Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government’s response to the crisis (or, in some cases, lack thereof) has punctuated cultural, social and political inequities across all communities.
Public education, income disparity and employment, housing retention and immigration are chief among the ongoing public entities that have been rocked by governmental unpreparedness throughout the crisis, which was formally categorized as a pandemic in April.
In the case of legal immigration — President Donald Trump’s political white whale — the plot thickens. Earlier this year, the administration made good on its promise to expand the definition of and enforce the public charge rule to tighten up legal immigration.
In the 18th installment of its “Tracking the Pandemic” series, Ethnic Media Services hosted a briefing on Friday, Aug. 7 detailing how the existing conundrums in American immigration and how the pandemic has boosted Trump’s immigration agenda.
The public charge rule, for instance, accentuated the administration’s pattern of utilizing archaic immigration laws and mandates that are technically legal but were rarely utilized by administrations past.
The public charge rule is a set of criteria the government uses to determine whether or not an incoming immigrant will rely on public assistance, as reported in the Asian Journal. The rule takes into account the size of one’s family, income, English proficiency and other determinants that could deem someone a public charge.
The implementation of the public charge rule is a “great example of this administration diving into laws on the books and finding things that have never been enforced before,” Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI), told reporters.
Pierce shared a recent MPI report that shows the increasing enforcement of existing and new immigration policies and found that in the last four years, the Trump Administration has made 400 policy changes that have greatly eroded immigrants’ rights. Sixty-three of those changes were imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the administration reasoning public health and safety concerns.
Another crucial change that the Trump administration levied into its immigration policy was enforcing a 1944 rule that allows the Surgeon General to restrict certain individuals who may be considered a public health threat from entering into the U.S. In March the CDC used that rule to ban foreign nationals without proper travel documents.
Though the pandemic is the administration’s key motive to these restrictions, they have altered the flow of immigration “disfavoring women, the elderly and nationals in Central America,” Pierce added.
“The really broad changes that have been implemented by the administration would include closing off humanitarian benefits, sealing the southern border and making life in the interior really uncomfortable for immigrants, both legal and authorized, inside the United States,” Pierce shared.
In addition to the CDC order in March, Pierce noted two other major proclamations made during the pandemic that accelerated the administration’s endgame to drastically tighten, not just illegal entry, but legal immigration channels, as well: the April 22 proclamation that restricted permanent immigration channels and the June 22 announcement that restricted temporary workers (excluding essential workers).
The April 22 proclamation put a temporary ban on such programs like family-based petitioning — a favored option among Asian immigrants, especially Filipinos — and the diversity visa lottery.
These were among the longstanding goals of the administration since Trump was first elected, and the pandemic provided an open window for enforcement.
The election in November has been a beacon of hope for Americans seeking to oust Trump and, hopefully, reverse the rigid policies his administration has put in place through new leadership under former Vice President Joe Biden. But Pierce noted that any Democratic administration (whether it’s a Biden administration or beyond) may have a difficult time rolling back some of Trump’s policies.
Though Democrats are broadly pro-immigrant rights, the lack of cohesive vision and their failure to put forth a clear image of immigration among party members may not effectively reverse Trump-era policy.
“Democrats have not been very active or interested in acting on immigration,” Pierce said, citing congressional Democrats’ disorderly management on the immigration platform. “They haven’t really put forward a vision for what the immigration system should look like, so there’s just a lack of willingness there to undo each of these changes, I think.”
In regards to business immigration — which largely attracts immigrants from Asia — during the pandemic, the Trump administration cited rising unemployment levels in its June 22 temporary ban of workers entering the U.S. This ban affected visa categories including H-1B for workers and their spouses; H-2B visas for non-agricultural workers; J visas for foreign students and L visas for intra-company transfers.
On Aug. 3, the administration doubled down on that proclamation and barred the federal government from employing H-1B workers, of which under 2,000 are currently federal employees.
Unemployment rates have doubled over the last few months, but one field that has not suffered as greatly is the STEM field of which companies employed skilled workers via the H-1B visa program. This includes the vast community of Asian and South Asian H-1B workers in the telecommunications industry.
Gutting the H1-B program, even temporarily, could dramatically exacerbate the tech landscape, including the digital divide, said Kalpana Peddibhotla, an attorney who formerly served as the co-chair of the South Asian Bar Association who said that “the proclamations post-COVID-19 are essentially a sledgehammer to business immigration.”
“These are critical workers and these are the workers that are allowing us to have the Zoom call right now,” Peddibhotla said. “They’re the ones that we need to allow us to get back on our feet and be able to work remotely and provide the technologies we all need.”
Peddibhotla pointed out the severity of these proclamations in families’ goals to reunite.
Despite the “economic justifications,” the family preference categories that have now been altered in a COVID-19 world disfavor immigrants who wouldn’t even be threats to the American economy and the job market, she said.
“They were our aging parents, the siblings of US citizens who waited decades; if you’re from the Philippines they waited at least 20 years. They’re not direct competitors by any measure in the U.S. job market right now,” the attorney mentioned. “The overall ripple effect is that there’s actually job creation and our economy does better with immigrants.”
Among the revelations that the pandemic has illuminated, the importance of essential workers was made clear when Americans everywhere realized that daily life has been upended in a huge way.
Among those essential workers are agriculture workers, but they have largely been overshadowed by the administration’s efforts to provide financial support. They were denied the one-time $1,200 stimulus checks distributed in April and are ineligible for federal unemployment support.
Hurdles for dreamers
Moreover, recipients and advocates of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — who, in June, celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling that Trump’s effort to strike down the program was unconstitutional — found yet another roadblock in the fight to provide benefits and protections for undocumented youth.
In July, Trump quietly signed an executive order that allowed no new applicants and shortened the renewal length from two years to one year. The filing fee of $495 would now be a yearly payment, which Ignacia Rodriguez Kmec, an immigration policy advocate with the National Immigration Law Center, said adds to the mounting economic hardships immigrant families face.
“At a time when many are facing unprecedented financial hardship, this additional fee could hinder eligible individuals from applying, putting at risk their employment authorization and protection from deportation in the middle of a health and economic crisis. All these things add up to make life as difficult as possible for these immigrants trying to navigate an already complex system,” she said.
Advocates like Kmec urge Congress to step up and provide relief and protections to all undocumented immigrants, especially DACA recipients. (Klarize Medenilla/AJPress)