Politics of Poverty

5 ways President Trump's xenophobic agenda has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Asylum seekers in November 2018 listen to a Mexican official at the Guatemala-Mexico border explain the procedures they will be asked to follow. Photo: Oxfam America/Elizabeth Stevens

The administration is using the coronavirus crisis to deny asylum seekers their rights and make generational changes to immigration policy.

Since his first few days in office, President Trump has launched a blistering series of attacks on fundamental American values of welcome, inclusion, and tolerance. But rather than scale back these efforts given the urgent need to combat the coronavirus crisis, the administration has accelerated many of its worst xenophobic policies.

That puts all of us at risk, ignoring the fundamental reality that none of us can be truly healthy unless everyone is.

Here are five of the most damaging attacks that the Trump administration is undertaking that Congress, and the American public, must urgently oppose.

1. Pushing a new immigration ban that scapegoats immigrants

President Trump’s new Executive Order restricting immigration is perhaps his most egregious attempt to use COVID-19 as an excuse to implement his radical xenophobic agenda.

Although the ban was first presented as a temporary response to the economic impact of the pandemic, it was quickly revealed to be a fundamental part of the administration’s long-term strategy to slash immigration to the US. This administration has a long track record of undermining worker’s rights, from efforts to eliminate protections around child labor to decimating new overtime protections. Most recently, it reduced reporting requirements around COVID illness and failed to provide clear guidance and enforcement during the pandemic. Instead, the administration is trying to force meat processing facilities to stay open over the health concerns of their workers.

The truth is that today's recent immigrants are working together with the children of yesterday’s immigrants on the front lines of the COVID-19 response. We will not allow this Executive Order to distract from the Trump administration’s dismal record on labor rights or its failure to respond to the pandemic.

2. Denying asylum seekers their legal rights at the US-Mexico Border

President Trump’s focus on the US-Mexico border has continued unabated. His claim that the wall is needed “more than ever” stands at odds with the reality that the US has the most Coronavirus cases in the world. Mexico and Central American countries are actually at risk of new infections from the US, not the other way around.

Rather than working to stop the spread from the US, the administration is doubling down on efforts to keep people statistically unlikely to carry the virus out of the US, including people fleeing violence and persecution. Turning away people seeking safety in the US violates the international legal principle of non-refoulement, which mandates that states cannot return people to a territory where they may face persecution.

There are no exceptions to this life-saving obligation to not force people back into harm’s way. As Oxfam has argued to the administration, testing, quarantining, and other measures can be used to enable the US to fulfill its obligations to both protect the health of the American people and protect people fleeing violence and persecution.

3. Excluding undocumented immigrants and their families from coronavirus relief

An estimated 11 million undocumented people live in communities across the US. They are the backbone of the economy, working in front line industries like agriculture and paying into systems such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid despite their inability to collect any of these benefits. Millions have US citizen children.

But Congress’ exclusion of undocumented people and their families has left millions less able to afford food, medicine, and health care. International law obligates states to respect the right to health of all people, regardless of migratory or other legal status. Oxfam is working to make sure that Congress does not make the same mistake in its next stimulus package, and in the interim, pushing state governments to offer relief.

4. Continuing immigration enforcement and unsafe detention

The administration has also undermined the well-being of immigrant communities through continued immigration raids and arrests. These actions spread fear, deterring people from leaving their homes to seek medical care.

Raids and arrests tear mothers and fathers away from their children and channel them into the administration’s massive and non-transparent immigration detention system. The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly revealed the inhumanity of the US detention system, imprisoning vulnerable people, violating their dignity and human rights, and putting at risk the health of both detained migrants and detention center workers. These facilities are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 due to well-documented substandard conditions, over-crowding, and poor and infrequent access to healthcare. This system is also costly and unnecessary especially given the existence of alternatives to detention which have a proven track record of success.

Oxfam is supporting new legislation from Senator Cory Booker, D-NJ and Representative Pramila Jayapal, D-WA, that would restrict immigration enforcement at and around sensitive locations and ensure the large-scale release of people from immigration detention—starting with the people most vulnerable to the virus.

5. Continuing deportations

Even as global air travel grinds to a halt, the Trump administration is continuing its deportation flights, sending people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus in immigration detention to countries ill-prepared to receive them.

This is particularly the case in Central America. In Honduras, an estimated 1.5 million residents don't have access to medicine, and hospitals lack the equipment and resources required. The medical infrastructure in Guatemala is also insufficient to respond to a crisis of this magnitude yet people deported from the US currently account for 20 percent of the country’s cases. The Trump administration should immediately stop deportations under the Asylum Cooperative Agreement to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in these countries.

Oxfam and our allies are not taking these attacks lying down. We are fighting on behalf of immigrants, asylum seekers, and others that this administration is targeting. Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents that they won’t accept this xenophobic agenda either.

Help us ensure Congress pushes back against this xenophobic agenda by including undocumented immigrants and their families in the next COVID-19 stimulus package.

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