COVID-19 Guidance for Immigrant Rich Communities

April 2, 2020 - (5 min read)

Communities with large immigrant populations may be at risk for greater exposure to COVID-19 because of new rules that have been implemented by the Trump Administration. These rules include increased enforcement efforts to remove all undocumented immigrants, implementation of stricter public charge rules and closure of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices which process immigration applications.

The risk is simple; immigrants (documented and undocumented) exposed to the COVID-19 virus may be less willing to get tested and seek health care and other public assistance as a result of increased enforcement actions and stricter public charge rules. This could lead to a larger spread of the COVID-19 virus in immigrant-rich communities and fewer resources to cope with job loss. During this time, it is important for local governments to work with their immigrant communities to ensure they are accessing necessary resources to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 and are following the social distancing guidelines and other local and state actions intended to slow down the spread.

Guidance on Public Charge Rule

The USCIS issued the following guidance on COVID-19. It essentially states that USCIS will not hold accessing publicly funded health care to deal with COVID-19 against an immigrant seeking to extend their nonimmigrant stay or change their nonimmigrant status. Additionally, guidance will allow them to explain how COVID-19 prevented him or her from working or attending school thus necessitating public assistance.

To 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 inadmissibility 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, as defined in the rule (e.g. federally funded Medicaid).

The rule requires USCIS to consider the receipt of certain cash and non-cash public benefits, including those that may be used to obtain testing or treatment for COVID-19 in a public charge inadmissibility determination, and for purposes of a public benefit condition applicable to certain nonimmigrants seeking an extension of stay or change of status.  The list of public benefits considered for this purpose includes most forms of federally funded Medicaid (for those over 21), but does not include CHIP, or State, local, or tribal public health care services/assistance that are not funded by federal Medicaid.

If an alien is subject to the public charge ground of inadmissibility lives and works in a jurisdiction where disease prevention methods such as social distancing or quarantine are in place, or where the immigrant’s employer, school, or university voluntarily shuts down operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the alien may submit a statement with his or her application for adjustment of status to explain how such methods or policies have affected the alien as relevant to the factors USCIS must consider in a public charge inadmissibility determination.  For example, if the alien is prevented from working or attending school, and must rely on public benefits for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak and recovery phase, the alien can provide an explanation and relevant supporting documentation.  To the extent relevant and credible, USCIS will take all such evidence into consideration in the totality of the alien’s circumstances.

For more information about the Public Charge Rule guidance for COVID-19.

Immigration Enforcement

Local leaders should make their immigrant communities aware of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) guidance on limiting enforcement actions at health care facilities during COVID-19.  According to ICE, “during the COVID-19 crisis, it will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.”

For more information about Immigration and Customs Enforcement Guidance on COVID-19.

For additional resources to support immigrants in your community, the National Immigration Law Center has a series of resources that can be found on their website here.

Yucel Ors smallAbout the Author: Yucel (“u-jel”) Ors is the Legislative Director for Public Safety and Crime Prevention at the National League of Cities. Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.




Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman is the Legislative Director for Human Development at the National League of Cities. Follow Stephanie on Twitter @martinezruckman.



lisa_soronen_new_125x150Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center, which files Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the Big Seven national organizations, including the National League of Cities, representing state and local governments. She is a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.