WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez (both D-N.J.), along with Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) today urged the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to suspend all immigration enforcement actions in and around hospitals and other medical facilities as the nation prepares for potential outbreaks of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The lawmakers specifically called on the agencies to publicly announce this suspension to ensure that individuals who might otherwise refrain from seeking care due to fear of immigration enforcement are encouraged to seek treatment for COVID-19.

 

DHS has previously acted to ensure that individuals—including undocumented individuals who might otherwise refrain from accessing medical care due to fears of deportation or other adverse immigration enforcement actions—can access health care and other services in the midst of public emergencies, and has done so following hurricanes, tropical storms, and other emergencies.

 

In their letter, the lawmakers warned that immigration enforcement actions—when conducted in or around hospitals or other medical facilities—could discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking necessary medical care, rendering efforts to contain the virus more difficult.

 

“As public health officials work to contain the spread of COVID-19, it would be extremely damaging to the nation’s public health efforts if individuals who may be suffering from the virus fear seeking medical help,” wrote the Senators to Acting Secretary Wolf, Acting Commissioner Morgan, and Deputy Director Albence. “To ensure that federal, state, and local public health responses to coronavirus are as robust and unhindered as possible, we urge your agencies to take a step similar to those they have taken during recent natural disasters and immediately announce the suspension of all immigration enforcement activities taking place in and around hospitals.”

 

The Senators also asked DHS, CBP, and ICE to expand this suspension to include other medical facilities, such as clinics and urgent care facilities, and to include hospitals and other medical facilities within 100 miles of the international border in the list of facilities where the suspension is in place. In addition, the lawmakers requested a briefing on additional efforts underway at DHS and CBP to ensure that the agencies’ activities supplement and do not interfere with the response to COVID-19.

 

Sens. Menendez and Booker have urged the Trump Administration to fully fund pandemic preparedness and response efforts in light of the global Coronavirus outbreak and are pushing to pass the $8 billion emergency fund package voted by the House of Representatives this week. Earlier today, the Senators announced the awarding of $1,750,000 in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reimburse the State of New Jersey’s Department of Health (NJDOH) for its response and preparedness efforts to combat COVID-19.

 

The full text of the letter can be found here and below.

 

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf, Acting Commissioner Morgan, and Deputy Director Albence,

 

As the nation prepares for an outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), we write to urge the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), specifically U.S. Customers and Border Protection (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to suspend all immigration enforcement actions in and around hospitals and other medical facilities. In addition, we ask that DHS, specifically CBP and ICE, publicly announce this suspension to ensure that individuals who might otherwise refrain from seeking care due to fear of immigration enforcement are encouraged to seek treatment for COVID-19. Such a suspension has precedent in similar actions taken by DHS, ICE and CBP following hurricanes, tropical storms, and other public emergencies.

 

DHS has traditionally taken steps to ensure that individuals—including undocumented individuals who might otherwise refrain from accessing medical care due to fears of deportation or other adverse immigration enforcement actions—can access health care and other services in the midst of public emergencies. In July 2019, for example, ICE chose to “temporarily suspend its routine targeted immigration enforcement activities” in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi impacted by Tropical Storm Barry.[1] ICE took a similar approach in 2017, during and after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and in 2018, during and after Hurricane Florence.[2] In August 2019, as Hurricane Dorian approached Florida, ICE also publicly reiterated that the agency “does not conduct immigration enforcement operations at hurricane evacuation sites or shelters,” stating that “a crisis such as the devastation and destruction caused by a hurricane is not time to compound on tragedy upon another by spreading fear in our community”—an acknowledgement that ICE operations can engender fear and have a chilling effect on a community.[3]

 

A coronavirus pandemic also poses significant risks to the American public. In December, Chinese officials began reporting a novel virus originating in Wuhan, China. Researchers soon identified the virus as a new coronavirus strain (which causes COVID-19).[4] To date, the virus has infected nearly 90,000 people and killed over 3,000.[5] On January 30th, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global health emergency,[6] and on January 31st, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar declared it a U.S. public health emergency.[7] Studies suggest that COVID-19 presents as a mild illness in the vast majority of people who contract it.[8] COVID-19, however, is highly transmissible, meaning that individuals with mild cases, if they do not seek treatment, run the risk of passing the virus on to other individuals who may experience more severe infections.[9] If individuals do not seek treatment for COVID-19 when they suspect they are infected, it renders containment efforts more difficult.[10]

 

Immigration enforcement actions, when they take place in or around hospitals or other medical facilities, could discourage undocumented immigrants from seeking necessary medical care.[11] Under existing DHS and CBP policies, immigration enforcement actions—including “apprehensions, arrests, interviews, or searches, and for purposes of immigration enforcement only, surveillance”[12]—that are “at or focused on sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship, and hospitals should generally be avoided,” except under “limited circumstances.”[13] Under these policies, enforcement actions at sensitive locations like hospitals should only occur under “exigent circumstances, if other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location, or with prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official.”[14] Notably, this restriction on enforcement actions at sensitive locations does not apply to locations “within the immediate vicinity of the international border”—though officers operating within 100 miles of the border are “expected to exercise sound judgement and common sense while taking appropriate action, consistent with the goals of [CBP and DHS] policy.”[15]

 

Recent reports, however, suggest that the agencies’ “sensitive locations” policy is inconsistently enforced.[16] Furthermore, medical providers across the country are seeing an uptick in “the presence of immigration authorities…at health care facilities.”[17] Doctors worry that this trend “could undermine public health in cities with large immigration populations” by “frightening patients” and “prompting them to avoid hospitals.”[18] As public health officials work to contain the spread of COVID-19, it would be extremely damaging to the nation’s public health efforts if individuals who may be suffering from the virus fear seeking medical help.

 

To ensure that federal, state, and local public health responses to coronavirus are as robust and unhindered as possible, we urge your agencies to take a step similar to those they have taken during recent natural disasters and immediately announce the suspension of all immigration enforcement activities taking place in and around hospitals.  We also ask that you expand this suspension to include other medical facilities, such as clinics and urgent care facilities, and to include hospitals and other medical facilities within 100 miles of the international border in the list of facilities where the suspension is in place. We urge you to publicize this suspension to ensure that individuals who may be dissuaded from seeking care due to fears of immigration enforcement actions are instead able to seek COVID-19 testing and treatment. In addition, we request a staff-level briefing on additional efforts underway at DHS and CBP to ensure that the agencies’ activities supplement and do not interfere with the response to COVID-19.

 

Sincerely,

 

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