(Photo by Nitish Meena via Unsplash)

By Pati Navalta

Since Day One of the Trump administration, Alida Garcia has had her hands full.

As the vice president of advocacy for FWD.us, a bipartisan immigration policy organization co-founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other tech and business leaders, she has been in constant crisis mode. From the Muslim ban, to calls for a border wall, to the administration’s efforts to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and H-1B programs, Garcia and other immigration advocates have challenged each new policy, effectively delaying some while continuing to challenge others.

And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Advocates now fear the president has used the pandemic to further his hard-line stance on immigration. Under the guise of public health, his administration has used arcane provisions of quarantine laws to justify their actions, while disregarding other laws that challenge them. Among the administration’s most controversial policies since COVID-19:

  • Presidential proclamation issued on April 22 temporarily suspending immigration into the United States, delaying green card applications, threatening H-1B visa workers, and paving the way for possible extensions and long-term changes in immigration policies beyond its 60-day mandate;
  • Exclusion of undocumented immigrants and their U.S. citizen children from the CARES Act, a $2 trillion federal relief package, leaving them more vulnerable to food insecurity, lack of health care, and resources needed to protect themselves from getting infected with or spreading COVID-19;
  • New border policy under the directive of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that orders the deportation of refugees and children at the border, violating asylum laws and procedures for unaccompanied children.

“We should be driven by public health standards,” Garcia said in a Race and Coronavirus podcast. “This administration has a record from the very first days of its existence that their entire apparatus is built on white nationalism, trying to stop new immigrants from coming to the United States and destabilize the lives of the immigrants here to push them out. These are the same policies that they actually tried to push in the Congress two years ago and failed at. They’re just putting them in this executive order.”

Garcia also fears the temporary suspension of immigration into the country will go beyond 60 days. “When you create these sort of 60-day pauses, what you’re essentially doing is giving yourself the opportunity to reauthorize something in 60 days,” she said.

“It’s not the job of an immigrant to save white people or citizens’ lives in order to justify their existence in the United States.”

– Alida Garcia, FWD.us, a bipartisan immigration policy organization

In his immigration proclamation, President Donald Trump cites unemployment rates brought on by the pandemic, stating “we must be mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in an environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor.” However, immigrants account for 17% of essential workers, and disproportionately make up those who have kept our food supply chain going. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 43% of farmworkers are foreign-born, while the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) says 51.5% of meatpacking workers are immigrants.

“Turning off the faucet of immigrant labor will have an adverse effect on an already struggling economy,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, co-founder of Define American and an undocumented immigrant. “Data shows that unemployment actually tends to be lower when immigration levels are at their highest. Undocumented immigrants typically take the jobs Americans don’t want.”

In addition, 15.7% of U.S. health care workers are immigrants, according to CEPR. And the Federation of State Medical Boards said that in 2018, 22.6% of this nation’s licensed physicians were immigrants.

Alida Garcia

Immigrants belong in this nation whether they are essential workers or not, Garcia, shown at right, said: “It’s not the job of an immigrant to save white people or citizens’ lives in order to justify their existence in the United States. Sure, people are heroes, but that should not be the deserving or determinative factor as to whether or not we should accept people into our society.”

The proclamation also refers to workers who have been disproportionately represented by disadvantaged groups, including African Americans and other minorities. If immigrants are given lawful permanent residence, it argues “there is no way to protect already disadvantaged and unemployed Americans from the threat of competition for scarce jobs from new lawful permanent residents by directing those new residents to particular economic sectors with a demonstrated need not met by the existing labor supply.”

Federal budget priorities, however, contradict the president’s commitment to protect the U.S. labor force.

According to a report issued by the Migration Policy Institute in May 2019, immigration enforcement agencies received $24 billion in 2018 through the federal budget, $4.4 billion more than in 2012. In comparison, labor standards enforcement across the federal government received $2.2 billion in 2012, and that amount has decreased since then. In 2018, the budget for labor standards enforcement was only $2 billion, according to an analysis by Daniel Costa with the Economic Policy Institute.

In the report, Costa concludes: “A comparative analysis of 2018 federal budget data reveals that detaining, deporting, and prosecuting migrants, and keeping them from entering the country, is the top law enforcement priority of the United States — but protecting workers in the U.S. labor market and ensuring that their workplaces are safe and that they get paid for every cent they earn is barely an afterthought.”

The pandemic has created an inconvenient truth for the administration that, on the one hand, is seeking to deport undocumented workers while, on the other, has deemed many of them as essential. These workers and their families have been hit especially hard during the pandemic, in large part because they and their families are not eligible for coronavirus relief from the federal government through the CARES Act. The HEROES Act, recently passed by the House, seeks to address this omission and provide retroactive pay to undocumented workers. The Senate, however, has declared the bill “dead on arrival.” Currently, California is the only state that is offering support to undocumented immigrants through a $125 million coronavirus disaster relief fund that was announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on May 18.

