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Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Democrats and public health experts are concerned that the Trump administration's immigration policies could scare immigrants away from getting medical help as the coronavirus spreads.

What we're watching: Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told senators on Thursday that health care facilities are already "sensitive locations" where immigration enforcement isn't carried out, except in "exigent circumstances."

Why it matters: To slow the deadly coronavirus, Americans need to be able to get tested and see doctors. For immigrants, though, that can involve trusting the federal agencies that have made it harder for them to stay in the country.

  • "This administration has given immigrants very little reason to believe them," Migration Policy Institute's Sarah Pierce told Axios.

What they're saying: "It’s potentially a really large public health problem,” said Wake Forest's Christine Coughlin, who has written about unauthorized immigrants' compliance with quarantines. "I believe there is a perception that if you were to go and seek treatment or seek testing, you could be potentially reported and then potentially deported.”

  • The higher uninsured rate among non-citizens is "likely to be especially dangerous during a pandemic," Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at the Northeastern University School of Law, wrote in an op-ed Wednesday.

Between the lines: Through new public charge rules, the administration has begun penalizing some immigrants and visa applicants who use or are considered likely to use certain public programs, including Medicaid programs.

  • Even before the policies took effect, immigrants were reportedly dropping out of Medicaid or public nutrition programs out of fear of being blocked from a green card — a sign that the chilling effect is real.
  • Democratic Senators sent letters this week to multiple administration officials calling for them to suspend "all immigration enforcement activities" near medical facilities, and to rescind the public charge rule.

The other side: A DHS spokesperson pushed back on the impact the public charge rule would have on immigrants seeking medical care. "Nowhere in the rule does it say an immigrant will be denied a change in status if they seek medical care," the spokesperson said.

In the past, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued public guidance during natural disasters to assure immigrants they would not be arrested for getting medical help, former acting ICE director John Sandweg told Axios.

  • He said the same should be done in response to the coronavirus.
  • "The reality is that ICE is very reluctant to arrest and detain anyone with a contagious disease," Sandweg said. "While the risks of arrest are low, the fear in the immigrant communities is real."

The bottom line: Immigrants are unlikely to be impacted by public charge or arrested by ICE while getting emergency medical help. But fear and uncertainty could be enough to stop them.

  • “In general, the very anxiety-ridden environment this administration has created for immigrants drastically decreases the likelihood that immigrants will come forward," Pierce said.

Go deeper

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 4 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

4 hours ago - World

North Korea launches 4th suspected missile test this month

A news broadcast in Seoul, South Korea, of an apparent North Korean missile test on Monday morning local time. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea's military fired "two suspected short-range ballistic missiles" eastward from Pyongyang on Monday morning local time, per South Korean and Japanese officials.

Why it matters: The fourth such launch since Jan. 5 comes days after North Korea's military warned of "stronger" action if the U.S. moved to have more sanctions imposed on the country.