Penn State Law’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic hosted a virtual town hall Thursday to provide information about immigration and immigrants’ rights during the coronavirus pandemic.
Shoba Wadhia, Penn State clinical professor of law and the director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, moderated the town hall.
Various students from the CIRC gave information about various topics surrounding immigrants' rights amid the coronavirus pandemic.
One law student, Kaitlyn Box, spoke about immigration services. Box said United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has suspended in-person services until at least May 3.
USCIS is a “a component of the Department of Homeland Security that provides services related to immigration benefits and applications,” according to Box.
Box said all application support centers, field offices and asylum offices are currently closed.
USCIS is still providing services that do not require in-person contact, and will “provide emergency services in certain situations,” according to Box.
Wadhia also said that although USCIS offices are currently not providing in-person services, applications and petitions are “still being processed.”
Law students Tracy Wong and Shiv Singh discussed immigration enforcement.
According to Singh, the Department of Homeland Security has a policy of not carrying out immigrant enforcement at “sensitive locations,” which include places of worship, schools and healthcare facilities.
Singh said the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released guidelines on March 18 in response to the spread of the coronavirus, which said ICE will act with the DHS’s current sensitive location policy.
Wong said ICE will “temporarily stop most arrests during this outbreak.” Instead, she said, ICE will focus on “enforcement of public safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds."
Ashika Verriest, a staff attorney with the CIRC, said ICE is still detaining people currently.
Verriest said that while ICE has temporarily stopped most arrests currently as Wong explained, there are still over 35,000 immigrants who are still in detention.
In Pennsylvania, ICE is detaining immigrants primarily in York County Prison, Pike County Correctional Facility, Clinton County Correctional Facility and Berks County Residential Center, according to Verriest.
Verriest said one detainee in York County Prison and six detainees in Pike County Correctional Facility have tested positive for the coronavirus. There are currently no confirmed coronavirus cases among ICE employees in Pennsylvania detention facilities.
Verriest said many lawsuits have been filed recently asking for release of detainees on due process and statutory bribe, such as the ACLU's lawsuits defending “vulnerable people incarcerated in Pennsylvania immigration detention asking for immediate release because they are at high risk for severe illness on the basis of due process and the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.”
“The number of lawsuits that have been filed, not just in Pennsylvania but around the country, that’s a lot of time and expense for the taxpayer as well as for the government,” Wadhia said. “The government has discretion to release immigration detainees without a lawsuit. This just shows that discretionary choice that has been made by the government to keep most immigrants in detention.”
Additionally, Masume Assaf, a director for the Office of Global Programs’ International Student and Scholar Advising, has been working to learn how the current immigration policies will affect Penn State’s international students.
Assaf said there are “strict regulations governing international students.” International students are governed by a unit within ICE called the Student Exchange Visitor Program, according to Assaf.
Initially, SEVP was not permitting international students to go home during the period of remote instruction. Assaf said there were many students who wanted to go home and be with their families, so SEVP later decided students could return home to complete their online classes.
However, Assaf said some international students are struggling to return to their home countries due to flight restrictions.
“Flights to China, it was down to — it may still be this way — one flight a week,” Assaf said. “Flights were being canceled right and left.”
Assaf said many students were able to return home, but international students who are graduating in May are facing other challenges regarding their ability to return to the United States.
To connect food security and public benefits with immigration rights during the spread of the coronavirus, law student Bianca Gutierrez discussed restaurant and farm workers, and access to food banks.
“Farm workers feed the world through their labor, bringing fruits, vegetables, and other crops to homes across the nation,” Gutierrez said. “Their work is critical, yet they and their work have not been properly valued.”
Gutierrez said farm workers are facing health issues, like not having access to hand washing facilities and being on crowded transportation.
Moreover, Gutierrez said restaurant workers are facing an “unprecedented impact” due to the spread of the coronavirus, and “many immigrant workers are especially vulnerable to the economic downturn.”
For more information visit the CIRC’s website.