The new immigration policies also threaten more than 250,000 H-1B visa workers, who could lose their legal status by June. The non-immigrant visa allows U.S. companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. More than 85,000 immigrants get H-1B visas for skilled workers annually, including more than 1,000 visas each issued for workers at Google and Amazon, according to a report in Vox.

“Legal immigrants, a large chunk of whom are Asian, contribute billions of dollars a year to the economy and disproportionately fill science, technology and engineering jobs,” said Vargas. “Immigrants are behind more than half of American startups valued at $1 billion or more, and immigrant founders created an average of about 760 jobs per company in the United States.

“A lot of folks on H-1B visas have actually lived in the United States for an incredibly long period of time and are stuck in our broken system and green card backlog,” said Garcia.

Under this administration, non-immigrant visas were already facing a steady decline before the pandemic hit. According to the State Department, there were 8.7 million non-immigrant visas issued in 2019, marking a drop for the fourth consecutive year from 10.9 million in 2015. Last month, the department closed embassies and consulate operations “with little guidance to those who risk falling into illegal status,” according to Bloomberg News. And in-person services at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, have been suspended since March 18, and will not be open until June 4 at the earliest, according to the report. Naturalization ceremonies have largely been put on hold, raising questions about whether as many as 100,000 would-be citizens will be eligible to vote in November.

Perhaps the most egregious use of the pandemic to carry out the administration’s anti-immigration policies has been the deportation of refugees and children at the border, which began roughly one month ago under the directive of the CDC. According to the administration, more than 20,000 people have been deported under the order, including at least 400 children in just the first few weeks.

“They are using the CDC regulations to justify what they’re doing to children who are asylum-seekers showing up,” said Garcia. “The administration is using the pandemic to just deport those children, rather than take them into the Office of Refugee Resettlement and help them reunite with their families.”

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Lucas Guttenberg, former senior counselor at the Department of Homeland Security, and Dr. Stefano Bertozzi, dean emeritus of the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, write: “The administration has weaponized an arcane provision of a quarantine law first enacted in 1893 and revised in 1944 to order the blanket deportation of asylum-seekers and unaccompanied minors at the Mexican border without any testing or finding of disease or contagion. Legal rights to hearings, appeals, asylum screening and the child-specific procedures are all ignored.” The deportation policy, they argue, violates the legal right to apply for asylum and ignores special procedures for unaccompanied children.

“It’s really scary to see how they’re weaponizing the pandemic to dig into xenophobia and dig into Americans’ fears, because right now we’re scared to hug our own parents,” said Garcia. “They’re preying on our anxieties rather than understanding that if a child shows up at our doorstep, we don’t put that child on a plane and drop them off in another country.”

– Levi Sumagaysay contributed to this report.

Jose Antonio Vargas is the co-founder of Define American, a media advocacy organization.

In conversation with immigration rights advocate Jose Antonio Vargas 

By Pati Navalta

In addition to being an author, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and Emmy-nominated filmmaker, Jose Antonio Vargas is the co-founder of Define American, a media advocacy organization that seeks to shift the narrative surrounding immigrants, identity, and citizenship in America. We spoke with him about how he feels COVID-19 is doing just that: shifting the story of immigrants and immigration in America — and what he’s doing about it.

Q: What do you believe is the biggest danger this pandemic has posed to immigrants and immigration policies in the U.S.?

A: While some limitations on movement across borders may be necessary in the short term to mitigate the spread of the virus, it appears that the Trump administration plans to use this crisis to accomplish his anti-immigration goals writ large. The ban on immigration that Trump announced is disastrous for asylum seekers, families trying to reunite, and businesses who need high-skilled workers from abroad. I also worry about the current administration’s tendency to use the pandemic to justify insularity and isolationism.

Q: Has Define American had to pivot its efforts and priorities since the pandemic hit? If so, how?

A: Yes. We crafted a three-tiered strategy to make Define American relevant in the COVID-19 era:

  1. Centering the immigrant experience and highlighting the resilience of immigrants during this pandemic. We launched a #DearAmericanCitizens video series.
  2. Fighting racism on all fronts and bridging communities together. There is no us vs. them in a pandemic. We held a virtual Black and Gold Forum to discuss ways to create solidarity between black and Asian American communities. We launched a video series, “In This Together,” that highlights stories of people from across the nation stepping up to help their neighbors and friends in this time of need.
  3. Practicing your citizenship means helping out your immigrant neighbors. We hosted a digital graduation for immigrant students and students from immigrant families on May 23, featuring a surprise message from Selena Gomez.

Q: We see the most vulnerable among us, many of whom are immigrants and people of color, being disproportionately impacted by this crisis. As cities, counties and states begin the process of reopening, what can we do to help ensure these communities are not left behind yet again?

