President Donald Trump may have shown diminishing concern for the threat posed to the American public by the novel coronavirus in recent weeks, but his administration and allies are increasingly pointing to the pandemic as a justification for further longstanding policy goals on immigration.
For months, the Trump administration has utilized the pandemic as a pretext for raising the barriers for entry into the country, effectively halting most immigration into the United States for the duration of the crisis, refusing to issue COVID-19 guidances for those still stuck in the immigration legal system, and using a quarantine law from the late 19th century as a mechanism to deport nearly all asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border.
Now, the president’s allies are pushing legislation that would punish states for offering assistance to undocumented immigrants and their families struggling to make ends meet as the pandemic ravages the American economy.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and longstanding immigration hawk, this week introduced the “No Bailouts for Illegal Aliens Act,” which would strip CARES Act funds from any state or city that seeks to provide economic relief for undocumented immigrants.
“We shouldn’t be spending hard-earned taxpayer dollars on illegal immigrants at a time when 35 million Americans are out of work,” Cotton said in a release accompanying the bill’s introduction. A similar measure was introduced by Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) in the House. “If we are going to be giving relief checks to those people who are out of work, we need to focus on American citizens, not illegal immigrants.”
Cotton, who said that the CARES Act was intended to help workers affected by “the China Virus pandemic,” has accused various states and cities of using federal funds “to give a handout to those who broke our immigration laws.”
The senator, whose office did not respond to a request for comment about the proposed bill, has specifically cited Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s creation of a program providing prepaid debit cards for low-income city residents and those whose incomes have dropped by at least 50 percent, regardless of their immigration status. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has also announced $75 million in state disaster relief funds intended to help undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits and CARES Act funds due to their immigration status. Undocumented immigrants make up as many as one in ten workers in the state.
“California is the most diverse state in the nation,” Newsom said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “Our diversity makes us stronger and more resilient. Every Californian, including our undocumented neighbors and friends, should know that California is here to support them during this crisis. We are all in this together.”
The state was the first to offer aid to undocumented immigrants in the midst of the crisis—in the form of a one-time grant of $500 per person or $1,000 per household, with an addition $50 million provided by non-government partners—but proposals seeking to provide limited assistance for undocumented people are being enacted or are under consideration across the country, including in Oregon, Washington and New York City. Similar measures are being additionally considered in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Although undocumented immigrants—and in some cases, their U.S. citizen spouses—are already barred from obtaining federal coronavirus aid under the CARES Act, Cotton describes the use of state funds as aid for undocumented people as being de facto subsidized by the federal stimulus intended to save the economy.
Immigrant rights advocates told The Daily Beast that such efforts, combined with other attempts by the administration to utilize the crisis against undocumented people, are targeting groups that are already particularly susceptible to the pandemic and the accompanying economic disaster.
“This bill only seeks to scapegoat and discriminate against immigrant communities,” said Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways, an immigrant legal services organization. “Punishing state and local governments for recognizing and giving much needed aid to their most vulnerable community members harms all of us in the U.S.”
“Demagoguing ‘sanctuary cities’ is clearly political red meat for the president’s base, but it is also unconstitutional,” said Kim Haddow, executive director of Local Solutions Support Center, a group that works to defend local democracy against federal interference. “Whatever one thinks about cities that choose to protect their immigrant residents, the Constitution does not give the president the power to bully or threaten these states into bending to his will.”
Others told The Daily Beast that such legislation could do even further damage to the nation’s economy by taking money out of the hands of immigrants in essential fields of work.
“At a time of great suffering and confusion in the country due to this administration’s chaotic handling of the COVID-19 crisis, it seems that Sen. Cotton wants to worsen the situation by targeting immigrant families who are part of our essential workforce, working in hospitals, farms, restaurants, and manufacturing,” said Cynthia Buiza, executive director of California Immigrant Policy Center. “This is a time to create solutions that includes everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us.”
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign told The Daily Beast that Cotton’s proposal is a distraction from the Trump administration’s maladroit response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 100,000 American lives.
“We wish Tom Cotton could muster a hint of outrage about how Main Street businesses and their workers keeping getting the door slammed in their face so that Trump campaign donors at big corporations can enjoy massive giveaways with taxpayer-provided relief funds,” said Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign’s director of rapid response, also noting Trump’s “historic negligence” in pandemic preparedness and “disastrous” decision to trust early assurances from the Chinese government that the virus had been largely contained.
“But instead of being a responsible public servant and putting all his energies into saving American lives,” Bates said, “he’s busy playing his usual games and trying to generate a cynical distraction.”
Undocumented immigrants are often at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19 due issues like a lack of access to healthcare, as well as work in essential industries like agriculture, parcel delivery and food processing that demand crowded working conditions and frequent contact with strangers. Fear of potential deportation has also prevented undocumented immigrants from seeking non-financial forms of assistance during the coronavirus crisis, including protection against increasing rates of domestic violence during quarantine.
“Immigrant survivors of violence… are among those who would be hurt most by this legislation and its attempt to strong-arm states into excluding undocumented immigrants from relief,” said Jeanne Smoot, senior counsel for policy and strategy at Tahirih Justice Center, a non-profit that seeks to increase protections for immigrant women and girls. “Given that many domestic violence agencies and shelters are also struggling to meet heightened demands for their services, immigrant survivors and their children may be forced back into violent homes and into dangerous reliance on abusers for shelter, food, and other basic needs.”