Virus as Vehicle: How COVID-19 Advances Trump’s White Supremacy Plans

The physical paralysis of the present has fostered a flourishing of discussions about the future. As conservatives hanker for a pre-pandemic past, progressives have reached a consensus that the old normal was what made so many people vulnerable; the pandemic revealed just how lethal social inequality can be. The web is abuzz with debates on what the new normal should look like and how to get there. The pause has made us think about the world we want and dare to believe that we can get there.

But there is also at least some recognition–not enough–that we cannot expect an AHA! moment of historic paradigm shift. The pandemic in itself will not rip off capitalism’s guise of inevitability to give rise to a more caring, sustainable society with human values at the core. This is not the time when, after pining in confinement, the human race realizes the error of its ways and eventually emerges holding hands and singing on a daisy-covered hillside.

That’s not going to happen. What we’re facing is the battle of our lifetimes. The rightwing in many ways is better poised to seize this moment than we are, and it has made huge strides in the few months of the crisis so far. For the Trump administration, the first agenda to push on a demobilized society has been–you guessed it—the white supremacist crackdown on immigrants of color.

There’s no need for a conspiracy theory here. The sequence of policy attacks on the immigrant community since the pandemic began tells its own story, backed up by Tweets and White House statements. What’s important to remember is that although obscure laws and scrambled explanations regarding public health have been used to justify the attacks, they have no scientific application whatsoever. The anti-immigrant offensive began far before the pandemic—the coronavirus just cranked it up a notch.

When the pandemic began early this year, the relentless efforts of Trump and his weaselly senior advisor, Stephen Miller, had already achieved far more in limiting the entry of foreign immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees and harassing those already in the country than anyone would have believed possible a few years ago. The pandemic, while inconvenient for Trump’s re-election campaign in other senses–such as provoking mass death and economic crisis on his presidential watch—provided a perfect vehicle for their anti-immigrant plans.

First, because it could be framed as a foreign invasion. Trump’s first response was to impose travel restrictions from China on January 31. The measure, along with the repeated use of the epithet “Chinese virus”, served its purpose to taint all Chinese people as dangerous pathogens. Human rights organizations reported a rise in hate crimes against all Asians in the U.S. and in many other countries, prompting the UN Secretary General to tweet, “The pandemic continues to unleash a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering.” That’s exactly the Trump formula for stirring up his base.

On the other hand, the travel restrictions had little to no impact on containing the virus. U.S. citizens were permitted to continue to travel back and forth to China, although those returning from the Wuhan area were subject to quarantine. Goods continued to flow and transportation personnel went between the countries. Several experts noted that restrictions targeting a single country in a building global pandemic are ineffective. Several cases had already been identified in the U.S., followed by no effort to institute systematic testing or contact tracing to limit contagion. Establishing the blame-China narrative took priority over preparing for the homegrown pandemic.

Second, the health crisis provided a pretext for rapidly implementing racist policy goals that have nothing to do with health or the spread of the virus. As the administration fumbled with slow and contradictory responses to the disease, it moved quickly to shut down the border. On March 18, Trump announced that the US-Canada and US-Mexico borders would be closed to “non-essential travel”, citing immigrants’ “potential to spread infectious disease”. A March 19 memo from Customs and Border Patrol called for 1,500 soldiers to be sent to the borders with Canada and Mexico, heightening the perception of threat from immigration as fear rose within the United States with the rising death toll. The Canadian foreign minister irately opposed the troops as “an entirely unnecessary step”. Mexico’s president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has continued his policy of avoiding confrontation with Trump even when migrants’ lives are at stake.

A March 20 order signed by Robert Redfield, chief of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), applied an 1893 quarantine law to justify sealing the Mexico border to immigrants, stating, “The existence of COVID-19 in Mexico presents a serious danger of the introduction of COVID-19 into the United States for these reasons [Mexico’s more limited social distancing response at the time and the calculation that the pandemic would hit later] , and because the level of migration across the United States border with Mexico is so high.” The premise was absurd, considering that at the time of the order, the World Health Organization reported that Mexico had 53 confirmed cases and the United States had topped 25,000—clearly in the stage of community transmission. The idea that immigrants were the cause of the deadly coronavirus pandemic in the United States defied all scientific evidence and politically justified the anti-Latinx immigrant measures Trump and Miller had long sought.

