Migration During Pandemic: Should India & US Gear Up Focus?
| Didhiti Ghosh, Bureau Chief, IOP, Kolkata - 04 Apr 2020

Migration During Pandemic: Should India & US Gear Up Focus?

By Didhiti Ghosh, Bureau Chief (Kolkata), IOP

  • Trump Govt’s management of the crisis inside the US & its policies affecting immigrants has come in for significant criticism
  • Trump administration, before the outbreak of the COVID-19, had introduced some of the most stringent immigration restrictions 
  • India is facing a similar crisis
  • More than 90 per cent of India's workforce is employed in the unorganised sector where social security benefits are an exception
  • In its 2011 Census, India counted more than 45 million economic migrants who had moved for work

Kolkata, April 4, 2020: 

By global comparison, India is not among the worst Corona-hit countries yet. As of April 3, India was reporting 2567confirmed cases and 72deaths according to the worldometers. But Indian doctors and epidemiologists fear that an avalanche of cases is just around the corner.

India has been conducting testing for the virus at levels lower than almost any other country in the world. Only 15 percent of all deaths are officially certified, meaning that accurate statistics over the causes cannot be relied upon. 

The first cases in India were "imported" from China, Europe and the Middle East. In the weeks that followed, community transmission occurred. The second death in the country was of a woman whose son had travelled to Switzerland and Italy.

Precarious Lives of Migrant Workers

As the country continues to face a total lockdown, millions were seen trying to flee the big cities where the first cases were reported and return to smaller towns and villages in packed public transport in scenes reminiscent of people fleeing war.

More than 90 percent of India's workforce is employed in the unorganised sector where social security benefits and paid leave are an exception, not the norm. Wages are low and there is little in the bank for people to fall back on. The shutdowns that now cover more than 125 million Indians will hit the poorest hard, and state protections are weak.

Migrants form a large portion of this vulnerable workforce. In its 2011 Census, India counted more than 45 million economic migrants who had moved for work, the large majority of them, men. 

The economist Jean Dreze has suggested "advance payment of [social security] pensions, enhanced [subsidised foodgrains], immediate payment of [a rural jobs scheme's] wage arrears, and expanded distribution of take-home [subsidised] food at schools and [early learning centres] as first and urgent steps.

India’s close ally, the United States is facing a similar crisis.

An unprecedented global pandemic that knows no borders has brought into sharp focus the intersection of U.S. immigration and public health policy, and the unique challenges that immigrants face in the United States today. According to Sarah Pierce & Muzaffar Chishti, the Trump administration, which before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had introduced some of the most stringent immigration restrictions in modern times, has raced to put in place a sweeping series of measures in response to the crisis. In the process, it has further advanced its longstanding immigration goals, including summarily ending asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In an article published by Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the first action taken by the administration in response to the COVID-19 outbreak that originated in China was a ban on travel from that country for non-U.S. citizens or residents; those restrictions have been extended to many more countries since, including Iran and all of Europe. In perhaps one of the administration’s starkest actions, it also effectively ended asylum at U.S. land borders by invoking the power given to the Surgeon General in 1944 to block the entry of foreign nationals who pose a public health risk. As a result, asylum seekers and other migrants are being pushed back into Mexico or returned to their countries. Working with the Canadian and Mexican governments, the United States has closed its northern and southern borders to nonessential travel—the first time such action has been taken. And in an extraordinary advisory, the State Department has urged Americans not to travel overseas and is encouraging those abroad to return to the United States.

While the coronavirus restrictions on air and land travel and related policies have received major attention, less focus has been given to the fact that the impact of the pandemic and dramatic economic fallout resulting from social distancing has and will hit immigrant populations in the United States particularly hard. The anxiety triggered by the pandemic for long-term residents and recently arrived immigrants alike, legal and unauthorized, is exacerbated by fear of immigration enforcement, suspension of immigration benefits processing, and the high number of asylum seekers and other migrants in immigration detention.

