Immigrants Keep Texas Going and Deserve Protection

The Coronavirus pandemic is a game-changer that should end the politics of fear against immigrants.

Throughout our nation’s history, some people have often scapegoated immigrants for political gains. President Trump and his Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller have taken this prescribed method of divisiveness to a whole new level with policies ranging from public charge, remain in place, jailing and detaining immigrant children and families, broad denials asylum seekers, and the proposed border wall.

Texas had avoided many of these same pitfalls in the last 20 years (even passing in-state tuition for Dreamers in 2001) up until the passage of Senate Bill 4 in 2017, which ignited a bitter divide among legislators. Lawmakers swept the debate under the rug in 2019, but this scapegoating continues to rise just below the political surface. Now after the massacre in El Paso on August 3 and a global pandemic that shows our inter-connectedness across national origin or immigration status, Texas leaders have an opportunity over the next year to end the politics and rhetoric of immigrant-bashing.

Over the last six weeks, the Coronavirus pandemic has damaged, altered, or ruined the lives and well-being of most Americans. If one thing has become quite clear, COVID- 19 does not respect state or national borders. 

However, this pandemic has disproportionately-impacted the most vulnerable among us—people of color, the poor, immigrants, seniors, and those with existing health conditions.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted between March 18 and 24 finds that about one in six Latinos “were either infected; had contact with someone infected; or knew someone infected in their extended social network” compared to about one in 11 Whites. Further, a recent report from the Pew Research Center indicates that the Coronavirus has hit Latinos particularly hard, with approximately half reporting that they or someone in their home has taken a pay cut or lost their job. Despite the impact on people of color and immigrants, there has been little enacted policies or legislation by Congress or the state to address their needs, especially for immigrant populations. Sweeping the healthcare and economic needs of immigrants under the rug is problematic because 1) it is dehumanizing; 2) it places all communities in danger, and 3) it harms the essential workers that are the backbone of the Texas economy.

COVID-19 testing and treatment must include immigrant populations.

The state of Texas has now taken meaningful action to streamline enrollment into Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). There remain, however, urgent steps our state leaders must take to ensure every Texan who needs to access testing and treatment for COVID-19 can do so without concern for cost.

Texas leaders should take additional steps to make COVID-19 testing available to uninsured Texans who are not U.S. citizens (both lawfully present and undocumented) through effective outreach. Texas has made important progress by requesting optional federal dollars to pay for COVID-19 testing for the majority of uninsured Texans. Pools of federal money are also available to pay for testing for uninsured non-citizens in Texas. However, most Texans don’t know this, and as a result, many uninsured and non-citizens in Texas who need testing may avoid it because they hear about bills in excess of $200, or out of fear that free testing will be denied to non-citizens.

Congress allocated funding to the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund to cover COVID-19 testing and related visits for the uninsured through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Several states are paying for this testing through Emergency Medicaid, so Texas should take full advantage and not use cost as an excuse to deny life-saving testing and treatment to immigrants.

Economic recovery must include immigrants.

Immigrants are on the front lines of the COVID 19 crisis. People of color are the majority of essential workers (61.2% are Black, Hispanic, or Asian) in comparison to the overall workforce.About 20% of essential workers in Texas are immigrants, and these workers are especially critical to keeping the trucking and warehouse sectors operating in Texas, as well as the Postal Service. About 99% of the workers at the JBS Beef meatpacking plant in Cactus, Texas are immigrants that reportedly were hit with a cluster of Coronavirus cases. This is a clear example of how leaving immigrants out of the economic and healthcare recovery plan is a disaster in the making.

The federal response to the COVID-19 crisis, including the FFCRA and the CARES Acts, left many low- and moderate-income immigrants – especially in mixed-status families – out of the public health and stimulus policies. Many mixed-status families are also left out of the recovery, meaning one family member that files their taxes using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN), rather than a Social Security Number. This exclusion threatens the well-being of immigrants and their families, putting at risk millions of U.S. citizen children and our communities as a whole. The omission will greatly undermine the nation’s ability to overcome this unprecedented crisis.

Similarly, immigrant students and recent graduates are also in need of support. Any day now, the U.S. Supreme Court may terminate the program known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) leaving hundreds of thousands of Texans in a legal limbo and unable to obtain work authorization. Well over 100,000 DACA recipients are front line, essential workers. Ending DACA will likely result in significant economic, health, and societal harms especially in Texas. We ask institutions of higher education to prioritize immigrant students, undocumented students, DACA recipients, students enrolled part-time, first-generation college students, student parents, former foster care youth, financially independent students, and historically underrepresented students in the emergency aid process. We should not base emergency aid solely on Federal Pell Grant eligibility, as this alone does not include the range of students who need access to aid.

If we are serious about addressing the full scale of this public health emergency, then we can no longer afford to leave out millions of our community members from the response. We must ensure that everyone has access to the health care, nutrition and income support they need. Texas leaders on both the state and local levels are going to have to fill the gaps if the federal government won’t.

Detaining immigrants is an unnecessary health risk

A recent lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Texas Civil Rights Project has highlighted the shocking conditions inside immigrant detention centers. Immigrants describe lax measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including receiving little or no medical care for their existing conditions, being housed in crowded dormitories, receiving insufficient soap or hand sanitizer, and being forced to interact with guards who do not wear gloves or face masks, even while handing out food to detainees, according to the lawsuit.“It’s impossible to socially distance in these ICE facilities,” said Efrén C. Olivares, Legal Director of the Racial and Economic Justice Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “…ICE is asking for an outbreak that will endanger the lives of the entire community, in areas that are already starting out with fewer healthcare resources.”

  • The Department of Homeland Security should release all immigrants currently detained in immigration facilities and prioritize those who are sick, most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill including older adults, and those with pre-existing medical conditions. 
  • State and local law enforcement should end all discretionary arrests to reduce the number of people detained in jails. Prosecutors and courts should prioritize alternative sentencing over prison time for similar reasons.

Texas is more dependent on immigrants than ever before. Immigrant workers are shoring up the construction and agricultural industries. Placing immigrants in jails or detention centers only exacerbates the spread of COVID-19.

Federal officials should immediately decrease the number of people held in jails, prisons, and detention centers. Being arrested, detained or held in a facility could increase the risk of exposure to individuals and worsen conditions for families already struggling economically. We call on lawmakers to ensure: 

  • A moratorium on ICE enforcement actions and local law enforcement immigration-related detentions and stops and eventual repeal of Senate Bill 4 (85 R)
  • Sanitary conditions and adequate preventive measures to protect detained people

This pandemic is devastating communities and families, and immigrants are carrying a particularly large burden. State and federal officials should adopt policies that protect immigrants and their families and ensure that they can continue to contribute to and participate in the Texas economy.

Luis Figueroa joined the Center in 2018 as the first Legislative and Policy Director. In this important new role, Luis oversees CPPP's comprehensive legislative strategy and leads our distinguished team of policy experts. He was previously General Counsel for Texas State Senator José Rodríguez and Executive Director of the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus. Previously, he served as the Legislative Attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), where he worked from 2004 to 2013. A proud Texan from El Paso, Luis received the 2013 MALDEF Award for services performed on behalf of the Latino community in pursuit of social justice, the 2011 Champion of Equality and Justice Award from LULAC, and the 2009 Spirit of Change Award by State Rep. Joaquin Castro, among other honors. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Speech Communications with a concentration in American Politics and Law from Trinity University in San Antonio, and his Juris Doctorate from the University Of Texas School Of Law. He is licensed to practice law in the State of Texas.