Homeland Security announced it would take on the task to “no longer detain illegal immigrants in our holding facilities and will return them to the country they entered from—Canada or Mexico.” The argument went that since the U.S government did not have the infrastructure to apply health measures during processing in accordance with its own immigration and asylum rights laws, it would simply eliminate those rights. The measure sweeps up unaccompanied minors and asylum seekers, who do in fact have rights under national and international law, in the automatic deportation order, speed of expulsion being a major goal. The Washington Post reported that the average time for return to Mexico is just 96 minutes—no questions, no due process, and no legal protections for children. In just the first two weeks of the order, more than 20,000 people were turned away, including at least 400 children. Only two migrants have been allowed to pursue asylum claims. The dangerous and unsanitary refugee camps on the Mexico side of the border are swelling as experts warn they are a natural breeding ground for the virus. Some migrants are being bussed to other parts of Mexico, while others are forced to return to the same countries they fled under threat of death.

El Salvador is under strict lockdown by orders of President Nayib Bukele, who seems to have found his true vocation in the crisis as a budding dictator. All deportees must go into a month-long state quarantine. The Guatemalan government blocked deportation flights from the U.S. when it discovered that scores of deportees tested positive for COVID-19. Promised U.S government screening proved to be a sham. Guatemalan President Gianmattei was forced to back down and accept the flights again after only a week. Now deportees face expulsion from the United States and discrimination and rejection back home, as Guatemalans fearful of becoming the next New York have barred migrants from their own communities of origin.

In perhaps the cruelest irony, the Trump administration has rammed what are called “Third Safe Country” agreements down the throats of the Central American countries, which force migrants to seek asylum in other nations instead of the United States. The Trump administration considers Honduras, a narco-state experiencing widespread riots of people starving under lockdown, a safe country for asylum seekers.

The order that effectively ended the right to asylum was extended for another thirty days on April 20. Now the Trump administration has dropped all pretense of tying it to the health crisis and according to a report in the New York Times will seek to make the ban “indefinite.” In addition to using archaic laws to deny asylum and stop immigrants, the pandemic has halted naturalization ceremonies, slowed or closed immigration courts and led to the cancellation of flights bringing already approved refugees. Social cleansing of the white supremacist variety had begun under cover of COVID.

Lest there be any doubt, April 20 Trump announced in a Tweet that he was suspending all immigration: “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”

This caused a predictable uproar (Miller’s preferred tactic) and pushback from business sectors. On April 22, Trump released a diluted executive order that basically bars visa applications from outside the country for 60 days, with exceptions. Temporary visa programs, like the H2A for agricultural workers now deemed “essential” to the U.S. economy are not affected. While the actual impact is limited, the message hit home: ‘to protect our (white Americans) lives and livelihoods, we need to get rid of immigrants.’

Under quarantine, essential workers—disproportionately immigrants—keep the country running and people fed at huge risk to their own health. The nation faces the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with unprecedented demands on public resources. Yet Donald Trump’s favorite talking point and pork barrel project is still The Wall.

On May 4, he tweeted “Mexico is sadly experiencing very big CoronaVirus problems, and now California, get this, doesn’t want people coming over the Southern Border. A Classic! They are sooo lucky that I am their President. Border is very tight and the Wall is rapidly being built!

What California, and other states, want is support to deal with their endemic pandemic the economic crisis. The U.S. has nearly 100,000 dead and some 40 million out of work. Instead Trump’s latest proposal is to paint the wall black, at an additional cost of $500 million dollars.

Maybe there is something fitting about that—a useless structure that symbolizes hostility toward the most vulnerable and exploited, dressed in mourning for a nation whose leadership is morally dead.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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