In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government has implemented sweeping revisions to U.S. immigration policy. Many of the changes fail to prioritize the health of immigrants or the general public.

Some functions—like processing visas abroad and asylum claims at the border—have come to a virtual standstill. Yet many people applying for immigration benefits within the United States are forced to violate social-distancing rules and increase their risk of exposure to COVID-19. The government hasn’t accommodated those who need to continue in-person immigration interviews and other bureaucratic tasks to receive benefits or maintain their status.

Missing from the government’s pandemic response is a uniform set of guidelines. Such guidelines would enable noncitizens to apply for the services and benefits they need to obtain or maintain their immigration status without risking their health or even their lives.

As the American Immigration Council details in a new report, the federal response to the pandemic has disrupted virtually every aspect of the U.S. immigration system. Entry into the United States along the Mexican and Canadian borders—including by asylum seekers and unaccompanied children—has been severely restricted.

And tens of thousands of people remain in immigration detention centers across the United States. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued to detain people despite the high risk of COVID-19 transmission in the crowded jails, prisons, and detention centers the agency uses to hold noncitizens.

Five key takeaways from the report include:

  1. The pandemic has led to new barriers to legal immigration. The Trump administration implemented a proclamation, effective April 24, 2020, that suspends the entry of certain immigrants. The administration claims it wants to preserve opportunities for U.S. citizens affected by the economic impact of the pandemic, even though it has singled out family-based immigration for special restrictions. It also failed to provide any meaningful economic analysis to justify these changes.
  2. Citing new authority given to the Border Patrol by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Border Patrol agents have started “expelling” individuals who arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, without giving them the opportunity to seek asylum. Over 20,000 people have since been “expelled” at the southern border.
  3. As of April 24, 2020, USCIS suspended all in-person services at its offices through at least June 4, 2020. Despite the postponement, the agency has resisted calls to grant automatic status extensions or otherwise make changes which would prevent foreign nationals from inadvertently losing status during the current national emergency.
  4. The coronavirus posed an immediate threat to detained immigrants and staff working in detention facilities. Unlike people living outside of detention centers, those in detention cannot socially distance from others, as they are locked inside facilities with hundreds of other people. The risk of the virus spreading to additional detention centers is exacerbated by the agency’s practice of routinely transferring people from one detention center to another, often multiple times. At least three people have died after contracting COVID-19 while detained.
  5. Many immigrants and their families have been left out of the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security” Act, or CARES Act. Noncitizens who lack Social Security numbers but nevertheless file federal income tax returns using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs)—including millions of lawfully-present noncitizens and their families—are deemed ineligible for recovery rebates and emergency grants.

The federal government’s response to COVID-19 has been motivated not only by concerns over the pandemic itself, but by ideology. The Trump administration has used the COVID-19 outbreak as cover to pursue policy changes that it has sought to implement for many years. These include a near elimination of asylum at the southern border and a reduction of family-based immigration.

While these policy changes have been described as temporary in nature, they may remain in place into 2021. This would dramatically reduce the number of noncitizens who are permitted to travel to the United States to pursue humanitarian protections or reunite with family members.

We must not allow these temporary measures to become the new normal. Instead, we must ensure that our immigration policies are grounded in data and our heritage of being a welcoming nation.