To Contain COVID-19, We Must Tear Down Some Walls

“Viruses know no borders and they don’t care about your ethnicity or the color of your skin or how much money you have in the bank,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization health emergencies program. 

Undoubtedly Dr. Ryan is correct about viruses – presumably viruses have no conscious motives at all, at least on this side of an M. Night Shyamalan film script. Unfortunately, real viruses exist in a world full of people who care a great deal about borders, ethnicity, the color of one’s skin, and the amount of money we have in the bank. It is the distribution of power among those people that determines who gets tested and treated, who loses a job or goes bankrupt, who is treated with basic human dignity and who is caged like an animal or turned away at the border. It seems clear that at a time when anyone can get novel coronavirus, the best antidote is to protect everybody. But that would mean setting aside concern for borders, and biases against the poor and people of color. Clearly that won’t happen any time soon. 

At the Border

The first line of defense has been hardening borders. Remember, coronavirus spread outside of China through travel. Millions of people move across borders every day, including some who do not know they are carrying the virus that causes COVID-19. A person traveling across town is no less likely to carry the virus. Indeed, in the United States as in the rest of the world, “community spread,” not foreign travel, is now the chief way novel coronavirus is disseminated. And so, the emphasis on shutting down borders – while inside those borders people move freely – is an illusory solution. More to the point, however, the way that borders are shut matters. 

On Friday, the Trump administration announced an agreement with the government of Mexico for the “partial” closing of the U.S./Mexico border. The agreement limits “nonessential” travel, and in its broad outlines, is similar to an earlier agreement with Canada. What constitutes “essential travel” is clear:

Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf assured that North American trade would not be affected by the U.S.’ agreement with Canada and Mexico to partially close the border.

“Let me be clear that neither of these agreements with Canada or Mexico applies to lawful trade or commerce. Essential commerce activities will not be impacted. We will continue to maintain a strong and secure economic supply chain across our borders,” Wolf said Friday.

Maintaining strong “supply chains” means people cross the border with goods – unless buried in the latest emergency supplemental is money for levitation spells. Driving a truckload of avocados across the border is “essential” travel. People fleeing for their lives is “non-essential” travel. While trade continues, anyone who crosses the border between ports of entry will simply be deported without any further processing or investigation of asylum claims. For those who present themselves at a port of entry, most will also be turned back, though Mexico has said it will only accept non-Mexican nationals from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and only after they are screened. 

We could point out here that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees made clear, that while, “[a]ll states must manage their borders in the context of this unique crisis as they see fit…these measures should not result in closure of avenues to asylum, or of forcing people to return to situations of danger.” We could also point out that Trump tried denying asylum to people picked up between ports of entry before there was something called COVID-19. He was denied by Federal Courts because the statute on asylum is very clear: anyone, no matter how they get here, can apply for asylum once they are on U.S. soil.

In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the governments are trying to restrict movement and shut down borders just like the rest of the world. One of the exceptions forced on these governments is deportation flights from the United States. For example, last week, the government of Honduras said it would not receive deportation flights from Mexico and the United States following several confirmed cases of novel coronavirus. On Friday, Chad Wolf at DHS said deportation flights would continue. On Sunday, the United States put 92 people on a plane to deport them to Honduras. Most were then put into a separate facility near the airport in San Pedro Sula upon arrival, though several somehow escaped between the plane and the military escort. The United States is continuing to deport people to Guatemala – even though Guatemala has closed its principal international airport. El Salvador has stood firm on not accepting deportation flights thus far. We’ll see how long that lasts.

So, in terms of border security two things seem true. Business will continue, indeed will not be impacted (at least in government press releases) and refugees will be stopped from coming into the United States completely. These policies are not the result of public health planning or epidemiological evidence. This is simply knee jerk nationalism coupled with bone throwing to Wall Street.  Result: the politics of border security ensure that these measures will ultimately be ineffective in slowing the spread of coronavirus. 

Citizen vs Non-citizen

Of course, across the globe we are all now living in a state of exception. Which is to say, we are left not with the rule of law, but official determinations of where exceptions to the law will emerge and who they will apply to. We set aside rights and rules because of emergencies.  And we do not do this in a neutral way. What could go wrong?

Inside our national boundaries, implementation of exceptions to the law is drawing new borders around communities. As Dr. Ryan says, the coronavirus does not care where you were born. Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress does – no matter where you actually live. The Family First Act specifically excludes many immigrants, most residing here lawfully, from receiving support under Medicaid for treatment. The National Immigration Law Center notes, “Many lawfully residing immigrants — including people granted DACA, most lawful permanent residents during their first five years in that status, survivors of crime granted U visas, people from certain Pacific Island nations,  and people with TPS–along with those without status, are ineligible for federal Medicaid.” What this means, of course, is that people who live in this country – most lawfully – who interact with other people who live in this country daily, are denied access to federal assistance that people otherwise similarly situated would be able to access. It is not like they are not paying taxes or otherwise being a burden. But denying treatment to this population causes everyone to suffer. 

