How the U.S. Weaponized COVID against Migrants

The new series Migrant Futures is aimed at pushing forward our thinking and action about immigration and borders. Read series curators Geraldo Cadava, A. Naomi Paik, and Catherine S. Ramírez’s introduction here.
Immigrants in the United States during the pandemic faced the same discrimination, disenfranchisement, violence, and terror as before—only intensified.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, it has been startlingly clear that the virus has not affected all Americans equally. This has been especially true for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and immigrant and refugee communities. Even before the pandemic, many members of these groups were already disproportionately impacted by generational poverty and income inequality; had unequal or no access to health care, health insurance, and paid sick leave; and had been scapegoated during earlier public-health crises. They were likelier than white Americans to fall into groups at higher risk of serious COVID-19 infection and mortality—groups such as “essential” workers, incarcerated populations, and people with underlying chronic health conditions.

In the first few months of the pandemic, Oballa Oballa heard of many people in Minnesota’s African-immigrant community who had tested positive for COVID-19. As a health-unit coordinator at Mayo Clinic in Austin, Minnesota, Oballa was even concerned that he might contract the virus at his workplace. He recalled, in an interview, how he felt during the initial months of the pandemic. “I was scared to death,” Oballa said. “Every single day I went to work, I prayed to God.”1

With his fears about being exposed to the virus as a health-care worker, Oballa expressed the concerns of many Black immigrants and other immigrants working in essential industries. But they were not alone in facing danger. Since January 2020, Asian Americans have been harassed, yelled at, attacked, and shunned in stores and restaurants; on city streets, buses, and subways; and in their own neighborhoods. From March 2020 to the end of March 2021, over 6,600 reports of racist incidents were reported in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia. In New York City alone, anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 223 percent.2

President Trump, meanwhile, was halting immigration, insisting that the executive orders he issued were necessary to protect the American public from the pandemic. Initially put in place as temporary measures, many were extended indefinitely. It soon became clear that the administration was using the pandemic to advance an immigration agenda that predated the onset of the pandemic.3

While the Biden administration has reversed some of Trump’s executive actions, many of them remain in place. As of June 2021, the Biden administration has ended the controversial Remain in Mexico Program, established a long-awaited task force to reunite separated families, and resumed refugee admissions. It has yet to address the Title 42 public-health order President Trump put in place at the start of the pandemic, an order that, by January 2021, had resulted in turning away almost 400,000 migrants, including many asylum seekers.


Refuge: Denied. Asylum: Pending

By Evan Taparata et al.

What, then, has happened to immigrants in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer is the same discrimination, disenfranchisement, violence, and terror as before, only intensified. This is why, in the spring of 2020, two of us launched the Immigrants in COVID America project through the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), which Erika directs, with additional support from the Social Science Research Council. This curated digital collection of news reports, data, perspectives, and other resources documents the health, economic, and social impact of COVID-19 on immigrants and refugees in the United States.

Our goal was to create a historical record of the crisis and to provide a publicly accessible resource for emerging research, teaching and learning, creative work, and anti-racist advocacy that leads to equitable and social justice–centered change. Through partnerships with the Sahan Journal, a nonprofit digital newsroom dedicated to providing news reporting for and about immigrants and refugees in Minnesota, and journalist and University of Minnesota PhD student Ibrahim Hirsi, the IHRC is also creating digital stories documenting the experiences of immigrants and refugees during the pandemic. In this essay, we share some of our findings on immigration policy, anti-Asian racism, and the stories of how the pandemic has impacted Black immigrant and refugee communities.

The Immigrants in COVID America project clearly shows that the pandemic led to higher mortality rates, fear of violence, economic pain, and health-care inequities among these communities. We hope that, as part of the ongoing need to investigate these issues,  the project offers researchers and advocates a starting point to work for change now and before the next pandemic erupts and costs more lives.


COVID-19 and U.S. Immigration Policy

COVID-19 quickly emerged as the perfect rationale for the Trump administration to crack down on immigration, and carry out a restrictionist agenda that had been long in the making. From its very first week in office, the Trump administration made it clear that immigration restriction represented one of its top priorities. Less than a month into his term, the president had signed executive orders banning Muslims, authorizing the construction of a wall along the southern US border, and expanding the deportation of undocumented immigrants. The number of immigration actions continued in subsequent years, but it skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. For the rest of Trump’s term, immigration ground to a halt.