Immigrants are also disproportionately represented in some of the critical occupations on the frontlines of the war against the pandemic—from health care to elder care, food services and delivery workers, to daycare. Most of these workers can ill afford to fall sick or not report to work, considering that immigrants on average have less access to safety-net benefits, are more likely to lack health insurance coverage, and have lower median incomes than the U.S. born. And though the Senate on March 25 endorsed an estimated $2 trillion COVID-19 aid package, with House consideration expected March 27, the bill excluded some of the most vulnerable immigrants from even the most modest economic aid and access to medical testing and health care.

Restricting Travel and Entry

After the novel coronavirus was detected in Wuhan, China in December, the first U.S. action to prevent the virus from entering the United States was taken on January 31, when President Donald Trump issued a proclamation to block the entry of any foreign national who had been present in China in the preceding 14 days. The ban was extended on February 29 to Iran, on March 11 to the Schengen Area of Europe, and March 14 to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The MPI article also mentions that these proclamations apply to the processing of visas at U.S. consulates abroad, pre-flight screenings, and screenings at ports of entry, making them the most extensive public health-inspired bans in U.S. history. The hurried, seemingly unplanned execution of these policies created chaotic situations at a number of U.S. airports as arriving passengers encountered conditions that left them exposed to one another, in some cases for as long as seven hours, waiting in tightly packed lines to go through the additional screening.

In mid-March, the administration implemented the unprecedented closures of the U.S. land borders with Mexico and Canada, invoking little-known, decades-old statutes that give the federal government sweeping powers during public health threats and national emergencies.

The International Response

At least 173 other countries, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), had implemented travel bans, border closures, and other mobility restrictions of their own to contain and mitigate the pandemic—totalling a minimum of 33,712 restrictions as of March 23.

Amid the rapid spread of international travel restrictions, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and IOM on March 17 announced the temporary suspension of refugee resettlement worldwide. After the announcement, the State Department suspended U.S. refugee admissions, hindering a program that was already on track to fall 2,000 refugees short of the historically low 18,000 ceilings set by the administration, as noted by authors Sarah Pierce & Muzaffar Chishti.

In prior public health crises, many public health experts have been sceptical of the efficacy of travel restrictions. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) says: “In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.”

Collision of Public Health & Immigration Enforcement Imperatives

While the Trump administration’s restriction of foreign air arrivals and nonessential legal border crossings into the United States can be viewed as a rational and possibly well-thought through response to the pandemic, its management of the crisis inside the United States, especially its policies affecting immigrants and their communities, has come in for significant criticism.

The approach has been criticized by immigrant-rights advocates, service providers, some public health experts, and others as incoherent and frequently counterproductive, with important implications for public safety and health.

As of March 21, three days after the announced priority shift, the immigrant detainee population rose to 38,058 individuals, just 39 per cent of whom were convicted criminals. Many others are asylum seekers or unauthorized immigrants awaiting their hearings in immigration court. Across the country, groups of immigrant and civil-rights organizations sued, asking federal courts to order the release of families, immigrants particularly vulnerable in the event of COVID-19 exposure, and other noncitizens who are not public safety risks. Already, a foreign national in ICE detention in New Jersey has tested positive for the virus, notes the MPI article.

Recognizing the unique challenges that detention of immigrants poses during a public health crisis, other countries have begun releasing their detained immigrant populations. The United Kingdom, for example, has released one-third of the 900 people in immigrant detention amid fear of coronavirus outbreaks in institutional settings.

International travel restrictions may place additional strains on the detention system. Canada, Panama, Honduras, and other countries have blocked the entry of U.S. nationals, which may also apply to the removal of foreign nationals from the United States. Both Guatemala and El Salvador suspended deportation flights from the United States, only to walk back the suspensions days later. From 2014-18, the United States removed an average 337,703 people per year, in other words about 925 a day.

