When the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in the United States, nobody was prepared for the impact the virus would have on healthcare systems or the changes it would bring to everyday life. Our new reality has come to resemble the plot of a dystopian novel.
The United States is the current epicenter of COVID-19. There have been statements about how “no one is immune,” except, of course, those that have immunity. It’s also said that race, gender, or socioeconomic status will not save someone; yet, many people are able to social distance and keep their healthy lifestyles due to race, gender, and SES. COVID-19 has been frequently referred to as “the great equalizer.” This claim is not necessarily true. While the virus itself does not discriminate, actions and policies implemented by government officials in response to COVID-19 have managed to victimize one of the most vulnerable groups in society: undocumented immigrants.
On March 27, 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which allocated $2.2 trillion to support individuals and small businesses who have been impacted by COVID-19. The bill passed with bipartisan support and claims to provide immediate assistance to all American workers and their families. However, in order for an applicant to receive financial aid from the CARES Act, they must provide a valid Social Security number. The inclusion of this stipulation is incredibly important. Even though undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.64 billion in taxes every year, they are not granted Social Security numbers and are therefore unable to benefit from the CARES Act.
As a result, 10.5 million undocumented immigrants are stuck in states of financial instability with no feasible way out. They are being forced to make the difficult choice between preserving their health or continuing to work in unsafe conditions. COVID-19 is a universal issue, and public health will be jeopardized if undocumented immigrants cannot take care of themselves. Ultimately, the virus will continue to spread unless people have the financial support they need to stay home.
The CARES Act is only one of many ways the federal government has failed to protect undocumented immigrants during this pandemic. In March, over 3,000 medical professionals penned a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requesting the release of people in detention centers for the sake of public health. In addition to being overcrowded, these detention centers are notorious for providing inadequate healthcare and unsafe living conditions for immigrants. If a COVID-19 outbreak were to occur in one of these facilities, it could quickly infect thousands of people.
Despite the gravity of this situation, ICE has not restructured any of its detention centers. Their facilities currently hold more than 34,000 detainees, and only 160 of them have been released after immense pressure from human rights groups. It is physically impossible for immigrants in detention centers to practice safe social distancing, which so far is the only proven way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This situation makes detainees incredibly vulnerable, and many are scared for their safety. As a last resort, several immigrants have even filed lawsuits against ICE to protect themselves from COVID-19.
These lawsuits are entirely justified, especially since official ICE policy states that their highest priority as an organization is to promote life-saving and public safety activities. ICE is clearly in violation of this policy by refusing to release detainees from overcrowded detention centers. Not only do their actions directly threaten the health of undocumented immigrants, but they also put the entire nation at risk by creating the prime environment for a severe COVID-19 outbreak.
ICE also violates this official policy by continuing to raid immigrant communities during the pandemic. On the first day of California’s “shelter in place” mandate, ICE agents targeted undocumented immigrants living in Los Angeles and forced them into detainment. This raid defied the state’s social distancing laws and essentially helped further spread the virus. Moreover, ICE raids cultivate mistrust of authority officials. With no vaccine for COVID-19, one of the only ways to slow its spread is through extensive contact tracing and testing. If these raids continue, many undocumented immigrants will fear deportation and refuse to seek treatment or get tested.
Ultimately, undocumented immigrants need to be protected by the country that they so desperately want to call home. COVID-19 is a universal health issue that does not take into account whether someone is a legal citizen. It is actions taken by the federal government that have left undocumented immigrants extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. If the United States continues to treat health as a privilege and not as a fundamental human right, COVID-19 will wreak havoc on society, and thousands of people will die.