Many of the immigration restrictions implemented in the name of the pandemic followed already-established patterns. The initial travel restrictions, for example, targeted the same immigrant groups subject to previous immigration provisions and echoed earlier racist rhetoric about the pending arrival of thousands of people from Muslim and predominantly African nations.4 Other restrictions built on previous efforts to restrict immigration with the stated goal of protecting America’s public health and economy.5

Many of these initiatives created panic within immigrant communities across the country. But they also spurred calls for repeal among politicians and business leaders who worried that the new restrictions further discouraged immigration and eliminated an indispensable source of labor.6

Restrictions targeted almost every type of immigrant seeking to settle in the United States permanently. But many of them also affected those who were already in the country.

Changes to the “likely to become a public charge” clause were particularly alarming. The rule change stated that “low-income immigrants who are on public benefits—or will one day need them—will be denied a visa or green card, despite having entered the US legally.”7 Until a court rejected the rule change, many low-income immigrants, some of the most vulnerable individuals during the pandemic, lived in fear that they could be deported under the new rule.8

By far, refugees and asylum seekers suffered the most, once the pandemic began. Starting in March 2020, as news of the pandemic spread, the Trump administration, citing a CDC order stating that Customs and Border Protection officers could turn away individuals who showed signs of illness, began deporting unaccompanied minors seeking asylum.9

By April, reports revealed that the administration had already deported almost 10,000 migrants at the border using “emergency public health measures.”10 By summer, in the name of the pandemic, the administration had suspended refugee admissions indefinitely and ended asylum along the US-Mexico border.

After the Trump administration indefinitely postponed hearings for the Migrant Protection Protocols during the pandemic, many asylum seekers began trying to enter the US illegally. Others gave up and returned to their home countries, despite the violence, unemployment, and poverty waiting for them. Many of those remaining ended up in a camp in Matamoros, Mexico, vulnerable to organized crime and pandemic outbreaks.11

Today, as noted above, Biden has fallen far short of his promise to overturn many of the Trump administration’s executive orders targeting immigrants. The anti-immigrant rhetoric that characterized these changes in US immigration policy also had another devastating consequence, a return of virulent anti-Asian racism that often culminated in violence against members of AAPI communities across the country.


The “Chinese Virus” and Anti-Asian Racism

The violence of the pandemic followed traditions of racial discrimination and violence that had long defined the Asian American experience in the United States. It also stemmed from America’s long-standing practice of associating foreigners with disease. Beginning with the 1900 bubonic plague in San Francisco, to the more recent SARS outbreak, Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans have often been racialized as a particularly dangerous public-health menace.

But during the pandemic, anti-Asian racism and violence were also fueled by members of the media and lawmakers who deliberately and consistently used racist language tying COVID-19 to Asians. This included phrases like the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus”; such individuals urged Americans to “blame China” for the pandemic. The worst offender was President Donald J. Trump, who repeatedly used these terms at rallies, in press conferences, during presidential debates, at the United Nations, and on Twitter.

Any return to “normalcy” must address these systemic problems. It’s not just immigrants and refugees who depend on it. We all do.

Perpetrators blamed Asians for the virus and its spread within the United States. “This pandemic wouldn’t have happened if you stayed in your country where you belong, you chink,” shouted one man to an Asian American resident of Dickson City, Pennsylvania. “You brought the virus on purpose,” he spat out. Many of the assaults targeted the most vulnerable. In early 2021, a string of attacks on elderly Asian Americans occurred in the Bay Area, including assaults of an 83-year-old Vietnamese American man, a 75-year-old Chinese American woman, and an 84-year-old Thai American man, who later died of his injuries.12

Then, on March 16, eight people were killed during a mass shooting at three Asian-owned businesses in the greater Atlanta area. Six of the dead were Asian women. The crime followed a pattern of racialized and sexualized violence against Asian American women that has deep roots in our history. During the pandemic, when the majority of incidents of anti-Asian hate targeted women, the murders of the six women in Atlanta confirmed how racism and misogyny worked together to place Asian women at disproportionate risk of violence.13

Tragically, the victims in Atlanta represented just a fraction of the number of Asian Americans harassed and assaulted during the pandemic. And as mass vaccination helps the country move toward finally controlling the pandemic, it is important to recognize that anti-Asian racism will not stop any time soon. It may have surged along with the virus, but it is an inexorable part of systemic racism in the United States and will not simply go away when the pandemic does. Challenging anti-Asian racism must be part of the larger fight against all racism.