In a related development, EOIR delayed the hearings of asylum seekers enrolled in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, better known as Remain in Mexico), a program that forces migrants to wait in Mexico while their cases in the United States are pending. Suspension of hearings, though, does not change the fact that the migrants are still waiting in precarious conditions, many in camps close to the border that will be exceedingly vulnerable to the virus based on the close quarters, difficult water and sanitation conditions, and lack of access to regular health care.

Healthcare in a Time of Pandemic

Containment of the pandemic demands that all who are ill come forward and seek care. Yet the outbreak has occurred just as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has begun implementing a new rule that will potentially chill millions from accessing health services and benefits. The public-charge rule, which went into effect February 24, will block eligibility for green cards for immigrants who have used—or who the government deems likely to use in the future—public benefits. The rule dramatically expands the circumstances under which immigrants can be denied green cards, whether those already present in the United States and seeking to adjust from another status or those abroad applying for legal permanent residence.

As the COVID-19 outbreak upends social and economic lives around the globe, it has—in an unprecedented way—brought home for some the importance of the collective: treating immigrants differently from others endangers all.

Suspension of Immigration-Benefit Processing

The most recently available numbers suggest there are approximately 2.3 million non-immigrants (the term for those on temporary visas such as students or temporary workers) residing in the United States. Their ability to extend or change their nonimmigrant status, or to apply for permanent residence, depends on USCIS. Suspended interviews mean that applications for asylum, permanent residence, and naturalization will not move forward. This will place non-immigrants already in the process of applying for green cards at risk of overstaying and violating the terms of their visa, making them vulnerable to ICE enforcement.

USCIS also suspended biometric services, which are required for processing certain applications, including many employment authorization documents. Recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and applicants for employment-based green cards need employment authorization documents to work lawfully and must submit their fingerprints to renew their documents. Without this USCIS service, these groups will begin to lose their work authorization. As of September, there were 652,880 DACA recipients, most of whom have employment authorization documents.

As more states are placed into lockdown, USCIS adjudications may increasingly be limited to the small number of online applications. However, just ten of the agency’s more than 80 application forms are available online. As a result, adjudication of applications such as H-1B visas, employment-based green cards, travel documents, and more may freeze for the duration of the widespread office closures.

The longer the crisis keeps USCIS offices closed, the greater the backlog once offices are running, increasing processing times and posing further complications for immigrants who need timely adjudications to remain lawfully and work legally.

Little Learning from Past Public Health Crises?

While the scale and threat of this pandemic may be unprecedented in contemporary history, this is not the first tango between the immigration system and a public health crisis. The last global pandemic occurred in 2009 when a novel influenza A (H1N1) virus emerged and spread quickly across the world, including the United States. There has been little progress since then on immigration-based responses to global health crises, and the bungled initial rollout of health screenings at U.S. airports earlier this month suggests lessons from the Ebola, Zika, and other outbreaks may not have been remembered.

At that time, the Obama administration also extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to immigrants already in the United States from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. This provided a needed reprieve to those migrants from returning to their home countries amid the epidemic; it also gave them the opportunity to work temporarily in the United States. The Obama administration initiated the end of TPS once it was determined that the widespread transmission of Ebola virus in the three countries had ended. The protections fully ended in May 2017.

In the present pandemic, the Trump administration has yet to issue any similar reassurances to anxious foreign nationals. In New York and New Jersey, CBP is allowing some tourists the opportunity to extend their stay in the United States for up to 30 days.

Representation Photo Courtesy: The Straits Times, The Daily Campus, Council of Europe

(DIDHITI GHOSH is an Entrepreneur & India Columnist at La Agencia Mundial de Prensa, USA. She is the Bureau Chief of Indian Observer Post based in Kolkata.  E-mail: didhiti.24@gmail.com | LinkedIn: https://bit.ly/2H6gNAv | Twitter: https://twitter.com/DidhitiG).

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