Posted by Ryan Suto on March 23, 2020 in Blog

COVID-19 has impacted everyone, as we have all been inundated with tragedies, statistics, advisories, updates, and new government measures to fight the virus. Congress has moved at lightning speed to address the epidemic. In total, since Feb. 28, 40 pieces of legislation focusing on COVID-19 have been introduced. And while more relief is in negotiation, the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act have already been passed, the latter of which is a 43-page law that was introduced in the House on March 11 and signed into law a week later. But COVID-19 has also had impacts on other policy areas that are of particular concern to Arab Americans. 

 

Hate crime. 

Regrettably, the coronavirus has often been accompanied by a “Chinese virus” trope, which has been emphasized by some leaders and public figures because of the origin of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. In the wake of the virus, countries like the U.K. and the U.S. have seen a rise in hate crimes against individuals of Chinese and East Asian ancestry. There have surfaced many reports from cities like San Francisco and New York City of Asian Americans being attacked accompanied by racist statements about COVID-19, including verbal harassmentspitting, and numerous physical attacks. Many of these incidents are now being investigated as hate crimes. Disturbingly, FBI documents have revealed that white supremacists planned on weaponizing COVID-19 by spraying infected saliva onto non-white Americans in an effort to kill off those populations. AAI stands ready, alongside organizations such as AAJC and NCAPA, with any group targeted by hate crime to help improve data collection, reporting, and enforcement. 

 

2020 Census.

COVID-19 has also directly impacted how the 2020 census has been conducted. As colleges and universities across the country have canceled the remainder of their semesters, many students could be filling out their census forms where their parents reside, instead of where they spend the majority of the year. As such, the Census Bureau has released guidance to still count students where they would have been on April 1, meaning in their off-campus apartments or counted by their schools if they lived in the dorms. The Bureau has also suspended field operations for the rest of March, is moving up non-response follow up to begin on April 23, and has extended data collection two weeks beyond the original July 31 completion date. While April 1 is Census Day, accompanied by Census Days of Action by initiatives like YallaCountMeIn, this year those efforts will have to be virtual, instead of in-person. 

 

2020 Elections. 

As the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and cases skyrocketed across the U.S., state officials across the country have faced a difficult decision: to postpone primary dates, attempt electoral reforms that would decrease in-person interactions, or push forward as planned. Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, and Puerto Rico have rescheduled their primaries. Some states, however, proceeded with their primary elections as planned. On Tuesday, March 17 many registered voters in Arizona, Illinois, and Florida faced the choice of voting and risk contracting or spreading COVID-19, or not voting at all. Unfortunately, Arizona responded to the outbreak by closing more than a third of the voting locations in Maricopa County, the largest in the state, increasing the difficulty to vote and increasing the number of individuals at each voting location. Moving forward, only five primaries are scheduled between now and late April: Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, and Wisconsin. Officials in Wisconsin are now discussing the merits of postponing the primary and a new lawsuit has been filed attempting to force more lax deadlines for early voting, as well. Amid these concerns, there have been increased calls for states to expand vote-by-mail or no-excuse absentee voting, reforms that AAI has long supported. One proposal, the Natural Disaster and Emergency Ballot Act (NDEBA), would establish vote by mail contingency plans for federal elections in the event of a pandemic or other national emergency.

 

Surveillance.

The Trump Administration is seeking to ramp up surveillance of Americans under the guise of tracking the spread of COVID-19. Palantir Inc., which assists ICE in finding undocumented migrants, is now working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other companies are aggregating social media data for theNational Institutes of Health, and others are working to provide officials with geolocation tracking data from cell phones, as well as access to facial recognition systems. And there have already been changes to increase flexibility of the medical privacy rules encoded in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Worryingly, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has requested that Congress grant it “the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies.”

Considering that on March 16 of this year the Senate approved a 77-day extension of government surveillance authorities, including Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, it is clear that powers given to the federal government are rarely ceded. In the same week as civil liberties groups fight the surveillance power amid the 2001 national emergency of the 9/11 terror attacks, the administration is seeking greater surveillance power amid the 2020 national emergency of the COVID-19 outbreak. While a range of tools must be available to fight this pandemic, policy must be crafted carefully to not trade the potential of safety for the necessity of privacy. 

 

Immigration.

It is perhaps no surprise that immigration has been one of the quickest-moving policy areas since the virus has reached the U.S. Beyond high-profile travel restrictions on nationals from specific countries in Europe and Asia, COVID-19 has impacted much of how the immigration system functions on a daily basis. 

The first policy sidelined due to the outbreak was the NO BAN Act, which was scheduled for a floor vote the week of March 9 but was postponed to instead address COVID-19-related matters. The Trump Administration then announced that effectively no asylum seekers would be processed at the U.S.-Mexico border; their claims for asylum would go completely unexamined. On March 18 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) suspended routine in-person services until at least April 1. While a reasonable decision, the administration has not made considerations for DACA recipients during this time who may need to visit USCIS to renew their status before it expires. The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) has also closed most immigration court locations, suspending hearings for non-detained individuals. However, hearings for those in detention continue, despite the urging of judges and attorneys alike

Also continuing work during the outbreak is Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has largely continued their operations, requiring “almost 200 non-detained people – many elderly in wheelchairs -- [to stand] in a line outside, waiting for their mandatory check-ins” at a location near Miami. ICE has also maintained their detention facilities; in the Aurora facility in Colorado, ten individuals have been isolated for possible COVID-19 exposure. Further, ICE agents continue to pursue arrests in California while the state is under state and local government curfews and heightened restrictions and are still transporting undocumented children on commercial airlines across the country to areas of concentrated COVID-19 outbreaks. 

Perhaps the only positive development in the immigration space is that the Families First Act funds COVID-19 testing for anyone who is uninsured, including undocumented migrants, which President Trump has affirmed. Further, USCIS has clarified that seeking COVID-19 testing would not be counted negatively for visa applications under the Trump Administration’s public charge rule. Migrant communities must be given the same opportunities for testing, treatment, protection, and safety nets as other Americans, regardless of documentation status. 

 

Importantly, all of these policy areas continue to evolve, along with our understanding of, and response to, COVID-19 itself. But AAI will track it all, along with how such changes might impact Arab American communities in particular. While we are unsure as to the future of this virus, we are sure that AAI will continue to advocate for Arab Americans, their safety, their prosperity, and their inclusion in the civic spaces that many have fought so long to inhabit.