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contrasts in dealing with illegal immigrants in the united states during a pandemic

April 16, 2021


by Thomas Lacroix, geographer, CNRS Senior Researcher affiliated with the Maison Française d'Oxford. He was Deputy Director of Migrinter (2015-2017). He is currently associate coordinator of the journal Migration Studies, associate researcher at CERI and at Migrinter, as well as Fellow o fthe Institut Convergence Migrations. 

Tensions between the states and the federal government have been on-going throughout the history of the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, east coast cities were mostly in favor of tight regulation of immigration, while federal authorities were pushing for a more liberal approach. This conflict was only resolved in 1906 with the Naturalization Act, when the federal Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was created. At the turn of the 21st century, it's the opposite. Since the start of the 2000s, sanctuary cities having been putting policies in place that both obstruct the expulsion of migrants and allow them to have municipal services in healthcare, housing, security and education. The pandemic has been a time of increased division along those lines.

US border patrol checkpoint in Arizona (source Wikicommons).
US border patrol checkpoint in Arizona (source Wikicommons).

Donald Trump's immigration policy took place on two fronts: first closing the borders to all immigration options. In Spring 2020, the US administration used the situation to close down the borders even while continuing its expulsion program. Immigration was suspended in April for green card holders. It does not affect temporary immigration (which is desperately needed for agriculture), but in June, this restriction is extended to anyone holding an H1-B visa[1]. But it's for asylum seekers that the harshest restrictions are imposed: processing asylum requests at the Mexican border, limited access to appeals courts, heightened requirements to get refugee status. At the same time, 43 000 people were expulsed toward Central American countries between March and June, of which 20 000 in just the month of May.


The second facet of Trump's immigration policy was to restrict services from the welfare state to non-immigrated citizens. In March, the CARES[2] program gave American citizens a $1200 financial bonus. The program excluded all immigrated people who did not have a social security number[3] and their family, even if the members of the family had American citizenship. This exclusion is occasionally reinforced for certain categories: the Secretary of Education wrote an emergency act forbidding higher education institutions from giving help to undocumented foreign students.

A border that has been reinforced for the past few years: the wall on the US side in Nogales (Photo FMLT)
A border that has been reinforced for the past few years: the wall on the US side in Nogales (Photo FMLT)

This policy widely contributes to the spread of diseases among migrant populations, within and beyond the borders. As in Europe, farm workers and those working in slaughterhouses are particularly exposed. It is the same situation for migrants held in retention centers. But the impact is not just in the health domain. A study from the Migration Policy Institute shows that Latina American women are the most affected by job loss, followed by low qualified Latino men. At the US borders, up to 60 000 asylum seekers are piled up in camps while waiting for their request to be processed. But the effects of US policy can be felt all the way into the host countries while expulsions are continuing at a sustained pace, including for unaccompanied minors. The expulsion of sick people (often after getting the virus at the retention center) contributes to spreading the pandemic in Central American countries. Guatemala, Colombia and Haiti have regularly reported receiving expulsed people infected with COVID. Guatemala refused the arrival of expulsed people three times between March and April.


In this context, sanctuary cities structure their intervention to mitigate the effects of federal policies. Sanctuary cities and their networks have been mobilized since Donald Trump became president in 2016: campaigns against the immigration restrictions on Muslims, against the termination of DACA[4], against the separation of detained families, etc. A coordinated effort is being put in place since the announcement of the CARES program that de facto excludes close to 15 million people living in the United States. Chicago is one of the first cities, at the start of April, to put an emergency fund in place of 5 million dollars in order to extend this help to those who could benefit from it. New York and Los Angeles closely followed. California unblocked 125 million dollars on May 18, the city of Phoenix on May 20 (3 million dollars). Today 32 cities and states would be financing similar measures. Most of the time, they are assisted by NGO, such as Welcoming America and Open Society Foundation, that help regional governments put "welcoming" policies in place. Two organizations are core to the spread and coordination of these measures. The first is City for Action (C4A), a network of cities created in 2014 that encompasses most of the US sanctuary cities. The second one is the Office of New Americans (ONAs), state-level offices dedicated to immigration issues. They work with and in addition to municipal administrations. Other than financial help, regional governments are championing more services to people who were excluded from them: access to healthcare for the undocumented elderly people, unemployment benefits given to those who have lost a job.

Joe Biden tells migrants "don't come" to the United States for now
Joe Biden tells migrants "don't come" to the United States for now

Very quickly, the Trump administration attacked this municipal mobilization using administrative solutions that went after municipal policies. In particular, Donald Trump used the stimulus plan, threatening to cut back on federal funds for sanctuary cities. But this pressure will have no outcome. Today, the new Biden administration is attempting to undo the main components of the Trump administration's immigration policy: reopening paths to immigration, halt on building the wall, confirmation of DACA, a lifting of blocks to asylum applications, easier access to the permanent resident status. As for sanctuary cities, they are trying to capitalize on the structures put in place during the pandemic: a February 2021 law created the federal Office of New American Task Force, whose goal is to organize relationships between the administration and state offices. However, the new approach is confronted with the reality of migration. The public health and economic crisis that Central American countries are dealing with has stirred up a wave of arrivals that has forced public authorities to close the southern border again and make agreements with Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala to reinforce controls on migratory routes.



[1] Visa reserved for people who have a Bachelor's degree or equivalent

[2] Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security

[3] This requirement effectively excludes illegal people, as well as some temporary residents

[4] Deferred action for childhood arrivals. Law adopted under the Obama administration which gives a status and access to citizenship to very young children who arrived with their undocumented parents and grew up on American soil.

Thomas Lacroix is a geographer, CNRS Senior Researcher affiliated with the Maison Française d'Oxford. His research is focused on the relationship between migratory transnationalism, integration and development. More recently, he has been studying the development of networks of welcoming cities throughout the world and their ties with immigration authorities. In 2016, he published International Migrations and Local Governance (Palgave MacMillan), in 2020 he co-edited the volume Penser les migrations pour repenser la société (Presses Universitaires de François Rabelais) and in 2021 Villages transnationaux : Les identités de traverse (Presses Universitaires de François Rabelais). He is currently associate coordinator of the journal Migration Studies, associate researcher at CERI and at Migrinter, as well as Fellow at the Institut Convergence Migrations.