Migrant Camps and Immigration Policies During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Migrant Camps and Immigration Policies During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Meryl Warpula, Fall 2020

It is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has altered many people’s lives in various aspects beyond just healthwise, such as economically, residentially, and routinely. However, most don’t think to imagine or to look into those lives of people trapped at the United States borders, specifically the Mexico-U.S. border, during this time. Controversy has surrounded the idea and the conditions of U.S. migrant camps and immigrants’ rights for years, but even more is present since the country is battling the COVID-19 pandemic and there should be even more focus on these practices now more than ever. Advocates for immigrants have identified an ignorance of basic human rights for those in detention centers and seeking asylum at border camps, through exclusive federal orders and empty promises to keep the detained safe, and they are fighting in many ways for the immigrants who cannot.

ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is the organization that has control over immigration policies and the U.S. borders. They have released and updated a series of statements on how they are planning on combating the virus in their facilities. They have announced how their main goal within this operation is to be working with the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies and government groups to ensure the safest and most effective response to COVID-19 in the areas that they control [1]. The Occupational Safety and Health Unit of ICE is working to create the safest conditions possible to reduce the risk and prevent the spread of coronavirus through social distancing, wearing safety equipment, and staying in contact with employees that have safety concerns or questions [2]. ICE assures that they have rapid access to the most updated information from the CDC and other important agencies [3]. As for visitation, ICE has suspended visitation ability at their detention centers [4], which adds to the issue that many Americans are concerned with about ICE, which is separation of families at the border. The organization has released a statement that they do not carry out any of their action plans in sensitive areas, especially medical facilities and that they are proposing many workers work from home when possible while taking temperatures of those that are not when they come to work [5]. They also state how they will take detainees’ temperatures and issue screenings to try to prevent the spread [6].

Although ICE promises all of these regulations and has a detailed plan that they discuss on their website, it does not seem as safe as they claim. The Human Rights Watch, an organization that focuses on spreading awareness on the rights of women, children, refugees, and marginalized people, looked into detention camps at the Mexico border, specifically those involved with the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program. This program is forcing asylum seekers to reside in unsanitary camps where they are at high risk of catching the coronavirus [7]. The travel restrictions during the pandemic prevent many people in these border detention centers from entering the United States to seek a better way of life [8]. The travel restrictions also encourage agents who work under ICE to encourage asylum seekers to return to their home country, which infringes on peoples’ right to seek asylum [9]. The protections that previously existed that ensured asylum seekers’ ability to flee from a place where their life was in danger are no longer existent under the travel ban, putting them in danger. The Human Rights Watch insists that asylum seekers should be held in the United States in quarantine rather than be detained at the camps, to protect themselves and all other public persons [10]. Ariana Sawyer, a U.S. border researcher, supported how “the U.S. has an obligation under international law not to compel people to risk their right to life in order to pursue their right to seek asylum” [11].

The focus on border security over coronavirus protections has made many human and immigrant rights activists concerned and increasingly frustrated with ICE. Additionally, asylum seekers, many homeless with no healthcare, are usually given mass court hearing dates to determine their entry into the United States, but the U.S. has suspended and rescheduled asylum court hearings due to efforts in reducing COVID-19, which leaves many immigrants stranded at the border camps [12]. This suspension results in many more people residing in these camps in very close quarters, creating an even more vulnerable environment for the coronavirus, in an already unsanitary atmosphere. These camps not only keep many people in close proximity that is dangerous for the spread, but they also often lack clean water to follow the most basic of regulations given by the World Health Organization to keep clean in prevention of the spread of the coronavirus [13]. Outbreaks of COVID-19 in these highly vulnerable areas would inevitably lead to a mass spread of the disease, with little to no medical care or treatment for these people, and potentially resulting in many deaths.

The Center for Migration Studies (CMS) reports often on COVID-19 policies and regulations both nationally and globally surrounding migration in the U.S. and at the border. The U.S. has detailed within their migrant policies that the border closure includes unaccompanied children and “nonessential” travelers [14], a “public charge” which demotivates immigrants from accessing benefits and healthcare, and federal stimuli that don’t include or account for undocumented immigrants and those families or groups of “mixed status” [15]. Between March and June, nearly 70,000 asylum seekers have been pushed from the southern border due to preventative health measures [16].

