Portugal Is Giving Citizenship Rights to Migrants and Asylum Seekers so They Can Access Health Care Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

In recent weeks, the U.S. government has faced backlash, as well as legal action, over its decision to exclude undocumented immigrants from benefiting from its recent $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.

Under the stimulus bill, U.S. taxpayers could receive up to $1,200, as well as $500 for each of their children under age 17. Undocumented taxpayers, however, including those with U.S.-born children and with mixed status parents, are not eligible.

While the U.S. has faced criticism over its policies making it harder for immigrants to access support during the pandemic, other countries have taken steps in a very different direction.

Across the Atlantic in Portugal, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees with pending cases have been granted temporary citizenship rights in the wake of the pandemic.

The decision was made in March, as the world came to grips with the full global impact of the coronavirus outbreak, with Portugal deciding to extend citizenship rights to foreigners with pending applications until at least July 1st so they can access health care and other public services during the global health crisis.

In an interview with Newsweek, Natalia Banulescu-Bogdan, the associate director of the Migration Policy Institute's International Program said she believed both countries' immigration responses to the pandemic are reflective of "goals and values" before the pandemic.

"I think all countries are facing some practical questions and some value-related questions in terms of how they approach immigration right now," Banulescu-Bogdan said.

"Every country is facing a trade-off between enforcement, management goals and public health goals. They have to balance those trade-offs and also achieve some of the objectives that relate to a country's prior goal and values.

"So, I think in some places where we've seen a lot of restrictions, those really do reflect things that political parties had wanted to achieve in terms of immigration restrictions even before the crisis. A public health emergency gave them the cover they needed to push through pretty draconian restrictions and in some cases, all-out halts on certain streams of immigration or all-out border closures," Banulescu-Bogdan said.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, she said, "you have the same kind of cost-benefit analysis, but the opposite result."

Much of that likely has to do with Portugal's growing efforts in the years before the pandemic to "open itself up to immigration," Banulescu-Bogdan said.

When it comes to values, "Portugal had been exploring ways to open itself up to immigration in the past few years and since the 2015-2016 European migration and refugee crisis, it had already veered in a different direction than other countries."

With the country less impacted by the European migration crisis than other European nations, largely due its geographical location, Portugal was "insulated from some of the major flows. It didn't face the sort of overwhelming numbers that kind of crushed the asylum systems in some of the other [European Union] member states."

So, in the years since, Portugal has been able to make efforts to "rethink and improve their approach and try to attract new immigrants to Portugal."

The response we are seeing now in the wake of the pandemic, Banulescu-Bogdan said, "doesn't come out of nowhere. It comes out of this already deep history of being quite open to immigration in a way that other countries weren't."

While that may be true, Rahul Batra, a managing partner at Hudson McKenzie, an immigration law firm based in London, said it is important to note that while migrants, asylum seekers and refugees with pending applications with Portugal's immigration office have been granted full citizenship rights, Portugal has still imposed border measures similar to other countries, including the U.S.

"The ministers took this step [to grant citizenship rights] in order to permit such people to gain full access to the country's healthcare system in the wake of coronavirus, thereby reducing the risks for public health," Batra told Newsweek.

"Due to the [coronavirus] situation, Portugal declared a State of Emergency on 18 March 2020, which became effective immediately. It also imposed temporary internal land border controls with Spain and sealed off its external borders for non-EEA [European Economic Area] travelers attempting to enter Portugal for non-essential purposes," Batra said.

"Therefore, being cautious like most countries it hasn't opened up to any new immigration, rather it has simply taken a step to provide health care services to foreign nationals who are already in the country.

"The idea behind this step was that foreign citizens should not be precluded to access health and public service because of the fact that their application has not yet been processed by the Immigration Office," Batra said.

Granting migrants, asylum seekers and refugees citizenship status is "only a temporary measure" meant to prioritize public health as a whole, as well as the health of those with immigration claims, Batra said.

Banulescu-Bogdan said being able to ensure that everyone is able access the health care system and other public benefits without fear "is definitely better for reaching public health goals."

For weeks, it has been reported that undocumented families in the U.S. are avoiding seeking medical care or support from the government due to fears of being deported out of the country.

While the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has rolled back interior immigration enforcement in the wake of the pandemic, the Trump administration's years-long crackdown on immigration is believed to have had a chilling effect on undocumented families' willingness to seek out government support.

"Of course what's happened in Portugal is temporary," Banulescu-Bogdan said. But, right now, "there's a public health imperative to have all of society—every single individual who is in the territory—engage with government and, of course, rigorous immigration enforcement completely undermines that goal."

Earlier this month, Portugal's government downgraded its state of emergency to a state of "calamity," allowing certain non-essential services and some commercial activities to resume.

As of Monday, the country has seen 27,679 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 1,144 deaths connected to the virus.

Portugal PM
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa takes off his protective mask before answering a question during the first biweekly post-Emergency debate in the Assembleia de Republica during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic on May 07, 2020 in Lisbon, Portugal. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Corbis/Getty