Though the COVID-19 virus represents a threat to every human, its spread has disproportionately impacted nonwhite and other marginalized communities. The U.S. government’s organized relief efforts, however, have relied on the legal status of humans. As a result, the logistics of COVID-19 relief, including the movement of money and materials, privilege U.S. citizens and certain non-citizens, and leave communities most impacted by the virus, such as undocumented immigrants, with the least protections.
Following the World Health Organization’s declaration of a Global Health Emergency on January 30, 2020, the Trump administration reluctantly followed suit and organized relief efforts for COVID-19 testing, unemployment insurance, and medical assistance. Many non-citizens, from lawful permanent residents to undocumented immigrants, navigated the early months of the pandemic without access to these fundamental protections. These immigrants, often “essential workers,” feared that the Trump administration’s stringent enforcement of federal public charge provisions would undermine their efforts to secure legal residency and citizenship, or even lead to deportation.
Meanwhile, the Department of State organized repatriation flights for U.S. citizens and encouraged others to return home on private flights. The Department’s efforts to assist U.S. citizens dramatically contrasted with its treatment of non-citizens who were often restricted from entry, expelled, shuttered from immigration hearings, saw visa and naturalization proceedings evaporate, or had their resettlement suspended.
American relief efforts that relied on Social Security numbers also disparately impacted citizens and non-citizens, particularly undocumented immigrants. Under the March 2020 CARES Act, signed by then-President Trump, only U.S. citizens and non-U.S. citizens with a Social Security number were eligible for stimulus checks. While these provisions were partially changed under the Biden administration, undocumented immigrants continue to have no direct access to federal and state programs of pandemic relief including unemployment insurance and eviction.
The Biden administration also opened vaccination access to immigrants irrespective of legal status in early 2021, but many undocumented immigrants remain hesitant, with some fearing that government vaccination programs represent a ruse for deportation. In sharp contrast, U.S. citizens overseas can reenter the United States, receive both doses of a COVID-19 vaccination, and then return to foreign countries in which they vacation or now call home.
Hardeep Dhillon completed her doctorate in History with a secondary in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS) at Harvard University. Her research examines the global development of U.S. immigration and border controls through the lens of Asian exclusion at the turn of the twentieth century.
Bo Thai (Boonyarit Daraphant) is a Los Angeles-based artist originally from Thailand. His work ranges from the visual to poetry and fashion. He is inspired by surrealism, anime, mindfulness, and his experience as an undocumented immigrant in the US.