On March 20th, 2020 the CDC passed an order under the Public Health Service Act that allowed for asylum seekers to be refused entry at the southern and northern borders [17]. This order was passed in an effort to prevent a large concentration of people in one area that would lead to an increased vulnerability of coronavirus spread. This order has been extended over and over, making it increasingly difficult for the great amount of asylum seekers that exist to even take the first step in seeking asylum.

In July 2020, a New York judge ruled against the “public charge” rule passed by the Trump administration, stating that immigrants in the United States would be forbidden from permanently living in the U.S. if they use benefits from a long list, such as food stamps and Medicaid [18]. The rule was highly opposed by several states, stating that this would harm many immigrant families especially while trying to survive in a pandemic.

Immigrant rights advocates requested for the court in Washington, D.C. to demand ICE to release families detained at the border to prevent the potentially easy and quick spread of coronavirus [19]. On July 22nd, 2020, a federal judge denied the request, although ICE is currently under orders to release children from detention but claim to not have done so due to lack of consent from their parents and guardians [20].

The $1 trillion stimulus package for Americans that was approved in July 2020 excluded stimulus payments for families of mixed status, particularly those with one spouse without Social Security recognition [21]. This went against the $3 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House of Representatives in May, providing mixed-status immigrant families with stimulus and medical assistance.

These pieces of legislation have made it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to not only enter the United States, but to acquire protective and basic living means in the process of seeking asylum in the United States. Advocates for immigrants argue that although it is necessary to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, that the right for people to seek asylum against a country where they may return to persecution is necessary to allow.

On July 12th, 2020, a Mexican felon subject to mandatory detention by the name of Onoval Perez-Montufa died after testing positive for coronavirus on July 2nd [22]. By July 29th, 141 detainees at the Glades County Detention Center had contracted the virus, prompting ICE to respond by saying that they would review their precautions and tighten the protections to prevent the spread of the disease in the detention centers and camps [23]. Parallel circumstances occurred at Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, Otay Mesa Detention Center in California, where hundreds of detainees quickly contracted COVID-19 and ICE responded once again by saying that they would thoroughly investigate the death and the conditions and make things better. These circumstances just keep adding up to make evident ICE’s lack of genuine dedication to keeping the people that they are supposed to be looking after safe. ICE, other agencies, and the government in general have made many empty promises, but it truly shows in the data, the legislation proposed and passed, and in the lives affected and lost how much immigrants are being ignored and swept under the rug during a pandemic.

It is extremely clear that ICE and legislators have made regulations that have made it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to flee to a safe place, and that the coronavirus is creating a lot of controversy of what is wrong and right and who is justifiable to protect. ICE has made many promises that have proved to not be fulfilled, and the U.S. has passed legislation that initially ignores the needs of immigrants and mixed-status families. One can hope that this undermining of the needs of immigrants will improve and their rights will be enforced while also protecting those at the border and in detention centers and camps from the spread of coronavirus just like the U.S. is aiming to protect those within its borders.


[1] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “ICE Guidance on COVID-19.” ICE, November 23, 2020. https://www.ice.gov/coronavirus.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Human Rights Watch. “US: COVID-19 Policies Risk Asylum Seekers’ Lives.” Human Rights Watch, October 28, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/02/us-covid-19-policies-risk-asylum-seekers-lives.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Social Ink. “COVID-19 Migration-Related Developments.” The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS). Social Ink, November 2, 2020. https://cmsny.org/cms-initiatives/migration-covid/.

[15] IIbid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Social Ink. “Immigrant Detention and COVID-19: How a Pandemic Exploited and Spread through the US Immigrant Detention System.” The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS). Social Ink, August 12, 2020. https://cmsny.org/publications/immigrant-detention-covid/.

[23] Ibid.

Further Reading

Love, Julia. “First Coronavirus Cases Found in Sprawling Migrant Camp at U.S. Border.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, June 30, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-mexico-immigration/first-coronavirus-cases-found-in-sprawling-migrant-camp-at-u-s-border-idUSKBN2412VP.

U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. “COVID-19 Brief: Impact on Refugees.” USGLC, September 15, 2020. https://www.usglc.org/coronavirus/refugees/.

Worcester State University Fall 2022