By far, the most egregious example are detention centers. Across the country, the Department of Homeland Security operates 137 of these facilities where many immigrant men and women are incarcerated simply because they overstayed a visa or need to file more paperwork. Many have no charge against them at all but are being held after appearing at the border to request asylum, as is their lawful right. They are now in jail even though they played by the rules. Most of those being held are accused of no criminal behavior and pose no threat to public safety.
It is as if they are the unwitting victims of a cruel experiment by DHS: Gather up a group of immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries. Jail them even when they have no criminal records. Hold them together in close proximity while a lethal pandemic ravages the nation. Give them no masks or protective equipment. Provide them with no advice on how to protect themselves. And then see what happens.
In other words, DHS is knowingly and needlessly exposing these people to severe and even deadly risks. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which oversees DHS detention centers, did not respond to requests for comment.
But the risks do not end with the treatment of detained people. President Trump’s combative and intransigent focus on immigrants plays out in yet other ways, including two dangerous restrictions in the recent $2 trillion spending package designed to reduce the impact of the coronavirus. Many immigrant families are excluded from financial relief contained in the package even if the breadwinner is here legally, working and paying taxes, simply because a spouse or child does not have a Social Security number. This affects 16.7 million people, of whom 5.1 million are children under the age of 18.
A second restriction aimed at immigrants, and which threatens us all, is that while the stimulus package significantly increases needed coronavirus public testing and treatment, the package fails to include such protections for millions of immigrant families, including people legally here as green card holders or with temporary protected status. The president’s animosity toward even legal immigrants aside, it is foolhardy to try to punish them by withholding covid-19 care, both because they will suffer needlessly and because their exclusion from virus amelioration efforts will expose the rest of us even more.
The old adage, “we’re all in the same boat brother, you can’t rock one end without rocking the other,” applies to the pandemic crisis facing us today. We simply cannot seek to protect the public if we are unwilling to protect all of the public. To put the majority of us in a pot to protect us from a highly contagious coronavirus, and to then mix millions more into the pot who are unprotected, is public health lunacy.
The health and safety of the American public dictates that detainees seeking asylum be screened and released to the homes of loved ones, and that all immigrants be screened and treated for the virus. The president needs to mandate these steps immediately, and Congress must take steps to ensure that the next relief act requires DHS and other federal agencies to end a needlessly cruel and unwise practice that threatens us all.