COVID-19’s Impact on Black Immigrants and Refugees

As with the racism directed at Asian Americans, there is more than one reason why COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of African descent. Black people are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, which makes them more susceptible to COVID-19 infections. They’re also more apt to contract the virus, because most of them hold essential jobs in the health-care, food supply, and education industries.14

Numerous studies have attempted to put a number on the pandemic’s devastating toll on these communities. As one report notes, Black people represent 12.4 percent of the US population but account for 15 percent of the COVID-related deaths.15 They’re three times more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from the virus than whites.16 IHRC and the Sahan Journal created the Stories from the Pandemic project to document the experiences of the state’s immigrants and refugees during the pandemic. Sixth-grade teacher Mariam Mohamed is among those who shared how the devastation has affected all aspects of life in Black communities. Mohamed said that she watched her predominantly East African students struggle during the remote-instruction time in 2020. The kids were emotionally distressed, disengaged, and unable to absorb new material.17

That may sound like a common challenge for all school-age children, but it isn’t. Low-income immigrant parents were often away for work during the pandemic. Unlike their college-educated counterparts who had the privilege to work from home, and assist their children with tech issues, immigrant parents were forced to pick up shifts at daycare centers, department stores, meat-packing companies, and Amazon warehouses. And those who happened to be home weren’t of much help to their kids, because of limited English proficiency. All of these factors mean that distance learning may have worsened, as one reporter put it, “the state’s already-entrenched educational disparities.”18


Criminalized Borders and US Health-Care Profits

By Laura J. Torres-Rodríguez

The pandemic also forced many foreign-born Blacks working in the education sector—where immigrants account for more than one in every eight workers in America’s education system—out of their jobs as the schools transitioned to remote learning.19 Many served as teaching aides, special-education teachers, and behavioral specialists. So, when the pandemic struck, and these institutions went online, many found themselves out of work. Nearly 469,000 workers in K–12 public education lost their jobs in April 2020 alone.20

Mohammed Hajji Ahmed, who worked with special-needs students at a Minnesota charter school, was among them. “That’s not really something that’s possible to do virtually,” Ahmed said of his now-previous job. “So, a lot of staff were let go to cut down costs—and I happened to be part of that.”21 Loss of employment for foreign-born Blacks means loss of income not only for their families in the US but also for the loved ones they left behind in their home countries.

The pandemic’s disproportionate effects on Black people are many, and they’re hardly a new phenomenon. Racial disparities—in education, employment, income, and health—existed long before COVID. The pandemic, however, clearly exacerbated these disparities that stem from long-standing racism and racial discrimination in the United States.



One year after we began the Immigrants in COVID America project, vaccination rates are increasing and infection rates are decreasing. But it will be some time before we understand the full impact of the pandemic on immigrant and refugee communities. And given the uneven collection of public-health data around race, ethnicity, and immigration status in relation to the pandemic, we may never know.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that immigrants and refugees are among those who have suffered the most during the pandemic. The pandemic may soon be over, but most immigrants and refugees will still face economic insecurity, health-care inequality, and cruel and inhumane immigration policies. These are issues that affect all of us, our public health, and the strength of our economy and country.

Any return to “normalcy” must address these systemic problems. It’s not just immigrants and refugees who depend on it. We all do.


