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USCIS Urges COVID-19 Testing and Treatment With ICE Updating Enforcement Policy to Reduce Fear of Arrest and Spread of Coronavirus

With testing for the COVID-19 pandemic expected to increase across the United States and a determination to test the entire U.S. population to determine COVID-19 immunity before a true reopening of the economy, the nearly 44.7 million immigrants lawfully in the United States and over 16 million undocumented immigrants living under the radar have expressed concerns as to their ability to seek testing and treatment, if at all. Many have reported fears of seeking medical assistance, contacting physicians, or visiting the local emergency room, notwithstanding COVID-19 symptoms, because of potential, or, better put, perceived consequences on their immigration status—whether lawful or undocumented.

USCIS Urges Testing and Treatment for COVID-19 Symptomatic Individuals Regardless of Immigration Status

Following the White House declaration of the COVID-19 national emergency, United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) released a statement that clearly advised all those—immigrant, non-immigrant, undocumented, or lawful permanent resident—to seek treatment if showing COVID-19 symptoms: “USCIS encourages all those, including aliens, with symptoms that resemble COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath) to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services.” That means that no person—regardless of immigration status—should fear seeking treatment if COVID-19 symptoms are present. The COVID-19 pandemic is a national public health emergency that does not limit itself to those who are documented or undocumented and the way to limit the continued spread is to ensure all those in the United States are tested when symptomatic and, if positive, treated.

Moreover, the USCIS clarified that COVID-19 related testing and treatment, even if paid for by a federal or state government financial assistance program will not adversely impact one seeking to immigrate to the United States because of receiving the federal or state COVID-19 public health benefits.

Typically, a prospective immigrant that received certain federal or state public benefits could be deemed a “public charge” and not permitted to become a lawful permanent resident. The “public charge rule,” according to the USCIS, is “critical to defending and protecting Americans’ health and its health care resources.” When the USCIS is conducting a review of a permanent resident applicant and the use of public benefits in the past, the USCIS “considers the receipt of public benefits as only one consideration among a number of factors and considerations in the totality of the alien’s circumstances over a period of time with no single factor being outcome determinative.” While the “public charge rule” is not meant to “restrict access to testing, screening, or treatment of communicable diseases, including COVID-19. . . . [or] access to vaccines for children or adults to prevent vaccine-preventable diseases,” USCIS’s recent COVID-19 statement further clarified this, specifically noting that—providing further assurances to immigrants and non-immigrants:

[t]o address the possibility that some aliens impacted by COVID-19 may be hesitant to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services, USCIS will neither consider testing, treatment, nor preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19 as part of a public charge . . .  determination, nor as related to the public benefit condition applicable to certain nonimmigrants seeking an extension of stay or change of status, even if such treatment is provided or paid for by one or more public benefits, . . . (e.g. federally funded Medicaid).

Simply put, if you, a family member, co-worker, or a friend is showing COVID-19 symptoms, please seek medical treatment, regardless of immigration status, or lack thereof.

ICE Limits Arrests at Hospitals and Health Care Facilities

In January of 2017, the White House increased immigration enforcement actions, seeking to increase the number of those placed into removal proceedings who are present in the United States without authorization. Since then, federal immigration agents have effectuated arrests at courthouses, hospitals, and other similar facilities. These arrests have riveted through the undocumented immigrant community, with the unintended consequences of preventing undocumented immigrants from seeking medical attention when ill. This fear remains, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect more and more in the United States.

In response, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, hoping to limit the spread of COVID-19, released guidance that provides some comfort:

While [ICE] agents continue daily enforcement operations to make criminal and civil arrests, prioritizing individuals who threaten our national security and public safety, we remain committed to the health and safety of our employees and the general public. It is important for the public to know that ICE does not conduct operations at medical facilities, except under extraordinary circumstances. ICE policy directs our officers to avoid making arrests at sensitive locations – to include . . . health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities – without prior approval for an exemption, or in exigent circumstances.

Absent an immediate danger to the community or security risk by, or the possible escape of the undocumented immigrant, ICE’s COVID-19 enforcement policy limits arrests of undocumented immigrants at hospitals, health clinics, medical doctor offices, and urgent care facilities. In light of this, individuals in the United States without proper authorization should not be afraid to seek medical attention if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

©2020 Norris McLaughlin P.A., All Rights ReservedNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 113


About this Author

Raymond Lahoud Immigration Attorney Norris McLaughlin

Raymond G. Lahoud, Chair of the firm’s Immigration Law Practice, focuses exclusively on the area of immigration law and deportation defense for individuals, families, small to large domestic and multinational businesses and corporations, employers, international employees, investors, students, professors, researchers, skilled professionals, athletes, and entertainers, in every type of immigration or deportation defense matter—whether domestic or foreign.  While Ray’s immigration practice is global in reach, with service to individuals and organizations across the United States and beyond,...