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SPLC: Trump’s Racist Response to COVID-19 Endangers All Americans, Including Immigrants

Health experts agree on clear steps that can be taken now to save lives. For immigrants, the Trump administration is actively choosing not to take them. 

WASHINGTON, D.C.The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) issued the following statement from Laura Rivera, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), responding to the Trump administration’s reckless response to the pandemic and the first confirmed cases of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees testing positive for COVID-19: 

“This administration has chosen racism and xenophobia over a science-based approach in its gravely misguided response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than take the decisive action urged by public health experts to limit the spread of the outbreak, administration officials are weaponizing its immigration detention, enforcement and court apparatus to further terrorize immigrants and force legal advocates to risk exposure to the virus.

“The COVID-19 crisis lays bare our failure to treat migrants with human decency and dignity. The Trump administration and its enforcement agencies have been indifferent to the death and suffering of immigrants both at the border and in its cages set up across the country. The pandemic exacerbates this cruel indifference, and unless we swiftly change course, more will die than could be prevented. These deaths will be on government hands.

“While local jurisdictions show leadership by halting prosecutions for low-level offenses, embracing compassionate release of Americans from custody to contain the spread of the virus in crowded jails and suspending all non-essential court business, this administration instead chooses to equivocate in its immigration policies and procedures, putting tens of thousands at risk.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration and immigration agencies have failed to enact life-saving measures. Their hollow attempt to respond to the crisis has resulted in an inconsistent patchwork of policy that has led to even more confusion. 

Continued detention of thousands exacerbates risks to all, inside and out. 

Like any closed environments including nursing homes and cruise ships, detention centers are high-risk places for COVID-19 transmission. ICE confines nearly 40,000 people against their will for purely civil cases. While the agency maintains no cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among people in its custody, we know that can’t be true. ICE has confirmed the first positive tests of employees inside the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. The testing crisis among the general public is even worse inside: as of its last report, on March 3, ICE had tested a paltry four people in its custody. As reports of cases inside facilities have surfaced, ICE has predictably bungled the response. This week, one ICE spokeswoman wrote to a reporter who asked about ICE’s criteria for testing: “I believe the person has to have tested positive to indicate if testing is warranted.” Amid this circular nonsense, medical experts warn that “[c]oronavirus in these settings will dramatically increase the epidemic curve, not flatten it.” SIFI staff are receiving reports from people inside detention centers across the Deep South that ICE is failing to take necessary steps to stem the spread of the virus inside its detention centers.

Our detained neighbors, friends and family members have no ability to practice social distancing and good hygiene in detention centers that crowd dozens of people into a single unit to share toilets, showers and sinks, and that deny access to basic items like hand sanitizer and soap. As Americans, we cannot expect that locking people up and throwing away the key will contain the spread of this virus. This approach is not only inhumane for those inside; it’s senseless and harmful to all of us and will only worsen this crisis. That’s why the SPLC has joined a chorus of nearly 800 advocacy organizations calling on ICE to #FreeThemAll.

In addition to those in ICE detention, there are over 3,500 unaccompanied minors in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). A staff member at an ORR facility in New York has tested positive for COVID-19. Under the Trump administration, the ORR has used detained immigrant children as bait to arrest immigrants who come forward as sponsors instead of finding homes for the children. ORR should now work to safely and expeditiously release children before the virus spreads in their facilities.  

The administration is capitalizing on the crisis to carry on its attack on the rights of asylum seekers.

Even amid a global crisis, the government continues to double down on its reprehensible effort to eviscerate the rights of asylum seekers. Denying asylum seekers access to protection will not solve this crisis and closing the U.S.-Mexico border – even as rates of infection in Latin America remain lower than in the U.S. – will further violate the rights of asylum seekers under both U.S. and international law. The government’s position that it cannot detain additional asylum seekers due to COVID-19 is not a reason to deny them access to international protection and processing. The government can screen asylum seekers, refer those in need of medical care to health facilities and parole others into the United States. In the meantime, the U.S. should dispatch health officials and medical supplies to prepare for an outbreak among migrants at the border whom our own administration has forced to wait in shelters and other makeshift arrangements through policies such as metering and Remain in Mexico

ICE enforcement activities undermine public safety.

Enforcement activities terrorize immigrants and spread fear throughout entire communities. ICE’s presence in communities also discourages those who need help from seeking it. It is in the best interest of everyone if all individuals feel they can safely come forward to be tested and treated. Yet the Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security yesterday continued to trumpet ICE’s senseless call for widespread enforcement, and advocates from Florida to California continue to learn of ongoing enforcement action. ICE should immediately suspend all enforcement activity and halt its arrests and removal of immigrants. 

Continued mismanagement of Immigration Court exposes immigrants and legal workers to the risk of COVID-19. 

On Wednesday, Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) Director McHenry issued guidance to Immigration Judges leaving to individual judges the decision whether to allow advocates to appear by phone for court hearings. Predictably, this has led to an inconsistent approach across courts, with only four courts issuing standing orders allowing advocates to appear in court by phone. This ignores the calls from public health experts for consistent social distancing practices in all communities and encourages more of the same patchwork response to the virus that has caused the rise of infections in the U.S. to mirror Italy’s devastating increase in cases. The guidance heightens the risk of infection for migrants, their families, their legal teams, immigration judges and all the government staff and contractors required to appear in court for these proceedings. Instead, McHenry should reinstate previously rescinded guidelines for telephonic appearances and allow all advocates to appear telephonically for court.

Administration requests money to confine more migrants to high-risk enclosures along the southwest border.

Instead of marshalling funds to implement science-based and public health approaches to stop the spread of the virus, the administration is seeking to pour hundreds of millions more into strategies that will worsen its spread. In a recent letter, the administration requests hundreds of millions “to convert four facilities into dedicated quarantine facilities along the Southwest border.” Make no mistake: creating more institutions designed to confine people in crowded spaces will endanger all the people inside, all those who work there and every American.