As COVID-19 spread throughout the world, dozens of countries limited or entirely stopped immigration to help reduce the chance of additional cases of the virus. The U.S. shut down its borders in April, and the number of legal and illegal border crossings dropped substantially.
But, as the news cycle and national conscience turned toward the pandemic and away from the border, the Trump Administration’s family separation policy continued, and COVID-19 outbreaks ravaged detention centers.
In total, there are currently 6,468 confirmed cases of the virus in ICE detention centers around the country. Eight people have died from COVID-19 in ICE detention centers.
“There are mounting COVID-19 outbreaks in two out of the three family detention centers that leave children and their parents vulnerable under unsanitary and inhumane conditions,” reads the FWD.us statement. “In order for these children to be truly safe, they should be released with their parents and not subjected to the long-term harm caused by family separation.”
Michelle Brané, senior director of the migrant rights and justice program for the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the issue of family separation during the pandemic is much more complicated than in the past.
“COVID-19 has added a lot of stress both on the system and on individuals within the system,” said Brané.
Family separation, she said, has taken on a complex meaning that refers not only to the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy, but also to the current immigration restrictions and border control operations during the pandemic.
Brané said the families and independent migrants who continue to cross the border do so out of necessity, face much higher levels of risk and are often escaping gang or domestic violence.
“The people you see moving despite [the risks] and the people who are seeking protection despite all the additional burdens are a lot more desperate,” said Brané.
She said she sees families that travel through already harsh and dangerous conditions also do not have access to masks, hand sanitizer, or the ability to social distance. Even more concerning, said Brané, is that because of the strict deportation guidelines during the pandemic, children who cross the border before their family members are often deported back to countries where they no longer have any close relatives and are at-risk of becoming homeless or the targets of violence.
Even before the pandemic, families were crossing the border at lower levels than in the past, but as COVID-19 became a more well-known concern, the demographics of the population continuing to cross the border changed drastically.
Brané said despite the reduction in border crossings, the pandemic was quickly politicized not only in terms of domestic policy, but also in border control and immigration policy.
According to reporting from the Associated Press, CDC officials issued a report that deporting asylum seekers and ICE detainees, and continuing family separation during the pandemic would lead to an increase in cases, while not effectively protecting American citizens from the virus. Healthcare professionals argued that families being detained in tight and unsanitary quarters that characterize ICE detention centers were at higher risk for contracting and spreading the virus.
CDC officials argued that continuing these policies could actually increase the risk for unchecked COVID-19 cases that would harm migrants and U.S. residents alike. Brané said the issue is not only affecting immigrants, but also workers in detention centers and border patrol officers who may spread or contract the virus within ICE facilities.
Those concerns were overruled by Vice President Pence, who ordered border patrol to continue apprehending, detaining and deporting migrants, as well as separating children from their family members.
Brané said this is not surprising to her, because she believes the goal of family separation and detention, especially during the pandemic, was never to protect U.S. citizens, but rather to punish immigrants and deter illegal border crossings in the future.
“The levels of cruelty and the extremes to which this administration has been willing to go to punish this population are shocking,” said Brané. “Making people suffer and having that message get out there: ‘if you come to the United States, this terrible thing is going to happen to you.’ That’s exactly the point of this policy.”
Other policies currently putting families at risk for separation that fit into the broader definition provided by Brané include a recent court decision allowing the Trump administration to end Temporary Protective Services for hundreds of thousands of people.
“With the current COVID-19 pandemic, over 130,000 TPS holders are on the front lines working to help protect the health and safety of Americans,” Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways, an immigration law and advocacy organization in Texas, said in a statement. “They are medical and health care professionals, agricultural workers, and transportation workers, to name a few.”
The decision made by the 9th circuit district court would end TPS for 300,000 people, many of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades, have families in the country and whose relatives have moved to the nation as well.
Although not directly being removed by the zero-tolerance policy, the decision follows Brané’s argument that family separation continues to permeate immigration policies during the pandemic.
“They are considered essential and provide critical infrastructure on the frontlines, and without them our country would not be able to function,” Lightsey said in her statement.