Effects of Coronavirus on Undocumented Immigrants Commentary
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Effects of Coronavirus on Undocumented Immigrants

The Coronavirus is causing major economic upheavals and thousands of deaths and hospitalizations throughout the US. Unfortunately, immigrants, people of color, and marginalized groups are being hit equally hard by the disease. To make matters even worse, refugee admissions are suspended, all in-person naturalization services have stopped, and the status of all immigration into the United States is up in the air. Through all of this, those forced to live in immigrant detention facilities are particularly vulnerable.

“Sitting Ducks” in ICE Detention Facilities

As of April 19, 2020 there were at least 124 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among immigrant detainees held by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Advocates for immigrants have been filing lawsuits to have detainees released due to the close quarters they are living in. Most detainees are adults, but the population includes many elderly people and children.

In March 2020 ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) convened a working group of medical professionals, disease control specialists, detention experts, and field operators to identify additional steps to minimize the spread of the virus. According to the ERO:

“ICE has since evaluated its detained population based upon the CDC’s guidance for people who might be at higher risk for severe illness as a result of COVID-19… Of this population, ICE has released nearly 700 individuals after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk, and national security concerns… Additionally, ERO has limited the intake of new detainees being introduced into ICE detention system.”

With a current detainee population of 33,000, a lack of necessary space to practice social distancing guidelines presents inherent problems within the detention facilities. ICE claims that detainees who meet Center for Disease Control (CDC) criteria for risk of exposure to COVID-19 are housed separately from the general population.

They place detainees with fever and/or respiratory symptoms in a single medical housing room, or in a medical airborne infection isolation room specifically designed to contain biological agents, such as COVID-19. ICE transports individuals with moderate to severe symptoms, or those who require higher levels of care or monitoring, to appropriate hospitals with expertise in high-risk care.

However, concern remains high for those who are detained and have underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or asthma. At the Otay Mesa facility near San Diego, advocates say there have been hunger strikes since April 3 with a fluctuating number of participants.

“They’re really scared. They just feel like they’re sitting ducks. They just think, ‘When is this going to hit?'” immigration attorney Michele Carney tells NBC news. She has been fighting to get several clients released from the Tacoma, Washington Northwest Detention Center.

Coronavirus Brings a Decrease in Deportations

For some undocumented immigrants, this pandemic has given them some breathing room. With orders from state governments directing everyone to stay home and conduct essential business only, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has shifted their focus to only pursuing foreign nationals who have committed a crime.

During the last fiscal year running from October 1, 2018 through September 30, 2019, ICE deported more than 267,000 people, or 22,250 per month, a 4 percent increase from the year before. However, during March 2020, ICE completed 17,965 removals, according to agency records. Total deportations have declined so far in April with 2,985 deportations.

Hoping to help limit the spread of the virus and encourage immigrants to seek medical help if necessary, ICE sent a notification to Congress on March 18 regarding a change in their enforcement actions. ICE stated their Enforcement and Removal Operations division will “delay enforcement actions” and use “alternatives to detention” amid the outbreak. The notification further said:

“During the COVID-19 crisis, ICE will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”

However ICE will continue to investigate criminal activity including drug and gang related crimes and child exploitation. Their main focus will be on people who have already been convicted of a crime for mandatory detention and deportation. On March 18, ICE reported that removal flights to Italy, China and South Korea have been suspended, although ICE is continuing to deport immigrants from other countries. Prior to boarding, however, immigrants must undergo a temperature screening and anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher is referred to a medical provider.

However, authorities in Guatemala are claiming that between 30 and 40 Guatemalans flown home by ICE since late March tested positive for the Coronavirus after returning.

All immigration courts have been temporarily closed by the Justice Department to avoid spreading the Coronavirus, and all hearings have been cancelled except for those already detained.

Refugee Admissions on Pause

While it is good news to some that ICE will cut back on their enforcement efforts, there are many other negative aspects to the situation for those hoping to claim refugee status and obtain a green card. The United States paused refugee admissions as of March 19, 2020. Fearing that international travel “could increase the exposure of refugees to the virus,” the International Organization for Migration, which is in charge of booking refugees’ travel, and the UN refugee agency announced a suspension of resettlement travel.

The United States had planned to admit a maximum of 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020 under a new refugee admissions ceiling set by the Trump administration, down from a cap of 30,000 in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2019. This would be the lowest number of refugees resettled by the U.S. in a single year since 1980, when Congress created the nation’s refugee resettlement program.

All In-Person Services Suspended

To the dismay of those waiting to obtain a green card, be officially naturalized, or apply for asylum or refugee status, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on March 17 it is suspending its in-person services including all interviews and naturalization ceremonies, to help mitigate the spread of Coronavirus.

ICE also announced it will temporarily reschedule in-person appointments of immigrants who are not in detention to “minimize the impact” of Coronavirus. The agency will also allow those recently released from the southern border to check in at 60 days, instead of 30 days.

California Takes Care of Their Immigrants

As millions of Americans begin to receive their $1,200 check from the federal government and an extra $600 per week for the unemployed, undocumented immigrants have been left out in the cold. Many have lost their jobs due to business closures, and farmers have had to destroy many of their crops because there is no market for them. Undocumented immigrants are not allowed to receive any federal funds under the CARES Act nor unemployment benefits, forcing them to rely on food banks and other charities.

But realizing that the 2.2 million immigrants who live in California play a large role in the state’s economy and pay $2.5 billion in taxes every year, Governor Gavin Newsom announced he would spend $75 million to create a Disaster Relief Fund for those living there illegally.

One hundred fifty thousand adults who were left out of the $2.2 trillion stimulus package approved by Congress will receive $500 each. The state will give the money to a network of regional nonprofits to find and vet potential recipients. Advocates say that’s key to making the plan work because immigrants are unlikely to contact the government for fear of deportation.

A Temporary End to Immigration

On April 20, President Trump tweeted that he intends to sign an executive order to temporarily suspend all immigration into the United States. This will be challenged in court, but that will take time. Many view all the new regulations as an attempt by the Trump administration to implement their original restrictionist policies, such as blocking entry to asylum seekers.

For more on COVID-19, see our special coverage.


Suzanne Driscoll is a staff writer for Sharemoney. Hailing from Rochester, New York, she has written for national publications on issues involving business, healthcare, education and immigration.


Suggested citation: Suzanne Driscoll, Effects of Coronavirus on Undocumented Immigrants, JURIST – Professional Commentary, May 12, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/suzanne-driscoll-undocumented-immigrants/

This article was prepared for publication by Tim Zubizarreta, JURIST’s Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at commentary@jurist.org

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