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The Trump Administration has Used COVID-19 to Realize its Longstanding Anti-Immigration Agenda

Published in IFD Newsletter Vol.1-Issue3. The second issue of ToFD comes from BU Kilachand Honors College Director and IFD co-founder, Dr. Carrie Preston.

Through a summary of the Trump administration's immigration policy-making pre- and mid-pandemic, Dr. Preston highlights the denial in the existence of the pandemic while simultaneously using it as a tool to further regressive policies and the implications for the incoming administration.


Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration of US President Donald Trump had been working to limit migration and asylum procedures and to present migrants as carriers of disease and burdens on the nation’s health system. On December 11, 2018, Trump tweeted that migrants bring “large scale crime and disease.” By January 25, 2019 the administration had installed the “Remain in Mexico” program (Migrant Protection Protocols) to send non-Mexican asylum seekers back to Mexico to await judgement on their claims – creating a devastating but underreported humanitarian disaster in Mexican border cities. Far more international outcry was raised against the administration’s “Zero Tolerance Policy” which separated more than 4,000 children from their parents, with hundreds still not reunited a year after the brutal practice was stopped. Other continuing policies have a detrimental impact on the health of families. The administration published the so-called “Public Charge” rule in August of 2019 that could prevent immigrants from becoming permanent residents if they have ever used some public benefits. The rule bolsters the widespread belief that migrants are a drain on the US health care system and contribute to its exorbitant cost. Yet there is evidence that because immigrants spend much less than native born citizens on health care, they actually subsidize care for others when they are in an insurance pool. Even some who believe that immigrants are a net drain on the U.S. health care system concede that immigrants are a benefit for Medicare.

This was all before the COVID-19 pandemic. In the name of public health, the Trump administration has now shut down asylum proceedings and is turning back all migrants at the US southern border with Mexico, citing a Title 42 ruling from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) designed to “mitigate the serious and increased danger of higher introduction of COVID-19 in the United States.” Nearly 200,000 people have been deported under “Title 42” since March according to government data, resulting in undesignated refugee camps across the southwest border of the U.S. Being undesignated, the camps receive no formal support from the UNHCR, and asylum seekers live in deplorable conditions. Trump has also suspended new immigrant visas and some guest worker programs for the stated purpose of “protect[ing] American workers” and “ensur[ing] we help Americans regain their jobs and livelihoods” after the pandemic. Of course, there is little evidence that immigrants take jobs from Americans and plenty that guest workers boost the economy and could be crucial parts of the post-pandemic recovery.

The Trump administration worked to connect COVID-19 to migration through xenophobic and racist rhetoric; Trump regularly refers to the “Chinese Virus” and other racist terms, suggesting that migration brought COVID to the US. Even as the Trump administration has downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic, it has ironically used it to create devastating suffering for migrants and asylum seekers. Trump certainly did not invent COVID-19, but he could not have imagined a more useful tool to achieve his anti-immigration and anti-asylum agendas than the pandemic. The Biden-Harris administration must work quickly to reverse Trump’s anti-immigration policies and resolve the humanitarian crises at the border, even as it will face tremendous challenges just to process the backlog of asylum applications. There is no quick fix, so we must seize this moment to completely overhaul U.S. immigration, asylum, and resettlement policies.


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