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Trump’s immigration policies have already put lives at risk

By Washington Post editorial board

As printed in Washington Post on March 22nd.

In early March, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seemed to have not yet gotten the memo that a deadly virus was threatening the country. The deportation agency was mustering hundreds of additional special agents, normally busy with long-term investigations, to surge into so-called sanctuary cities and round up undocumented immigrants by the thousands. Operation Palladium, as it was called — Operation Pandemonium would have been more apt — was already terrifying migrants and forcing them deeper into the shadows. That was exactly the wrong thing to do as a deepening public health crisis gripped society.

Better late than never, the Trump administration has now backed off its ramped-up immigration crackdown. It remains unclear how many lives — of immigrants and native-born Americans alike — will have been risked in the meantime as a result of the administration’s scare tactics.

Those tactics have been embedded not only in sweeps through major cities but also in policy. The so-called public charge rule, imposed last year by the administration, discourages legal immigrants from seeking care at public hospitals and clinics, lest they be deemed a burden on society and, as a result, denied legal permanent residence when they apply for green cards. That was true even before anyone had heard the words novel coronavirus or covid-19.

An ICE field office director in Hawthorne, Calif., on March 1.

Similarly, many undocumented immigrants have been equally reluctant to seek health care, fearing that ICE agents will grab them when they do. The agency said it didn’t generally stake out medical facilities, but it didn’t forbid it either.

The anxieties and behaviors arising from those policies are baked into immigrant communities. Now the administration, mindful that they are antithetical to fighting a pandemic, is trying to unbake them.

Last Wednesday, ICE announced it would limit enforcement operations to detaining unauthorized migrants who are actual criminals or threats to society. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles green card applications for legal permanent residence, said last week that applicants might not be rejected on the basis of having sought free medical attention arising from the coronavirus crisis, if they could “provide an explanation and relevant supporting documentation.”

Will those announcements, buried in the avalanche of pandemic news and the fine print of government regulations, be too late to change migrants’ habits? Having scared the wits out of legal and undocumented immigrants for the past three years, can the administration now un-scare them — at least enough to seek medical care if they need it?

Those are pressing questions because immigrant and native-born communities are closely integrated in this country, even if the Trump administration has been loath to acknowledge it. As a public health matter, it is disastrous to erect policy barriers to impede any community’s access to care, because contagious diseases make no such distinctions. That is precisely what the administration has done.

It has long been President Trump’s contention that immigrants are vectors for disease. Until now, there has been little evidence for that. In the current circumstances, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if migrants, frightened by the administration’s relentlessly hostile policies, fail to seek the medical attention they need just as critically as their U.S.-born neighbors, colleagues and relatives.

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