act, legislation that would use the $1.3 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money earmarked for the border wall to instead fund CDC’s efforts to combat COVID-19. 

We can do so much to protect all our families and neighbors, regardless of what passport they hold. 

The urgency and impact of the coronavirus opens a door to a more humane approach and discussion about immigration. 

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media.

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Attorney Mahsa Khanbabai is an elected director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Board of Governors and co-chair of the AILA Afghan Taskforce. She has been in private practice for over 20 years. She represents corporate, educational and individual clients throughout the U.S. and abroad on immigration matters.