As immigration reform inches forward, nativist politicians falsely blame immigrants for COVID-19

Thom Tillis inundates Senate budget resolution with anti-immigrant amendments

Immigration took center stage again last week in Washington as U.S. Senate Democrats included funding for a proposed path to citizenship for many immigrants in the budget resolution that won approval. Unfortunately, during the process in which the legislation was developed, North Carolina’s Senator Thom Tillis proposed nearly 300 amendments, the great majority of which featured anti-immigrant measures.

Tillis’s proposed amendments included several jaw-dropping proposals, including one that would have required the “mandatory detention” of every undocumented immigrant in the U.S. — a proposal that would manage to be astronomically expensive, constitutionally suspect, and incredibly inhumane at the same time.

Not surprisingly, Tillis was far from the only politician of the right to stake out an anti-immigrant stance last week. At the same time that the Senate was grappling with the most serious effort at moving immigration reform forward that we’ve seen in years, several politicians around the country mouthed a sadly familiar talking point regarding the COVID-19 crisis: blame the immigrants.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and many others joined the chorus of those blaming immigrants, especially those crossing the southern border, for rising COVID case numbers. Never mind that both Abbott and DeSantis have stridently opposed mask mandates — a common sense public health intervention that is almost universally agreed to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

Senator Tillis was an early adopter of the “Hispanics are to blame for COVID” theory, although perhaps ironically in light of his Republican colleagues’ opposition to mask mandates, he cited “less consistent adherence to social distancing and wearing a mask” in support of his allegations.

Blaming immigrants for spreading disease is a well-worn trope in nativist politics, going back to the nineteenth century or before. Nativists have consistently spread the false message that immigrants are unclean, unsanitary, unhealthy, and a safety risk to Americans. That rhetoric made its way into the earliest immigration laws that our nation passed; for example, the Immigration Act of 1891 banned immigrants “suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease” from being admitted to the United States. Variations on that theme have been consistent throughout all of immigration law since, and aspiring immigrants today are still subjected to medical exams and health requirements.

Ensuring the public health of all residents of the United States, whether immigrant or native born, is certainly a laudable goal. But Congress can’t be serious about the public health threat that many of them claim immigrants pose while at the same time widely denying those same people the access to health care that citizens enjoy. Even legally-present immigrants, including green card holders who have followed every rule and entered the country lawfully, face huge hurdles when it comes to qualifying for health insurance in the U.S. Most (but not all) green card holders in the U.S. are not even eligible for Medicaid for the first five years they are in green card status, a legacy of harsh immigration laws passed with bipartisan support in the 1990s.

Although, thankfully, immigrants with or without status can get testing, treatment and vaccines for COVID-19, and are eligible for treatment for a number of other serious communicable diseases, they still don’t have the parity in full health care access that citizens have, even when they are here with valid immigration status. Many of them fill roles as essential workers in food production, health care, and retail and have kept working in-person throughout the pandemic.

The bottom line: Politicians who are truly serious about combating health threats in the immigrant community should support the HEAL for Immigrant Families Act, which would remove arbitrary time limits on access to care, and also allow legally-present immigrants such as TPS and DACA holders to access the Affordable Care Act. Rather than focusing energy on blaming immigrants and advancing measures that further harm immigrant communities, elected leaders should support access to universal care that promotes the well-being of both citizen and immigrant residents alike and keeps our entire community healthy.

Kate Woomer-Deters is a senior attorney in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.

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