A: It’s particularly important to reach out directly to immigrant communities to explicitly say that they will be safe if they come forward and seek medical care. As long as the government continues to put families in detention, pursue criminal prosecutions, and limit the availability of basic benefits, it’s going to be difficult for immigrant communities to believe that the government has their best interests in mind, even in this time of community crisis. Cities and states can also step in to make sure that all residents, including undocumented and documented immigrants, have access to a safety net during what could be quite an extreme economic recession. Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for the emergency funds made available in the most recent recovery act, but it is even worse than that. If there’s a single person in a family unit that doesn’t have a Social Security number, then that entire family is ineligible for the relief funds. So what that means is that you could have a family with one documented parent, one undocumented parent, and three children who are American citizens and none of them will be able to access those benefits. We can fix that in the next recovery act or on a state or local level via executive order.

Q: How is Define American working with communities or organizations to raise awareness about resources available to them during the pandemic?

A: For our Black and Gold Forum, we brought on five co-hosts (Coalition of Asian Pacifics, Color of Change, MACRO, Gold House, UTA Foundation) with deep ties to both target communities and the entertainment industry at large. Also, we launched our 2020 Artist Fellowship cohort with four new immigrant artists on May 8. The fellows will attend virtual training with Define American staff and outside entities to gain insights into our work and build skills. The 2020 goal for the arts fellowship is that they will work with local organizations in their communities on a capstone project.

Q: What have you seen when it comes to small businesses owned by immigrants and/or people of color?

A: Immigrant small business owners were left behind by the (Paycheck Protection Program) PPP. IRS forms in particular, which are a crucial and obligatory part of the application for every lender, are made for professional accountants, not genuine small business owners. Terms and terminology are difficult even if you are a native English speaker. If you are not one, they are nearly impossible. The IRS does offer forms in a few languages, but not all lenders are equipped to process such forms with expediency, which means the default language is inevitably English. Amplifying this issue is the fact that immigrants become entrepreneurs and small business owners at almost four times the rate of native-born Americans. This means that per capita, immigrants are much more likely to deal with PPP applications issues than native-born Americans. Furthermore, the types of business that immigrants own — gas stations, dry cleaners, nail salons, hotels and motels, and specialty food stores — have been particularly hard hit by the shutdown. Therefore, in many ways the PPP excluded immigrants almost by design, and resultantly, the COVID-19 lockdown poses a much larger threat to the livelihood of immigrants than it does to native-born Americans.

Q: Many people who are deemed an “essential worker” are also deemed “illegal.” Do you think this lays bare the need to create a pathway to citizenship, or do you think there will be backlash against them?

A: While it lays bare the need to create a pathway to citizenship, I think feelings remain the same. America still wants it both ways. It wants to be fed. And it wants to demonize the undocumented immigrants who make that happen. About two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) say the federal government has a responsibility to provide medical care to undocumented immigrants who are ill with the coronavirus, even as relatively few (37%) say the government should offer economic help to undocumented immigrants who have lost their job due to the outbreak, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted April 29 to May 5.

Q: What’s next for Define American?

A: I cannot think of a more important question than how do you define American? We will continue our work in the media and culture space, connecting the dots between immigration, race and identity. This global pandemic has added even more urgency to what we do.

We recommend

‘Homeland Insecurity,’ a new podcast from RAICES

By Levi Sumagaysay

A woman who, at age 11, came to the United States from Mexico with her mom and siblings to escape her abusive father, explores how she “became the enemy” in a new podcast series called “Homeland Insecurity,” which makes its debut today.

“It never occurred to me that someday I would be lumped in with the terrorists,” said Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer for RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), in Episode 1.

In the first four episodes of the podcast, Andiola takes listeners on a fascinating tour of how the 9/11 terrorist attacks led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, whose mandate shifted from preventing terrorist attacks to immigration enforcement. The episodes include her compelling story as well as glimpses into the lives of a couple of other undocumented immigrants, plus how the political response to terrorism under both the Bush and Obama administrations became a boon to for-profit prison companies that pivoted to building immigrant detention centers. The history lesson makes clear how immigrants and asylum-seekers came to be treated like criminals by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the biggest agency under DHS.

“We went out and recruited Rambo, when what we … needed was Mother Teresa,” said journalist Garrett Graff in Episode 2.

The last four episodes, which are scheduled to come out this summer, will focus on family detention during President Barack Obama’s administration; two different immigrant stories that illustrate how arbitrary enforcement can be; immigration in the Donald Trump era; and how COVID-19 is affecting immigration policy.

The podcast is on Apple, Google, Spotify and wherever you listen to podcasts.

Coming up

We examine media coverage of the coronavirus crisis and its effect on minorities and immigrants, including in a podcast with Dion Lim, a TV news anchor in the Bay Area.

* This story was originally published by Race and Coronavirus (raceandcoronavirus.com), a newsletter and podcast dedicated to covering issues related to the intersection of race and the global pandemic. Please contact editors@raceandcoronavirus.com for more information.