Of Enduring Interest

Immigrants and Deportation in the Pandemic

by Alejandro Portes, University of Miami / Princeton University

Just as the elusive COVID-19 virus has inflicted an extraordinary shock on the economies of all countries, it has also led to a completely altered map in the dynamics of immigration. In both cases, the operational term is paralysis. Just as many large capitalist corporations are being driven to the point of bankruptcy, the forces that normally drive the various forms of international migration have become nearly immobilized. It is not only the case that receiving countries coping with the tragic consequences of mass contagion are becoming much less willing to receive newcomers, it is also that the normal motivations impelling people to leave their countries have become largely inoperative.

In normal times, the bulk of international migration is driven by absolute and relative deprivation in sending countries, and by the demand for different types of migrant skills in receiving ones. Demand for manual labor in such sectors as agriculture and construction in host nations plus poverty, lack of opportunity, and desire to improve one’s lot in life are the forces behind sustained low-skill flows from Mexico and the Caribbean to the United States, and African and Middle Easterners countries to Western Europe. Similarly, a scarcity of engineers and a shortage of skilled programmers and other technicians drive the demand for trained migrants in the rich countries, while limited opportunities and relative deprivation at home impel Indian, Filipino, and Korean skilled workers to seek better lives abroad.

But in the present era of mass contagion, who is to receive, much less welcome, masses of Mexican, Guatemalan or African workers in the developed countries? Which high-tech companies are sufficiently confident in the midst of prevailing uncertainty to continue importing Indian engineers or Chinese programmers? And if demand for these different categories of immigrants becomes at least temporally paralyzed, the motives of such migrants to travel abroad have become significantly diminished. For who is brave enough to leave the relative security of one’s own home community to face the prospect of illness or even death in a foreign land? Put differently, in the era of the pandemic, there is nowhere to run.

An extreme and nightmarish example of the present situation is furnished by the cruise industry based in South Florida and, in particular, Miami. Over the years, operators of mountainous ships have become adept at staffing them with cheap labor from the Philippines, India, and other Third World countries. At present, it has become evident that these tightly packed vessels are excellent vehicles for mass contagion. Having discharged most of their passengers, the ships have been sent back to sea by authorities reluctant to let myriads of foreign and potentially infected crew members disembark. The overwhelming desire of these earlier migrants now bobbing pathetically at sea is to go home and stay there. No more traveling in search of a better life for them. In other words, no more migration.

The other major mover of people across borders is political instability and violence in home countries. The resulting flows seek refuge in receiving nations. In normal times, refugees are not particularly welcome since there is no apparent need for them in the host economies. Refugees tend to be admitted, under exceptional circumstances, either for geopolitical imperatives or out of concern for their human rights in principled liberal democracies.

The United States was one of the largest recipients of refugees in recent decades, but the end of compassion under the present nationalist administration has led, as we saw before, to the reduction of refugee and asylee flows to a trickle. The pandemic will only aggravate these conditions. If previously it was difficult for would-be refugees from the Middle East and asylum claimants from Central America to get entry into the United States, in 2020 it will be nearly impossible. Struggling with their own national emergencies, other formerly generous rich nations are likely to follow suit. A key consequence of the pandemic will be to keep people tied down to places, at least in the short-term.

Apocalyptic scenarios may be envisioned in which masses of people escaping infection and collapsing health systems in poor countries will seek to move abroad. They would likely be met with military force, as government and populations of would-be receiving countries decisively oppose their admission and resettlement. A preview of what may come is the situation of Venezuelans seeking to escape economic collapse and the plague at home by moving to neighboring Colombia. Unsurprisingly, the Colombian government mobilized the army to prevent their arrival and set up isolated camps under military supervision for those who have managed to trickle in. As a Colombian sociologist reports: 

With the arrival of COVID-19, the criminalization of Venezuelan migration becomes extreme through strong measures of expulsion or deportation—Entry is forbidden and those caught are expelled or imprisoned. In this manner, Venezuelans are excluded, attacked, or sent back to their country. Concentration camp scenarios are not unlikely as governments struggling with mass infections seek to decisively prevent the arrival of new cases from abroad.

Despite the rapid reduction in international travel associated with regular immigration, refugee arrivals, and asylum requests, an agency of the U.S. federal government has persisted in its mission of reducing the stock of foreign population. This is ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) which, in the midst of the pandemic, continues to persecute and detain, terrorizing poor immigrants in city and countryside alike. The contradictory character of American immigration policy becomes crystal clear as the President orders meatpacking plants to continue functioning while their workers fall ill in droves from poor sanitary conditions and as ICE piles on by continuing to detain them.

At a time when the dependence of the nation’s food chain on humble crop collectors, fruit pickers, and meat plant workers—many of them foreign and undocumented—is becoming more evident, ICE’s actions run directly against the nation’s vital interest. Never mind the agency goes on arresting people, confining them to crowded detention centers, and thereby increasing the infection rate among them and in the general population. Under present conditions, ICE can be defined as a regnant agency weakening the nation’s workforce in strategic areas while directly contributing to the pandemic by conditions in its detention centers. More than hotel chains, restaurants, and beaches, it is ICE that needs to be in lockdown and, for a good long time. Its removal from the scene should mark a significant contribution to the end of the present crisis and later on to the fashioning of rational and more humane migration policy.


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