Coronavirus and Immigration: ICE Reductions Are Too Little, Too Late

People holding a sign that says "Keep families together."

William D. Lopez and Nicole L. Novak


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On March 18, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced drastic changes to immigration enforcement operations designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. These operational changes include a reduction in overall arrests by specifically targeting “individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.”

We welcome any commitment to reduce arrests and the consequential detentions and deportations that follow.

As public health researchers who have studied the detrimental health impacts of immigration enforcement, we welcome any commitment to reduce arrests and the consequential detentions and deportations that follow.

We know from years of public health research that a deep mistrust will still persist and exacerbate coronavirus risk throughout mixed-status immigrant communities.

However, we know from years of public health research that a deep mistrust will still persist and exacerbate coronavirus risk throughout mixed-status immigrant communities. Put simply, prioritizing certain arrests without explicitly halting the collateral arrests that have traditionally accompanied them will not be enough to gain the community trust needed to halt the spread of coronavirus. Reverting to an enforcement strategy that has itself been associated with public health harm is too little, and—we fear— too late.

Changes to ICE arrest procedures were in part spurred by outcry from advocates who vehemently opposed the inhumanity and poor public health practice of ICE arrests amid a growing pandemic. For example, last week ICE and CBP raided a number of small businesses in and around El Paso, Texas. Other arrests even brazenly occurred in areas in which state and local governments had taken significant measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, such as Los Angeles County, California, and Denver, Colorado. These arrests were damaging to the public health and safety ICE was claiming to prioritize, as they not only sowed government distrust throughout immigrant communities but could have introduced coronavirus into detention facilities that were ripe for disease spread.

ICE’s move to prioritize the arrest “on criminal grounds” is an attempt to address their egregious behavior early in the pandemic. However, the established use of collateral arrests often makes these prioritizations far less relevant in communities in which individuals are at risk of deportation. Collateral arrests—or the arrests of those who are not the targets of immigration enforcement operations but are arrested because of their proximity to the target—amount simply to arrest and deportation for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, ICE will raid a home in pursuit of someone specific but will then question everyone in the vicinity who allegedly resembles the original target. If those they encounter are also noncitizens, regardless of their own criminal history or relationship to the original target they will also be detained. One report by the Migration Policy Institute details the ways in which collateral arrests are used to meet arrest quotas. Collateral arrests often make up substantial portions of those arrested. 

This enforcement regime ‘spilled over’ to affect the health and wellbeing of many people not directly targeted for arrest.

Collateral arrests have been decried as the legalization of racial profiling, as ICE criteria for resembling the target of arrest often amounts to visible markers of race and class—most often, appearing to be a working-class Latino.

Despite lawsuits, once ICE detains someone, there is little recourse for the racial profiling that preceeded it, allowing ICE to go unchecked in their racial profiling practices. For those at risk of deportation, it doesn’t matter if ICE is arresting you because you committed a crime or because your skin color matches that of the person who did. The result—deportation—is still the same. This substantiated fear of being profiled and arrested anywhere in your community also renders problematic ICE’s declaration of the safety of medical facilities. It doesn’t matter if a hospital is safe if the roads on the way to it are not.

Substantial public health research has documented the ways this enforcement regime “spilled over” to affect the health and wellbeing of many people not directly targeted for arrest, including family and neighbors of those arrested. This fear that stepping out of one’s home could result in being profiled, arrested, and deported causes a major chilling effect that decreases the likelihood a person will seek out health care, especially to address infectious disease.

Public health researchers throughout the US have found that, for example, Latinos in areas with higher immigrant policing have less trust in government as a source of health information, that people reshape many facets of their life to avoid circumstances where they could be apprehended or arrested, and that fear of disclosing immigration status has kept immigrants from seeking care in other infectious disease outbreaks.

The changes proposed by ICE are miniscule in the face of decades of mistrust and fear and years of research arguing for the inadequacy of these changes. If ICE wants to gain a public trust that could legitimately curb the spread of coronavirus in immigrant communities and beyond, it can start by unequivocally stating that collateral arrests will not occur.

Now more than ever is the time to prioritize both human dignity and public health and allow immigrant communities to safely shelter in their homes, drive safely on their streets, seek care to detect infection and receive treatment, and slow the spread of coronavirus—all without fear that their government will profile, arrest, and remove them.

Photo by Karl Sonnenberg. San Francisco, June 23, 2018. The Families Belong Together rally opposed the cruel, inhumane and illegal separation of children from their parents guardians along the U.S. border with Mexico.

About the Authors

Headshot of William LopezWilliam Lopez, PhD ’16 is clinical assistant professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and author of the book Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid.

Headshot of Nicole NovakNicole Novak , PhD ’16, is assistant research scientist at the University of Iowa College of Public Health and holds a PhD in Epidemiological Sciences from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

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