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  • Mannat Mehta

COVID and the Marginalization of Immigrants within the United States



On October 22nd, I, along with much of the United States of America, sat down with my family to watch the second and final Presidential Debate. Around the 50th minute Moderator Kristen Welker asked the first and only question about immigration and the two candidates spent about 10 minutes discussing their failed immigration policies. These 10 minutes were the only time the topic of immigration had been mentioned in the 2020 presidential debates, and as someone who watched the 2016 debates with the keen eye of a freshly-declared political science major who also happened to be a new immigrant to this country, the difference was striking to me. What was once a focal point of the candidates’ agendas, has now been overshadowed by growing concerns for the coronavirus (COVID) pandemic.


Contrastingly, while immigration policy may have taken a backseat in this election, the COVID pandemic coupled with the response by the federal government has led to unprecedented levels of uncertainty for U.S. immigration systems. As a result, immigrants are facing extreme marginalization; their livelihoods and proximity to their families and communities having already been threatened by the pandemic, immigration policies have only furthered this threat. Having been seperated from my own family members due to these policies, I can recognize the extreme circumstances other immigrants are facing due to COVID.


The United Nations Women Publication, Inclusive Systemic Evaluation for Gender, Environments and Marginalised Voices (ISE4GEMs), defines marginalization as ‘groups of people and their attributes... pushed to the margins of society and assigned lesser importance, discriminated against or excluded.’ As a response to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, ISE4GEMs encourages the systemic analysis of the marginalization of vulnerable social groups (e.g. women, immigrants, indigineous), identified by local stakeholders, and the rapid environmental changes as the key contextual factors that are affecting progress towards sustainable development.

The policies enacted by the United States government during this time along with the virus itself have pushed immigrants further to the margins of society, while excluding them from possible relief. As immigration in itself is an incredibly complex system with countless components, the umbrella term ‘immigrant’ encompasses a diverse range of individuals who have been marginalized in different contexts, many of whom I will discuss in this blog.


Immigrant workers are disproportionately affected and lack access to safety-net benefits


Immigrants represent a large majority of essential workers in the fight against the pandemic. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates six million immigrants are working in frontline occupations, such as health care, food production, and transportation, and are overrepresented in certain critical occupations, such as doctors and home health aides, where they are at higher risk of exposure.

These immigrants are also some of the hardest hit populations of the pandemic’s economic fallout and often do not have access to conventional safety-nets provided by the government, such as employment insurance or supplemental nutrition. According to a research report from the Urban Institute’s Health Reform Monitoring Survey of nonelderly adults conducted between March 25 and April 10, 2020, Hispanic adults in families with noncitizens have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Specifically, over two-thirds (69%) of Hispanic adults in families with noncitizens reported losing work or income compared to 38% non-Hispanic White and 41% non-Hispanic Black adults. Research from California further shows that those at the intersection, women who are non-citizens, have experienced the highest rates of job loss, nearly one in three compared to one in four for all non-citizens reported.


Additionally, immigrant-majority neighborhoods with higher shares of non-citizen Hispanic and Black residents, have been disproportionately affected by COVID. This may be due to living in close quarters, as neighborhoods such as the Bronx, which has an immigrant majority population, with high quintiles of per capita infections have notably higher overcrowded renters, which is defined as the share of renter households with more than 1 person per room. Furthermore, Hispanic and Black workers are much less likely to be able to telework, with only 16.2% of Hispanic workers and 19.7% of Black workers being able to do so. Another reason for high infection rates is a lack of accessible and affordable healthcare, including early diagnosis and monitoring that is critical to optimize COVID survival and prevent community transmission.


Despite being on the frontlines in the fight against COVID, and having higher vulnerability to the disease, MPI analysis shows that noncitizens make up around 27% of the total U.S. uninsured population due to lack of coverage from their informal sector employers, as well as ineligibility for public coverage because of their immigration status. Immigrants also often do not qualify for programs such as unemployment benefits, grants for low-income families with children, or food stamps, including the 42% of those interviewed for this study that are undocumented, which refers to anyone residing in the US without legal documentation.


Immigrants often avoid noncash public support (for example, the federal healthcare program Medicaid, and public housing) that might help them meet their family’s needs due to it endangering future United States ‘green card’ applications, formally known as Permanent Residency. This comes in the face of the government implementing a public charge rule that allows green card applicants to be denied for past use government benefit programs. The fear created by this rule is something I have faced personally, my own family has avoided utilizing government benefits despite being eligible due to green card implications. The Urban Institute’s 2019 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS) shows that 31% of immigrant families went into the COVID pandemic with a fear of applying for government benefits including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and housing subsidies.


