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Immigration Battles Continue Amid COVID-19 Crisis

By Jeremy Conrad

May 1, 2020

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The American Constitution Society’s April 21 virtual event “Immigrants & COVID-19: Adding Pandemic to a System Already in Crisis” proved even more timely than anticipated, coming a day after President Trump announced on Twitter his intent to ban immigration for a 60-day period. He cited health concerns and a desire to ensure that unemployed Americans would be first in line for jobs when the country reopens.  

But event speakers pointed out that earlier attempts to limit entry into the country through restrictions on visa programs, tighter security, and bans on entry from specific countries have had mixed results on account of litigation by opponents. Jacinta Ma, vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, didn’t mince words. “Paying attention to what’s happening with immigrants is important because the president has restrictionist views and has used COVID to implement his plans for immigration policy,” she said. 

Ma highlighted contributions by both legal and illegal immigrants to the economy and the fight against the novel coronavirus. Immigrants constitute a significant percentage of essential workers in health care, manufacturing, trucking, and food service, and they also make up 50 percent to 70 percent of agricultural workers. “They’re still on the job, but visa services are not,” she said. 

Ahilan Arulanantham, senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, echoed Ma’s statements, pointing out that multiple studies have indicated that immigrant workers have little to no impact on American unemployment rates. From a policy perspective, such a ban does little to protect the public safety or economy, Arulanantham said. 

To illustrate, Arulanantham pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s March 20 order effectively banning asylum claims at the country’s southern and Canadian borders. One aspect of the ban that he found troubling was the fact that while those seeking asylum from Mexico would be turned away, those entering the country with a visa seeking asylum from China, Europe, and elsewhere could still avail themselves of the system. The CDC ban was initially set for a 30-day period but recently has been extended for an additional 30 days. 

Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, speaking on behalf of her organization and not as a government employee, said the administration’s response has exhibited “a surreal commitment to [its] underlying motives, but not to health and safety.” 

Tabaddor says her organization had to repeatedly call out the Department of Justice for its alleged failure to adequately protect the safety of judicial staff, attorneys, and the public in its eagerness to continue immigration prosecutions. She commented that the agency appeared to put law enforcement ahead of health considerations, reinforcing her opinion that immigration courts should be removed from the authority of the Justice Department. 

Arulanantham found some room for positivity in the situation. “The virus brings into stark relief the hardships our immigration enforcement system produces,” he said. “It lets us see how expensive it is. The social and economic harm it causes. It shows us how we’re all in this together in a way that is hard to see in other circumstances. This is an opportunity to perceive the value of immigrants.”