In recent years, US Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s brutal onslaught against undocumented workers has sparked waves of outrage and protests across the US. But as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc in society and the economy, ICE is sparing no effort to maintain and even escalate repression against migrants—actively undermining efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus in the name of “homeland security.”
Since February, ICE had been ramping up surveillance, particularly in so-called sanctuary cities, deploying hundreds of officers to “arrest as many undocumented immigrants as possible.” The directive called for agents to “flood the streets” of major US metropolitan areas. In spite of the global pandemic, ICE raids continued to surge in some of the cities hardest hit by the virus.
On the day after California instituted a shelter-in-place order, ICE agents carried on with their daily routines, arresting suspects on their way to work or buying groceries for their families. Even though they did bring gloves and masks in their trunks—“just in case”—everything was business as usual. The officers went door to door, interrogating people and searching through homes, and those arrested shared seats in the back of ICE vehicles. In Denver, parents were arrested on their way to pick up their children. Later, they would be sent to a private detention center which had already placed several detainees in quarantine for suspected exposure to the novel coronavirus.
Legal and public health experts already expressed concerns that the immigrant population would be a particularly at-risk demographic. Medical costs and precarious working conditions already keep citizens from seeking medical care—but this is accentuated among the immigrants. For the vast majority, “calling in sick” is not an option, as that would mean losing their jobs and much-needed income to pay for food and shelter.
The government’s much-awaited individual “stimulus checks” won’t apply to over 11 million undocumented residents—the majority of whom are dramatically underinsured or have no health insurance at all. In addition, many fear that going to the hospital will hurt their chances at becoming legal permanent residents—especially after Trump instituted a “public charge” rule making immigrants ineligible for residency if they rely on government benefits or are deemed likely to use them in the future.
And if that weren’t enough, it has become common practice for ICE to harass and arrest immigrants at healthcare facilities. Last month, ICE agents tasered and shot the son of a suspected undocumented immigrant in front of the family’s Brooklyn home. They proceeded to follow the family to the emergency room and eventually arrested the 33-year-old construction worker. And in the middle of the COVID-19 outbreak, an arrest was made at an emergency room in Scranton, PA.
Under pressure from the public, ICE announced on March 18 that it would begin to scale back operations, targeting only those who “pose a public safety risk and committed serious crimes,” and that it wouldn’t carry out arrests at hospitals. But the language is purposefully vague, leaving room for the acting deputy secretary of the DHS to quickly come out with a “reassuring” Tweet: “That does not mean that no other removable aliens will in fact be removed.”
Up until March 17, while many state and federal courts suspended their proceedings, all immigrant courts stayed open, with crowded hearings and waiting rooms. Facing backlash, the Trump administration has since postponed all Migrant Protection Protocol proceedings. This applies to asylum seekers in Mexico through the “Remain in Mexico” program—a policy implemented last year that allows the government to send asylum seekers back to border cities in Mexico to await court hearings. But, in spite of growing outrage among judges, lawyers, and even prosecutors, hearings for detained immigrants and asylum seekers in the US are still continuing. Many immigration courts remain open—including one in NYC that had a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Particularly harrowing is the situation faced by over 50,000 immigrants in detention centers across the country, as well as on the other side of the border. Experts warn of a “tinderbox scenario” as the centers could become hotbeds for the deadly virus due to overcrowding and a lack of basic hygiene and medical attention. It’s been reported that at some centers many are unable to shower for days, and have very limited access to soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, proper food, or medicine. All the measures that can help slow the spread of the virus—social distancing, frequently washing hands, sanitizing frequently touched surfaces, and overall attention to personal hygiene—are not an option for migrants in these prisons.
Based on precedent, there is little doubt that detainees will be neglected, left to suffer and die of disease when the pandemic spreads inside the prisons. ICE has struggled to contain other preventable infectious diseases in the past. In the last two years, a record number of children and adults have died in ICE custody. Families in custody are not provided with flu vaccines, which caused a number of child deaths this flu season. Just last summer, over 5,000 detainees were quarantined due to outbreaks of mumps, flu, chickenpox, and tuberculosis. Last December, the CDC described DHS’s medical infrastructure as “not sufficient to assure rapid and adequate infection control measures.”
Already, five ICE staff members and six inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at different facilities—and many others are being quarantined due to suspected exposure. Given the lack of transparency of ICE operations—not to mention a lack of testing kits—we can assume that widespread contagion is well underway. Coincidentally, the first positive case for ICE came from one of its many facilities with rampant health code violations. Department of Homeland Security inspectors had found, among other things, open packages of raw meat with leaking blood, slimy and foul-smelling lunches, mold-plastered bathrooms, and non-functioning toilets.
