As the coronavirus pandemic spreads worldwide, fear throughout the United States is generating an all-too-familiar impulse across the country—to scapegoat immigrants and minority populations.
The fact that the coronavirus originated in China has led to characterizations of the virus by Trump and conservative voices as the Chinese virus, Kung-Flu or Wuhan virus. The far right media, too, has wasted no time decrying the “fact” that the State Department had been “resettling refugees in your neighborhood from countries with coronavirus outbreaks.”
Language like this creates negative consequences for immigrant populations. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, for example, Asian-Americans in New York, Los Angeles, and many other urban areas have reported incidents of harassment, verbal abuse and physical attacks, much of which has been chronicled in viral videos.
Virus fears are also fanning the flames of anti-immigration policy plans. Even as cases of the virus in Mexico stood at only 82 in March (compared with thousands in the U.S.), President Trump announced plans to turn back all asylum seekers and other foreigners attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico illegally.
All of this is resulting in new fears among immigrant communities. The Trump administration’s public charge rule, which was designed to discourage immigrants from using public health resources—and the risk of unwelcome interactions with U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE)—are keeping many undocumented immigrants from seeking medical care when they need it.
New issues at detention centers
Now, even as ICE is cutting back on arrests of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., there appear to be no plans to release immigrants from detention facilities—a step that could increase risk of exposure, especially for detainees designated as “at risk.” At the same time, ICE is making it harder than ever for immigration lawyers to advocate for their clients. Even as the nation suffers from a severe shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, ICE announced a new rule requiring immigration lawyers to bring their own protective medical gear when visiting clients in detention centers. This, of course, presents a conundrum for attorneys who are loath to deprive first responders of this critical equipment.
As the situation continues to intensify for immigrants, it will be good to remember that using them as scapegoats for the disease—a long and storied U.S. tradition—is counterproductive for the nation.
In fact, in 2002, the year in which the SARS epidemic generated new discrimination against Asian-Americans, researchers at the University of Michigan warned about the American propensity to “conflate disease with foreigners,” stating: “While we should never expect that our responses to such potential crises will be perfect, we can learn from the mistakes of the past in order to better balance between combating and containing specific diseases and scapegoating a particular group.”
 USCIS signaled suspension of enforcement of the public charge rule. It has since closed its office.