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What Does the Zika Virus Mean for U.S. Immigration?

The Centers for Disease Control is advising pregnant women to avoid traveling to 29 destinations in the Caribbean, Central and South America—the home countries of many United States immigrants. The infestation of the Zika virus around the world could have a significant impact on American immigration.

The Zika virus has been hovering around Latin America and the Caribbean for years. It is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also carries the Chikungunya virus also known as Chic V, and the Hemorrhagic Dengue fever virus, which kills more people in Latin America than malaria.

Colombia has been hit hard—with over 20,000 confirmed cases of Zika infection. Historically, Colombia is also one of the countries with the most refugees fleeing, according to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees.

There have been at least 31 isolated cases of the Zika virus in the United States, contracted by people while they were traveling. Three of these cases have been confirmed in pregnant women in New York.

Most people who are bitten by a Zika-ridden mosquito experience no serious health problems—except for the occasional case of a fever and rash. But for these women, their pregnancy engenders a heightened threat. Zika has been linked to microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to be born with unusually small heads and, in many cases, damaged brains.

Countries like El Salvador have warned women not to get pregnant for two years. There is no vaccine yet for this virus. While it is not contagious, Zika can be spread by the Aedes mosquito.

The World Health Organization declared a state of emergency due to the Zika outbreak. At current rates, they believe about 4 million people could contract the virus in the next year. Director General Margaret Chan said the virus is “spreading explosively.” The designation of a state of emergency will allow vaccination and prevention research to speed ahead. It may also affect people coming and going at the borders.

When immigrants come to America or are applying for an adjustment of status, they are required to undergo a medical examination that includes chest X-rays, blood tests and immunizations in some cases. If a “communicable disease of public health significance” is discovered in an applicant, he or she may be deemed inadmissible to the United States.

Currently, those diseases include tuberculosis, syphilis, chancroid, gonorrhea, granuloma inguinale, lymphogranuloma venereum and Hansen’s disease (leprosy). The list also includes any disease designated as quarantinable by presidential executive order, or any event that is reported as a “public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) to the World Health Organization (WHO) under the International Health Regulations (IHR) of 2005,” according to the CDC. Zika may fall under this latter category. The CDC will likely soon require a Zika serum medical test of all immigrant visa applicants entering the United States.

While the international world is organizing itself to fight Zika, infected countries worry about their tourism industries. Many hotel and airline companies have been forced to refund flights and reservations. The Dominican Republic has mobilized the armed forces to fumigate, inspect and exterminate the mosquitos from their land.

But not all countries have the money and manpower to save their economies. Haiti, which shares a third of the island with the Dominican Republic, has no public health services and no infrastructure to deal with Zika as aggressively. This poses a problem for the Dominican Republic, as Haitians regularly cross over without inspection to Dominican territory—sort of like the Mexicans on the U.S. southern border.

There is a whole liturgy of law that allows people who can’t return to their home country after major natural disasters to remain in America temporarily. Some suggest that epidemics could be considered natural disasters under this train of thought. If that’s the case, pregnant women or women planning on becoming pregnant could be granted Temporary Protected Status and allowed to remain in America.

In the past, temporary protected status has been granted to people from countries like Nepal, Haiti or Japan when they have experienced devastating natural disasters. This is not a permanent solution to the immigration issues posed by the Zika virus, but perhaps this is something we should consider as an immediate response.

Political asylum is an inappropriate remedy because there is no fear that the government will cause someone harm on any grounds that create the predicate for asylum, such as political or religious affiliation.

With global warming and climate change, we are bound to see these mosquitos immigrate to the northern regions as more and more tropical diseases reach our shores. The immigration community will have to step up, like it has during other natural disasters in the past, to best protect our nation and the people entering our country.

By Michael Wildes

Michael J. Wildes, managing partner, a former federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn (1989-1993), has testified on Capitol Hill in connection with anti-terrorism legislation and is internationally renowned for his successful representation of several defectors who have provided difficult-to-obtain national security information. He is frequently a legal commentator/analyst for network television, most recently in connection with the terrorist threats facing the United States. He is an adjunct professor of law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, where he teaches immigration law, and writes a monthly column on immigration for The Jewish Press. From 2004 through 2010, Mr. Wildes was also the Mayor of Englewood, New Jersey—where he resides.

With special thanks to Raquel Wildes.

 

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