While ICE claims it has taken necessary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, reports from inmates reveal that officials have done very little to improve sanitary conditions. Some are still sleeping in bunk beds just three feet apart, are forced to go three days at a time without soap, and gloves and masks have not been made available in any of the centers. Medical personnel at one Massachusetts detention facility provoked widespread panic when they bluntly told detainees that it would be “inevitable” for the jail’s entire population to contract coronavirus within 30 days.
Faced with this total disregard for their lives, many have made desperate attempts at organizing to protect themselves from contagion. Inmates in private detention centers across the country have launched hunger strikes. Detainees at several detention centers in Texas and Louisiana have staged protests—to which officials responded by pepper spraying and locking up detainees who had “become confrontational.” Over 50 at a Massachusetts jail signed a letter demanding the release of most detainees, particularly those with underlying health conditions. They are also demanding release on bond or even deportation to their home countries, so at least they’d be “able to see their families before [they] die.”
The vast majority of detained migrants have committed no crime other than “illegally” crossing the border or legally seeking asylum as they flee from the poverty and violence which imperialism has wreaked on their home countries. These working-class families—the class brothers and sisters of workers born on this side of the border—play a crucial role in the US capitalist economy, only to be persecuted and criminalized by the bourgeois state. At a time when big events are dramatically accelerating the development of class consciousness—with workers organizing and striking around the world—the ruling class is relying more heavily on its cynical efforts to “divide and rule,” scapegoating immigrants and blaming them for the spread of the virus.
Trump began framing his response to the pandemic with the blatantly xenophobic rhetoric of a “foreign virus.” He has gone on a nationalist Twitter rampage, calling to shut down all borders and pushing to build the US-Mexico border wall. Even though the US COVID-19 cases surpass those in Mexico by orders of magnitude, the southern border is being shut down and asylum seekers will be turned away without due process. But there are notable exceptions: restrictions won’t apply to trade or workers involved in “essential work.” In other words, if it serves the needs of capitalist profits, then border restrictions do not apply.
The inept response of the capitalists and their state to the pandemic has revealed that the bourgeois fear the possible disruption to trade and the economy more than the virus and the danger it poses to millions of lives. They rely on immigration as a stream of cheap labor to exploit, and the effects of the coronavirus blockades are beginning to disrupt their arrangements.
The capitalists of the agricultural sector in particular rely on hundreds of thousands of seasonal workers that cross the border each year to work in their fields. Thanks to increased border repression, as well as delays in visa processing due to the closure of embassies in Mexico, some companies are faced with a loss of up to 50% of their labor pool. The executive vice president of the Florida Tomato Exchange is worried that, despite the millions of layoffs from other sectors, they won’t be able to replace the lost supply of cheap labor because it is not work that “domestic workers are willing to do.” This will lead to a decrease in production and, of course, a big increase in food prices for all workers.
This highlights the contradictory, double-edged sword of the capitalists’ policy of exploitation and repression. In order to maintain their profits, they require a workforce that they can subject to the most miserable conditions, often in circumstances that are more bonded labor than wage labor. In order to keep their workforce desperate and vulnerable, they rely on the state’s regime of terror, and the constant threat of a repressive body that can separate families and throw them into concentration camps. Sometimes, however, the excesses of this repressive force have the unintended consequence of disrupting the capitalists’ supply of “raw material for exploitation.”
Lawyers, advocacy groups, medical experts, and even the liberal media have increased pressure on ICE and the Trump administration, calling for detainees to be released on bond or with ankle monitors. The IMT demands immediate and unconditional legalization for all immigrant workers! The distinction between those who are authorized or not by the capitalist state to live and work in a particular place is entirely arbitrary. Borders and nation states are totally obsolete notions—and the worldwide spread of the pandemic has brought this contradiction to the fore.
Migrant workers, alongside the broader US working class, have a key role to play on the frontlines of the fight against the crisis. All ICE detainees should be freed, trained, and incorporated into the workforce—with full union rights, proper safety provisions, and paid a federally guaranteed minimum wage of $1,000 per week. There are thousands of skilled workers locked up in detention centers who should be incorporated into efforts to build much-needed hospitals and clinics, caring for the sick, harvesting, preparing, delivering, and stocking food in the supermarkets, etc.
Any US-born workers who think attacking immigrants will help them in some way will find the opposite result. As the bosses attack one section of the working class, they can later take on the other workers. Working-class unity is needed now more than ever. Ultimately, only through the central democratic planning of the planet’s resources by the world working class—regardless of nationality or status—can we put an end to COVID-19 and the nightmares of capitalism.