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Immigration Perspectives: COVID-19 Edition, Week 8

Each week during the COVID-19 crisis, we’ll publish a quick recap of our top three immigration-related storylines. Let us know what you think! And be sure to tune in to our podcast, This Week in Immigration, for even more in-depth analysis of immigration news from the last two weeks.

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1. COVID-19 Travel Restrictions: The Debate Goes On

President Trump has repeatedly touted the travel restrictions from the People’s Republic of China announced in late January as critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. However, new reporting suggests that the restrictions had less of an impact than Trump has indicated. A recent report by the Cato Institute examined how the White House proclamation on travel of Chinese citizens affected the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The paper modeled the impact of the travel stoppage against what the spread might have looked like without the restrictions, in different scenarios. The authors found that based on their model, “the empirical evidence is that the U.S.-imposed travel ban on the PRC had no statistically significant effect on the timing, number, or rate of COVID-19 cases in the United States.” At most, the authors allow, the travel restrictions may have delayed the spread of the disease in the United States for 15 days.

To add to this debate, the New York Times reported that travel restrictions from China and Europe still allowed many American citizens to return home, blunting any potential effect they might have had in containing the virus. The Times article cites a report from the Department of Homeland Security sent to the House Oversight and Reform Committee which reports at most one in 10 returning citizens in a 10-week period between January and March were checked to see if they had a temperature, and only 1,500 of approximately 250,000 travelers were referred to CDC officers for secondary screening at airports. Unlike Canada, which imposed a 14-day mandatory self-quarantine on its returning citizens when it issued a similar travel ban—with a $750,000 fine for non-compliance—the United States did not mandate any restrictions on returning citizens who were not ordered to quarantine by CDC screening.

So, does this mean that travel controls are not useful in controlling a pandemic? Well, many experts believe that if done early enough, travel restrictions could slow the arrival of the virus giving the country time to prepare and amass necessary health resources. But in today’s interconnected world is unlikely to prevent its introduction. Nevertheless, travel restrictions can be a mitigation strategy in the pandemic toolbox, but we should be very cautious about making broad proclamations about its effectiveness, especially without more robust border controls. For more on how we could incorporate better health intelligence and a proactive approach to screening for health threats, see Cristobal Ramón’s piece for BPC here.

2. Bipartisan Bill Introduced to Speed Green Cards for Health Care Workers

On April 30, an unlikely bipartisan group led by Senators David Purdue (R-GA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Todd Young (R-IN), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX) introduced S. 3599, the “Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act.” The bill would allow for the recapture of unused immigrant visas from the last several years to expedite the number of nurses and doctors who could enter the United States on green cards. Specifically, the bill allocates 25,000 green cards for nurses and 15,000 for doctors and their families. The visas would be available immediately to those applicants who have already filed petitions for green cards and have been waiting in the backlog, without regard to per-country limits created by the Immigration and Nationality Act. As we discussed last week in this blog, there are thousands of health care workers in the United States on temporary work visas who are waiting on green cards and are afraid of losing status. There are also thousands of nurses overseas waiting on the opportunity to come to the United States who would be permitted to enter under this bill. They would be required to pass licensing requirements and background checks and show that Americans were not displaced by the hiring of the foreign medical professional. Fast-tracking these visas was one of several policy recommendations we made earlier year to allow foreign health care workers to contribute their skills in the United States. This bill is notable for the number of senior bipartisan leaders on the bill, which may increase its chance of being included on a future coronavirus relief bill. A House companion bill was also introduced, authored by Reps. Brad Schneider (D-IL), Tom Cole (R-OK), Abby Finkenauer (D-IA), and Don Bacon (R-NE).

3. More unaccompanied kids are being expelled at the border with no process.

In Episode 66 of the This Week in Immigration podcast, we discussed the order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s order under Title 42 of the Public Health Act suspending the entry of persons at the land borders “when doing so is required in the interest of the public health.” We wrote in Week 4 of this blog about how U.S. Customs and Border Protection is using this authority to expel migrants arriving at the border, rather than undertaking the usual immigration legal processes. CBP released numbers in March of how many people had been expelled and the April numbers showed expulsions had more than doubled from 6,400 in March to more than 14,000 in April at the southwest border.

However, the impact on unaccompanied children among this number is pronounced. Recent reporting shows that referrals from CBP to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which cares for children who undergo immigration processing after being apprehended unaccompanied at the border, went from more than 1,800 in March to just 58 in April. Overall apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the southwest border went from almost 3,000 in March to just 734 in April. While the decline in overall encounters may be largely attributable to response to COVID-19, the increase in expulsions means that CBP is largely bypassing the specific protections offered in immigration law for unaccompanied children, with press reports noting that many of those children are repatriated to their own countries without the knowledge of their parents.