Sadly, many of the same people – taxpayers remember – are denied access to the envisioned tax rebate being debated right now. The National Immigration Law Center explains,

The proposed bill leaves out tax filers who have worked and earned income like other taxpayers covered by this bill by excluding households whose tax returns include taxpayers or children who file with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). These families include U.S. citizen children and spouses who are also harmed by the COVID-1 crisis. This exclusion of mixed-status families and individual ITIN filers is both deeply unfair and will exclude families hardest hit by this emergency. It could also make it more difficult to ensure that families can shelter in place, to protect public health.

Limiting non-citizen access to health services and economic support to ensure people stay home when necessary, undermines every effort at containment there is. It is not just these families who will suffer as a result of such restrictions. Again, everyone will. 

Prison Walls

Then we have the smaller borders drawn around the bodies of people society has decided should be locked away. As we have written about separately, for those inside prison walls and detention centers, the risk of coronavirus is grave indeed. The state of New York has topped 26,000 infections, and so, of course, this has impacted prisons like Rikers Island where an outbreak of COVID-19 has now occurred. Certainly it will get much worse, as people cannot “shelter in place” or practice social distancing inside a prison. Reports from inside Rikers are that prisoners were pepper sprayed for demanding medical treatment yesterday.

As people around the country are being encouraged to keep their movements to a minimum, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is still transferring inmates between facilities, despite the evident risks involved, and despite a 30-day moratorium on most movements. ABC reported yesterday, 

Over the weekend, three inmates in the Bureau of Prisons tested positive for the coronavirus. Two tested positive at FCC Oakdale, Louisiana, and one at MDC New York.

According to the BOP, the inmate arrived at Metropolitan Detention Center, Brooklyn, on March 16. On March 19, he complained of chest pains and was taken to an outside hospital, where personnel performed a test for COVID-19. On March 20, he was discharged back to MDC Brooklyn and immediately placed in isolation. On Monday, the BOP was notified that his test results for COVID-19 were positive.

Nevertheless, 

Two sources, at different facilities, have told ABC News that inmates came into their facilities, with no explanation given.

At FCI Tallahassee in Tallahassee, Florida, recently 12 inmates, were transferred into the facility – despite the 30-day stoppage on inmate movements.

Inmates from prisons in New York were transferred to three facilities in Pennsylvania, a source explained.

Finally, Trump has shown no willingness to release immigrants from detention, even as a loud chorus of people, including a former acting director of ICE, encourage him to do so. As we went to great lengths to explain last week – none of the people in detention are serving criminal sentences. All are in civil detention and can be released at the discretion of ICE field directors. Some do have criminal records, and under Clinton-era immigration laws are deportable, even if their offenses were committed years ago. However, very few of the people in detention right now offer any kind of threat to their communities – remember traffic violations constitute the single largest crime that have made some of these folks “deportable.” Indeed, over half have no criminal record at all – and are detained awaiting a hearing with an immigration judge. The transferring of detainees between different facilities goes on all of the time – it is the main reason why 5 isolated cases of mumps reported in December of 2018 turned into an epidemic impacting 1,000 detainees in facilities around the country by March of 2019. With such a track record, ICE cannot be trusted to manage a public health crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19.

Drawing borders around people is no way to contain a disease. Indeed, all of these borderlines are ultimately making it harder to contain novel coronavirus and COVID-19. Putting immigrants, non-citizens and the poor at risk out a false political narrative about who “deserves” assistance and/or protection threatens everyone. As Dr. Ryan noted, viruses are indifferent to this political desire to classify our neighbors along some hierarchy of concern. If we do not adapt our way of thinking and acting, we are all at risk.

Tear Down the Walls

We are engaged in advocacy on all of these points, and invite you to raise your voice as well. Things you can do right now:

Join in the call for the immediate release of people from immigrant detention and other forms of incarceration. For ideas on how to organize in your community check out this tool kit from Detention Watch Network, #FreeThemAll.

We joined 630+ other organizations in demanding that any effort Congress makes at addressing coronavirus be open to everyone! This letter is here. You can help get the word by forwarding the letter and list of signers to your Senators’ offices. Some of the language promoted in this letter was included in the House version of the latest coronavirus legislation introduced last night!

The Trump administration should not be allowed to simply set aside decades of asylum law as they have repeatedly tried to do over the last year. The latest effort is, frankly, and quite clearly, illegal! You can sign, and share, this petition seeking to block this latest effort to block asylum.

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