Thus immigrants, who currently make up some of the largest essential worker, high-risk and economically vulnerable populations also have the least access to public support programs in the United States. This creates concerns for their food security and lack of healthcare as well as their overall wellbeing during this pandemic. As stated by Louise McCarthy, president of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles, “immigrants face a very tough choice during this crisis: risk exposure or risk homelessness.”


Immigration policy leaves hundreds of thousands in limbo


Another consideration highlighted by ISE4GEMs is the ‘environments’ which can equally shine light on bio-diversity preservation as well as a contextual environments such as ‘U.S. Immigration Policy Shifts’. Along with the economic and health detriments being faced by immigrants due to the pandemic, immigration policies during this time have further endangered their welfare. In June 2020, a White House Executive Order was passed suspending the issuing of certain immigrant and non-immigrant visas, including H-1B visas, until at least the end of this year. The H-1B program allows companies in the U.S. to employ highly specialized foreign workers, which make up over 500,000 of the United States population. The order comes at a time when these workers, who are already separated from their families for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic, are now at risk of losing their livelihood, which would be detrimental to the U.S. economy as well.


Critics of these new immigration policies have raised concerns that the government is using the pandemic as a guise for immigration overhaul, further isolating immigrant populations. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce called this move a “severe and sweeping attempt to restrict legal immigration,” one that could severely hurt the country’s economic recovery amid the pandemic. Furthermore, many leaders in the tech sector have argued that the lack of H1-B talent will harm the economy more than it will do good, as Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda stated, “we need that talent to help contribute to America’s economic recovery”. There are also concerns regarding medical talent brought to the country on H1-B visas who are needed for coronavirus efforts. The Associate vice-president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities stated, ‘“The bottom line is that suspending processing for H-1B visas is going to have an impact on American research and American innovation and America’s ability to train and teach its scientific workforce pipeline.”


While the immigration order stands to hurt the country’s economic recovery, it further marginalizes a population that contributes disproportionately high amounts of talent to fields such as tech, finance, and medicine in comparison to their overall population. The policy further stands to separate current immigrant workers from their family members who are now unable to apply for visas, many of whom are young professionals with children.


The power of bringing immigrant voices to the table


The June 2020 White House Executive Order was one of many immigration policies introduced during the pandemic that affected the welfare of workers, refugees, asylum seekers and many more, including a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Federal agency (ICE) press release which threatened the deportation of international students whose universities were implementing online instruction this upcoming semester. The proposed policy had the ability to impact over 1 million international students in the United States, who contribute around $45 billion to the U.S. economy annually.


This announcement came in the wake of many schools, including Ivy Leagues such as Harvard and Princeton, having announced that their fall terms will be mostly online, if not completely, to ensure the health and safety of their students and staff. The ICE policy effectively left universities having to choose between losing international students and the estimated $3 billion they contribute to universities annually or open their on-campus classrooms regardless of the health and safety concerns. Furthermore, the ICE policy led to extreme outrage on behalf of international students, universities and their advocates. For many of them, returning to their home countries to participate in online instruction is impossible, impracticable, prohibitively expensive, and/or dangerous. “ICE’s policies and actions during a global pandemic have really shown that they don’t prioritize so called ‘cross-border crime and illegal immigration,’ stated International student Terrence Dai, who is pursuing a PhD from the University of Washington Seattle, “they only care about the administration’s anti-immigration and xenophobic agenda as they manifest that, at any time, they are willing to completely disregard people’s feelings and lives if it means policy convenience.” Possible deportation as early as the fall also suggests many of these students would be forced to travel internationally during a time when COVID risks harm to their health as well as to others that might be exposed.


Having graduated as an international student earlier this year, I narrowly escaped the effects of this destructive policy myself. I share the reality of many immigrants: the United States is now my home, and having to leave despite almost the entirety of my family now being here, during a time where traveling puts mine and those around me at risk, while still holding a valid visa, is unimaginable and frightening.


As international student voices were heard, leaders protested, and petitions were signed, universities advocated for these immigrants through a lawsuit against the United States administration. Led by Harvard and MIT, and backed by over 200 public and private institutions of higher education - including all seven other members of the Ivy League - the lawsuit effectively caused ICE to reverse its proposal and allow international students to continue to pursue their education without the threat of deportation.


ISE4GEMs advocates for the inclusion of stakeholders who represent human and nonhuman voices that cannot speak for themselves to be involved in decision-making processes as they are affected by the decisions being made. The victory for international students shows the importance and strength of immigrant voices when included in conversations, a population that is often ignored yet greatly impacted by the policy in this country. Using the ISE4GEMs approach would mean identifying, hearing and gaining insight from the perspective of all people, including the immigrant population in order to broaden the very boundaries that have led to the marginalization of immigrants during the coronavirus pandemic in the first place.

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