This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava. icon

  1. Ibrahim Hirsi, “What’s It Like to Run for City Council During the Pandemic? An Ethiopian-Born Candidate Is Trying to Meet Voters in Austin, Minnesota—without Door-Knocking or Shaking Hands,” Sahan Journal, October 12, 2020.
  2. Russell Jeung, Aggie J. Yellow Horse, and Charlene Cayanan, “Stop AAPI Hate National Report, 3/19/20–3/31/20,” Stop AAPI Hate, May 6, 2021; Kimmy Yam, “New Report Finds 169 Percent Surge in Anti-Asian Hate Crimes during the First Quarter,” NBC News, April 28, 2021.
  3. Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “President Trump Extends Immigrant and Work Visa Limits into Biden Presidency,” CBS News, January 1, 2021.
  4. Jamelle Bouie, “The Racism at the Heart of Trump’s ‘Travel Ban,’New York Times, February 4, 2020; Bill Chappell, “Trump Administration to Curb Immigrants from 6 Nations, Including Nigeria,” NPR, January 31, 2020; David Jackson, “Trump Expands Controversial Travel Ban Restrictions to Six New Countries,” USA Today, January 31, 2020.
  5. White House, “The Trump Administration’s Immigration Agenda Protects American Workers, Taxpayers, and Sovereignty,” February 4, 2020.
  6. Stuart Anderson, “Survey: Immigration Policies Driving Work Out of America,” Forbes, February 19, 2020; Zolan Kanno-Youngs, “As Trump Barricades the Border, Legal Immigration Is Starting to Plunge,” New York Times, February 24, 2020; Philip Marcello and Sophia Tareen, “New Visa Rules Set Off ‘Panic Wave’ in Immigrant Communities,” AP News, February 20, 2020; Mairead Mcardle, “Mulvaney Says Trump Administration ‘Desperate’ for More Legal Immigrants,” National Review, February 20, 2020.
  7. Aline Barros, “New US Immigration Rule Sparks Questions,” Voice of America, February 21, 2020.
  8. Monique O. Madan, “Low-Income Immigrants Are at Greater Risk of Deportation Starting Monday,” Miami Herald, February 21, 2020.
  9. Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “Citing Coronavirus, the US Is Swiftly Deporting Unaccompanied Migrant Children,” CBS News, March 30, 2020.
  10. Nick Miroff, “Trump Administration Has Expelled 10,000 Migrants at the Border during Coronavirus Outbreak, Leaving Less Than 100 in CBP Custody,” Washington Post, April 9, 2020.
  11. Adolfo Flores, “Endless Waits at an Immigrant Camp on the Mexico Border Are Pushing Desperate People to Make Tough Choices,” Buzzfeed News, October 16, 2020.
  12. Holly Yan, Natasha Chen, and Dushyant Naresh, “What’s Spreading Faster Than Coronavirus in the US? Racist Assaults and Ignorant Attacks against Asians,” CNN, February 21, 2020; Russell Jeung et al., “Anti-Chinese Rhetoric Employed by Perpetrators of Anti-Asian Hate,” October 11, 2020, Stop AAPI Hate; Thomas Fuller, “Violent Attacks against Asian-Americans Persist in the Bay Area,” New York Times, March 19, 2021.
  13. Kimmy Yam, “Racism, Sexism Must Be Considered in Atlanta Case Involving Killing of Six Asian Women, Experts Say,” NBC News, March 17, 2021; Danielle Cohen, “Anti-Asian Violence Is Consistently Directed at Women,” GQ, March 18, 2021; Shaila Dewan, “How Racism and Sexism Intertwine to Torment Asian American Women,” New York Times, March 18, 2021; Jeung, Yellow Horse, and Cayanan, “Stop AAPI Hate National Report.”
  14. New American Economy, “On the COVID-19 Frontlines: Black Immigrants in Healthcare and Other Essential Industries,” July 2, 2020.
  15. APM Research Lab Staff, “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.,” APM Research Lab, March 5, 2021.
  16. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Risk for COVID-19 Infection, Hospitalization, and Death By Race/Ethnicity,” May 26, 2021.
  17. Ibrahim Hirsi, “Minneapolis Teacher Mariam Mohamed Thinks the Emotional Health of Her Students Is More Important This Year Than Their Multiplication Tables,” Sahan Journal, January, 2021.
  18. Rilyn Eischens, “Distance Learning May Worsen Minnesota’s Achievement Gaps, Experts Say,” Minnesota Reformer, April 24, 2020.
  19. New American Economy, “Immigrants Working in Education during Covid-19 Crisis,” May 7, 2020.
  20. Meghan McCarty Carino, “COVID-19 Has Caused More Public School Job Losses Than the Entire Great Recession,” Marketplace, June 4, 2020.
  21. Ibrahim Hirsi, “The Pandemic Compelled One Somali American Educator to Become Something Else: A Full-Time Artist,” Sahan Journal, February 9, 2021.
Featured image: A man boards a repatriation flight to Mexico in May 2020. Photograph by CBP Photography / Wikimedia Commons