Office of Government Relations

Immigrants and COVID-19

March 24, 2020
Office of Government Relations

By: Rushad Thomas

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (commonly known as coronavirus) presents the United States with several systemic challenges. Not only does it expose gaping holes in our public health infrastructure, it also tests our ability fight disinformation, challenges our assumptions about value in the economy, and forces us to confront how our society makes illness economically catastrophic for the less well-off.

This is true for a wide variety of Americans, especially hourly wage-workers, those in the service economy, the uninsured and underinsured, and the homeless. It also applies to immigrants, be they documented or undocumented. Even in the absence of a global pandemic immigrants face a variety of obstacles to accessing the supports needed to overcome episodes of sickness.

Undocumented immigrants cannot access most means-tested public benefits, including Medicaid. Additionally, millions of undocumented individuals work in jobs that do not provide health insurance, which means if they get sick they are far less likely to seek treatment. Recently implemented policies, such as the Public Charge rule, also discourage documented immigrants from accessing health, housing, and nutrition benefits that could help lessen the blow of these challenging times. The same is true for undocumented individuals who may have U.S. citizen children who qualify for benefits. The administration recently announced that testing for coronavirus will not count against immigrants under the Public Charge rule. We applaud that announcement. At the same time, we remain concerned that the Public Charge rule will have negative impacts on people’s health and well-being.

Lack of access to paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave also makes it difficult for many immigrants to care for themselves and their loved ones in the face of illness. This is, of course, a problem faced by far too many U.S. citizens as well. As Congress passes legislation providing paid sick leave and family and medical leave, lawmakers should also extend these protections to both undocumented and documented immigrants.

We cannot forget the tens of thousands of immigrants currently in detention around the country. The urgent need to physically distance (also known as social distancing) from others makes their situation particularly precarious. This pandemic highlights the importance of finding alternatives to detention, a policy The Episcopal Church supports to ensure the dignity and humane treatment of all those under immigration removal orders.

The disruptions of SARS-CoV-2 provide an opportunity for reflection on the ways in which our standard operating procedures keep health, safety, and security out of the reach of too many people, including immigrants. Many of the proposed COVID-19 emergency policies would work well even in ordinary times. When this pandemic subsides, the United States should fill the gaps in the social safety net that leave so many vulnerable families in the lurch.

Rushad L. Thomas is the migration policy advisor in The Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations.

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