Immigration laws under the microscope

Taking away a person’s freedom is nothing to take lightly. But in some cases, there are more important things than freedom.

For instance, I believe people have the right to live and work wherever they want, and that means in other countries, too. If a person can improve their lot in life by taking a job in a foreign land, it’s not my place to stand in the way. That said, there are limits to every freedom, including this one. Sometimes a crisis comes along that justifies suspending that freedom for the greater good, like to stop a pandemic.

I wasn’t sure at first, but I’m now convinced that the coronavirus is a serious problem. It was discovered in China in December 2019, and in just three short months it has sickened people in almost every country on earth. The number of cases worldwide now tops 400,000, the death toll 18,000 and climbing. It’s prompted skeptics of globalization to say “I told you so!” as countries try to fight the spread of the virus with travel bans and even lockdowns.

I will admit that, for as much as I love freedom, stopping a pandemic is a good reason to put restrictions on travel and immigration. However, theory and practice are two different things. While immigration restrictions are justifiable in theory – especially now – a closer look at our existing immigration laws and policies reveal that they are either woefully ineffective at stopping disease, unrelated to the present crisis, and in some cases are pouring fuel on the fire by helping the virus spread.

1) European travel ban

Let’s start with U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of a 30-day, European travel ban on March 12. Given that the virus was overwhelming Italy’s hospitals, and Italy has open borders with most European countries, this travel ban might seem like a good idea. Unforunately, this policy was poorly implemented and produced unintended consequences that probably made it worse than doing nothing at all.

First of all, the ban only applied to foreign nationals. American citizens and permanent residents could re-enter the United States provided they went through medical screening. But that’s odd, isn’t it? An American traveling through Europe would be just as likely to be exposed to the virus as someone who lived in Europe their whole life, so why treat them differently? Furthermore, it turned out that not everyone was being screened. The New York Times ran a story on March 13 in which some Americans returning from Europe said they faced no screening at all.

Other travelers were screened but only after waiting for hours in the airport. Americans returning to the U.S. through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport shared photos on social media of airport hallways packed shoulder-to-shoulder with travelers just returning from Europe. You could not have designed a better way to transmit a virus if you tried.

2) Southern border

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States is approaching 50,000, which puts it at No. 3 in the world behind China and Italy. The spread of the virus is still very limited in countries south of the border. For instance, Mexico has just 367 cases, and cases in Central America now average a few dozen in each country. The Los Angeles Times reports that the virus was introduced to Mexico when a group of people returned to that country from a ski trip in Colorado.

Nevertheless, the threat of the coronavirus entering (re-entering?) the United States through Mexico is now a pretext to stopping nearly all travel between the countries, including those seeking asylum. This is an unfortunate development because Mexicans and Central Americans (the bulk of asylum seekers) pose a low risk of carrying the virus, and many of them are fleeing violence in their home country that they cannot return to.

Under the new “Remain in Mexico” rules for asylum seekers, they cannot await their court date in the United States as they once did but instead must remain outside the country. In practice, this has meant thousands of people with no recourse but to live in squalid tent cities along the border that will be a powder keg for the virus if it should reach there.

3) ICE’s request for masks

Some parts of America’s immigration enforcement regime are not simply inefficient in preventing the spread of disease but are unwittingly helping it spread. This is because current enforcement of immigration laws involves putting people in detention centers where germs pass readily from person to person. At an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in New Jersey, detainees went on a hunger strike this week to demand better sanitation. Immigrant rights groups and attorneys have called on ICE to release detainees to avoid an outbreak, but so far, no judge has forced ICE to comply with the request, leaving those people at risk.

What’s more, ICE put in a request for 45,000 N95 masks to conduct deportations. These are the very same surgical masks that are in such short supply that hospitals are having to ration them. In other words, ICE wants to use valuable resources that would otherwise go to nurses and doctors treating sick patients. That does not make sense as a strategy for fighting coronavirus.

4) Immigrants in health care

Those who think we can make America healthier by sealing the borders to immigrants should think again. A fantastic essay by the Cato Institute’s David Bier shows that immigrants are disproportionately represented in the health care jobs needed now more than ever. Foreigners constitute about 15 percent of America’s population, but represent 35 percent of home health aides, 40 percent of medical scientists, and are well represented in cleaning-related fields where they comprise nearly half of the country’s maids and a quarter of its janitors. Far from the stereotype that immigrants introduce disease, they play a critical role in defeating it.