Immigration came to a halt during the pandemic, but family separation continues in full swing

Reports show ICE officers often offered families in detention centers two options: separate willingly, or risk dying from the virus.

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 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.

Anti-socialist messaging during the election hits close to home for Cuban-Americans

“That label of socialism, that fear-mongering about socialism that was applied nationally, had a particular impact on Cubans,” said Pérez. “For them, socialism means something a lot more radical than anybody in the U.S. has ever proposed.”

Many Americans were surprised when President Trump won Florida on election night this year because of his low popularity within Latino and Hispanic communities, but pro-Biden activists and experts said this result was foreshadowed by months of misinformation targeting Cuban-Americans throughout the state. 

Trump received the support of 56% of Cuban voters in Florida, an increase of 4 percent compared to the 2016 election. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, Cuban-Americans have historically always supported Republicans, but were beginning to shift toward democratic candidates up until this election.

Lisandro Pérez, founder of the Cuban Research Institute and professor of ethnic studies at John Jay College, said in an interview the Trump campaign’s focus on connecting now President-elect Joe Biden to socialist policies was critical to securing the Cuban vote. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, the Trump campaign spent $37.2 million on campaign ads, dozens of which painted Biden as a radical left ideologue. Ad campaigns targeting Cuban-American communities in Florida said Biden “embraces extremist left-wing politics,” and other ads said he had close ties with Nicolás Maduro, the socialist leader of Venezuela.

“That label of socialism, that fear-mongering about socialism that was applied nationally, had a particular impact on Cubans,” said Pérez. “It had a particular impact on Cubans because of this history, that, for them, socialism means something a lot more, shall we say, radical than anybody in the U.S. has ever proposed.” 

Many Cuban-Americans arrived in the country after fleeing the Castro regime, a communist dictatorship in their home country that resulted in the deaths of thousands and a mass exodus of Cuban refugees to the United States. 

Pérez said the Trump campaign pushed hard in the months leading up to the election to connect socialism with radical left policies in a way that would intentionally frighten Cuban-American and Venezuelan American communities. 

“The word socialism for someone who has experience in Cuba, particularly those who have somewhat more recently arrived from Cuba … socialism means a system that is to them, much more coercive,” Pérez said. 

Pérez said the idea that Biden is a socialist is “laughable,” and that even policies from further left-leaning legislators like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders never echoed the actions of the Castro regime. But this hasn’t stopped Trump’s anti-socialist messaging. 

Raymond Adderly, a 16-year-old Afro-Latino Cuban-American political organizer in Miami-Dade county in Florida, said the Trump campaign’s messaging created a “deep divide” in his community. 

“That type of rhetoric, it’s turned family against family,” said Adderly. “I can’t tell you the amount of organizers that we’ve had that have had fights with their family, and people that are kicked out, disowned, called Socialists, excommunicated from church.”

Adderly is a political organizer with Cubanos Con Biden, a grassroots organization of Cuban-American voters who pledged their support to the Democratic nominee this election. He said the results in his county specifically showed that the gains Democrats made in Miami-Dade over recent years seemed to vanish.

While Adderly said part of the blame lies on the Democratic Party for its “neglect” of Black and Latino voters in Florida, he said the “most vivid” issue was how Republican rhetoric “played into the trauma” of his community, spreading fear and disinformation that muddied the political waters for people going to the polls. 

“Not only Cubans, but Venezuelans and Nicaraguans alike all suffered, leaving their countries because of socialist regimes,” he said. This meant to Adderly that these communities already susceptible to anti-socialist messaging were exploited to gain votes.

But, for the Cuban-Americans who supported Biden, their family histories play an important role in how they viewed the 2020 election as well. 

Mercedes Aleida Hughes Terrill and Maggie Ramirez Malast, two sisters from Florida, said their family’s history escaping the Castro regime only strengthened their resolve to vote against a president who they said “doesn’t play by the rules.” 

Terrill and Malast are the daughters of first generation Cuban immigrants, refugees that fled the island to the U.S. to start a new life. Their grandfather, a prominent anti-socialist demonstrator on the island, was murdered during the overthrow of the Batista regime. While some of their family members remained trapped on the island, those that could escaped. 

In the following years, their family worked with the CIA to try and rescue people from the island. According to the sisters, their father transported refugees from the island for ten years following his escape, shipping in supplies for the elderly and disabled and shipping out those that were able to meet him at the shore. 

Terrill and Malast said they never believed the Trump campaign’s claims that Biden was a socialist, because they understood that socialism and socialist programs weren’t what led to the deaths of their family members, it was Fidel Castro and his communist regime that did that.  

“Donald Trump in the White House scares the shit out of me,” said Malast. “I don’t want somebody who will undermine the constitution, I don’t want somebody who’s not gonna follow the rules, who’s not going to respect my rights.” 

Terrill said the “concentration camps holding Hispanics” at the southern border, the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from Republicans and subverting the constitution were echoes from Cuban history. 

“It scares me because that reminds me of all the stories I’ve heard from my family,” said Terrill.

In particular, she said she was affected by the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward migrant families and refugee families throughout the presidency.

“The stigma he put on them, not accepting them into the United States, I thought: what’s the difference between them and what my family went through?” said Terrill. 

Now, as the post-election fighting unfolds and Trump refuses to concede, she said it’s clear  Trump is like the strongmen of Communist Cuba.

“I don’t trust this guy, because he’s a dictator at heart,” said Terrill.