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Ice agents are still performing raids – and using precious N95 masks to do so

Seth Holmes, associate professor and chair of society and environment and medical anthropology | April 1, 2020

Co-authored by UC Berkeley research and policy associate Miriam Magaña Lopez.

A photo of a police officer wearing a vest that says "Immigration and Customs Enforcement"

Despite severe shortages, ICE agents are using personal protective equipment needed by health care workers. (public domain photo)

On the first day of California’s “shelter-in-place” lockdown, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Different from other raids, they carried N95 medical masks to protect themselves from COVID-19. Also different from previous raids, the ICE agents broke state regulations that ordered everyone to stay home except to do “essential” activities necessary to survive (e.g. buying food or medicine).

The protective masks ICE agents carried to raid communities in LA are the same personal protective equipment that made headlines in the last week due to extreme shortages endangering the lives of healthcare workers. These frontline health professionals care for patients without this basic protective equipment, forced to risk not only their own health but also the capacity of our health system in this critical pandemic. In fact, the surgeon general issued a statement requesting that all N95 masks be saved for doctors, nurses and other frontline health workers. In a time with severe shortages and orders to “shelter in place”, the federal government chose to prioritize masks for ICE agents instead of necessary health personnel and, ultimately, chose raids over the health of our country.

According to official ICE statements: “ICE’s highest priorities are to promote life-saving and public safety activities.” However, these raids risk worsening the pandemic in the US.

First, these raids sow distrust in public health recommendations and orders that are so important in this time of uncertainty. Second, these raids, far from essential for survival, run directly counter to public health recommendations (including from the federal government itself) and direct orders from local and state governments to practice physical distancing and to shelter in place. Specifically, such raids lead to increased detention in overcrowded conditions ideal for the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In addition, any deportations resulting from such raids force unnecessary separation of families and movement of people. All of these actions aid the spread of this virus, threatening to overwhelm our health system and worsen the pandemic for everyone. Third, the use of protective medical masks for ICE officers worsens the shortage, putting doctors, nurses and other health professionals at risk.

On March 20, ICE bid for 45,000 N95 protective medical masks to be delivered to all 26 enforcement and removal operations field offices. As public health experts whose research and writing focuses on immigration and health, we are appalled that the federal government risks worsening the pandemic, prioritizing ICE raids above the protection of doctors and nurses and the public health measures required to curb this pandemic.

Hospitals across the U.S. are in dire need of N95 masks during the national shortage. Many doctors and nurses are now on home quarantine, unable to care for patients because they were unnecessarily exposed to the virus without protection. Some are even intubated on ventilators in intensive care units in critical condition themselves. The hashtag #GetMePPE trends on social media, asking politicians and concerned individuals to donate N95 masks to hospitals and clinics in order to avoid health system collapse without enough healthy frontline workers to care for patients. The federal government must prioritize protection for our health system and our society over raids that separate families in a time of shared crisis.

The ICE raids conducted by the federal government are putting our country at risk, worsening a critical shortage of medical supplies and leading to overcrowding and movement that facilitate the spread of COVID-19. At this historic moment, we must set our priorities straight. If we want to survive, we must stop ICE raids, detention and deportation. We must provide protective equipment to frontline workers in our health system. Our lives and the future of our society depend on it.

Cross-posted from The Guardian.