Trump deportation frenzy threatens the lives of thousands
A Haitian boy who was deported from the United States looks out the window of a bus that will take him to a hotel where he will be quarantined as a measure against the spread of the new coronavirus, in Tabarre, Haiti, April 23, 2020. | Dieu Nalio Chery / AP

The hostility of President Donald Trump and his entourage toward immigrants from the poorer countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean has long been notorious. It is at the root of a whole series of repressive policies aimed at those communities, including mass deportation and the horror of “children in cages” at the border. But now, with the COVID-19 pandemic raging, and with the United States itself the world epicenter, the health and lives of potentially millions of people in the countries to which deportees are sent are put at risk by the federal government’s deportation policies.

According to an analysis by the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR), the United States deported people to eleven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean between Feb. 3 and April 24 of this year, in a probable 232 separate flights, mostly by companies chartered by ICE. There was also a large number of overland deportations across the border to Mexico.

Besides Mexico, countries to which these individuals were deported include Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Brazil, and Jamaica. Ecuador and Brazil are also experiencing raging outbreaks of COVID-19, with many deaths and overwhelmed health care facilities. Deportations in the first three months of 2020 totaled 20,833.

The unsanitary conditions in which immigration detainees are kept in detention centers in the United States, including minor children and people seeking asylum, make such places incubators for COVID-19 and many other dangerous diseases. This notorious situation has led to denunciations and protests, including hunger strikes by detainees themselves. Now, people are being ejected from these facilities only to be dumped in much poorer countries that are even less able than the United States to handle a deadly pandemic.

Guatemalans deported from the U.S., wearing masks as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, board a bus after arriving at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, Monday, May 4, 2020. The Guatemalan government says at least 100 migrants deported from the United States between late March and mid-April have tested positive for COVID-19. | Moises Castillo / AP

In most of these countries, health care facilities, never adequately funded, have been whittled down to a shadow of their former selves by the implementation of neoliberal policies of austerity and privatization. Transnational finance capital, working through the International Monetary Fund and through U.S. and European imperialism, has pressured these countries to strip down their social safety nets to enable them to pay holders of their sovereign bonds.

Economies and health care systems on life support

In Haiti, for example, since a right-wing coup supported by the United States, France, and Canada overthrew leftist President Jean Bertrand Aristide in 2004, the proportion of the Haitian national budget dedicated to health care dropped from 16.6% to 3.9% as of 2018. Haiti has only about 900 doctors to attend to its 11 million people, so a massive increase in COVID-19 cases would completely overwhelm its resources.

Corrupt elites are behind right-wing governments in several of the affected countries. In Guatemala and Honduras, funds intended for health services have been diverted to corrupt ends. The extreme right-wing government of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has all but wrecked the national health care system.

Natural disasters have added to the dire situation. Haiti has never recovered from the horrific earthquake of January 2010; “development aid” has been of the neoliberal variety; and to top it off, U.N. peacekeeping troops, carelessly disposing of their personal waste, set off a massive cholera epidemic later that same year. In Central America, global warming had led to a multi-year drought situation which has driven many farmers off the land to seek work in the cities, or, in many cases, to try to get to the United States to find work here.

In most of these countries, the economy does not produce enough jobs with decent pay and benefits to accommodate all who enter the labor market. Pay is also usually very low. So a common feature of the whole region is that a large number of people support themselves through the informal sector, often selling things like food, CDs, clothing, and other items on the street. This creates a bustling and often crowded street life.

Those who eke out a living by this kind of marginal economic activity often do not appear on the government’s tax rolls and in some cases do not qualify for any government help. Now that country after country is imposing the strictest quarantine measures possible under pandemic circumstances, much of this street level economic activity cannot continue.

On top of all this, there is the problem of remittances, money sent by immigrants (with or without immigration papers or U.S. citizenship) to their families and communities in their countries of origin. The countries most affected by the Trump deportation frenzy are in many cases highly dependent on that source of revenue. Remittances made up 32.53% of Haiti’s Gross Domestic Product in 2018, one of the most extreme cases. The figures for some of the other affected countries are El Salvador at 20.68%, Honduras 19.93%, Jamaica 15.92%, and Guatemala 12.03%. Many of the workers who have been sending home remittances from the United States can no longer do so because they have lost their jobs (and if they are undocumented can’t even get unemployment compensation or other federal aid).

Even within the poorer countries, people who have lost their incomes because of the pandemic are streaming back to their families’ home villages—creating the danger that they will bring the COVID-19 pandemic to those rural areas, too. To say that rural communities like these are “medically underserved” would be a huge understatement; many do not even have access to clean water. And there is a very dangerous movement of people between poor countries, with, for instance, large numbers of Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic being pushed back into Haiti, also very likely bringing the virus back with them.

Deporting the virus along with the workers

For the United States to send hundreds of planeloads and busloads of immigrants and refugees into such dire situations in poor countries would be bad enough, but sending people who might well be infected with the COVID-19 virus into these countries could be deadly for hundreds of thousands of people.

The Trump administration has browbeaten some countries in the area into accepting its twisted interpretation of international law regarding the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Supposedly, persons fleeing persecution in their home countries should ask for asylum in the first “safe” country they enter after leaving. Thus, people fleeing Honduras, for example, should not come to the United States but rather should stay in the country next to theirs, namely Guatemala, and ask for asylum there.

The trouble is that none of the countries in that region are really “safe” for many of their own citizens, let alone for people fleeing danger from the country next door. The issue of real versus spurious safety has become even more urgent under the conditions of the pandemic.

In fact, there is much evidence which indicates that the ICE deportation flights, at least to Guatemala and Haiti, have included numerous people who have tested positive for COVID-19. According to reporting from Democracy Now, as of May 4, at least 117 people deported to Guatemala have tested positive for the virus, “making up some 15% of Guatemala’s cases.”

In mid-April, President Alejandro Giamattei of Guatemala had refused to accept more deportation flights because of one particular flight on which 44 deportees tested positive. Later, Giamattei relented and allowed the flights to resume if the U.S. promised to test passengers before sending them, but there are doubts now as to whether this has really been happening, based on some specific cases in which testing appears to have been done incorrectly or not at all.

ICE claims it has not been deporting individuals to Haiti who test positive, although it originally intended to do so, but who can really say what the Trump administration might decide to do in the future?

Protesters hold placards as members of the groups Abolish ICE Colorado, Sanctuary for All, American Friends Service Committee, and Never Again Action take part in a car protest to call for the release of detained immigrants at the GEO Detention Center, April 3, 2020, in Aurora, Colo. More than 30 vehicles were used in the protest to call attention to the danger that the new coronavirus poses to the detainees in the facility. | David Zalubowski / AP

Resistance action

In the United States, there are efforts to put a stop to this potential genocide by deportation. On May 8, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., introduced a bill in the House of Representatives (HR 6798) to suspend deportation of Haitians during the pandemic crisis.

Working on a much broader front, a group of more than 70 immigrants’ rights,  civil rights, faith-based organizations, and others is promoting a demand to stop all deportations for the duration of the pandemic. Groups involved in this effort include the American Friends Service Committee, the Center for Victims of Torture, CARECEN, CHIRLA, CISPES, Human Rights First, the Latin America Working Group, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Immigrant Justice Center, the National Network on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Oxfam America, Pax Christi USA, the United Methodist Church, United We Dream, and others.

A total of 164 organizations have signed onto another statement demanding an end to deportations to Haiti.

The Latin America Working Group is circulating a strongly-worded petition to demand an end to the deportations, to the “stay in Mexico” policy, and to the closing of the U.S. border to asylum seekers.

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Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.