Media Supermajority Education Fund

Dr. Dona Kim Murphey is Pushing Back Against Harmful Immigration Policies Amid COVID-19


Neurologist Dona Kim Murphey’s work as an immigration reform advocate began in late 2016. Frustrated by the outcome of the presidential election, she started Pantsuit Republic, a Texas-focused organization focusing on progressive solutions to oppression, that spun out of Pantsuit Nation, a private Facebook group for Hillary Clinton supporters (which is now part of Supermajority). 

As the daughter of first-generation Korean-Americans and someone who grew up under the care of nannies from Central America, Murphey is personally drawn to the issue of immigration reform. Pantsuit Republic’s first action was holding a press conference in opposition to Texas Senate Bill 4 — or the “show me your papers” law — in August 2017 with Mi Familia Vota, a national, non-profit organization working to increase civic engagement in Latino, immigrant, and allied communities. The law allowed an individual police officer to ask anyone lawfully detained about their immigration status and mandated local authorities cooperate with immigration authorities. 

As family separation in immigration detention camps escalated under Trump’s 2018 “zero tolerance” policy, Murphey partnered with Hope Frye, an immigration lawyer, to launch Project Lifeline, to educate the public on the growing crisis of detained children. She also worked as an advocate for immigrant rights advocacy organizations such as United We Dream and Reform Immigration Texas Alliance. 

Murphey is also a board member of Doctors for America, which advocates for Americans’ right to adequate and affordable health care. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Murphey spoke with Supermajority News about how the virus is impacting immigration and refugee health and what organizations like Doctors for America are doing to help. 

Supermajority News: In April, President Trump implemented a policy suspending entry of immigrants who “pose a risk to the U.S labor market” as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic and the “introduction of certain persons from countries where a communicable disease exists.” How have you — along with Doctors for America and other organizations — responded?

Dona Kim Murphey: Physicians, scientists, and public health officials have come out pretty much in broad consensus about the importance of not holding people in circumstances where this disease can rapidly disseminate. In the case of immigration detention, they’re detaining families and unaccompanied children. We haven’t seen much effort in letting these people go even though we’ve been demanding for many months now that they be released because it’s inhumane for them, and it’s dangerous for the communities that surround them and for those who work in the facilities. Just like our health care workers and our essential workers, there is a scarcity of personal protective equipment for these people. And there is not enough hygienic material like soap [and] hand sanitizer for these facilities. 

There’s been a lot of litigation around this. I was a declarant in some litigation that had to do with probation-specific people in ICE family residential centers, and that was successful, and we got several families released. But [generally] it’s still hard to get people released.

What conditions in immigration detention centers prior to the pandemic are now worsening because of our current crisis?

The [conditions that are worsening] are precisely the vulnerabilities that have been unaddressed or poorly addressed [in the past]. Just like the population at large, there are people [in detention centers] with chronic illnesses. In these facilities, because of the conditions in which they live and their lack of access to appropriate or adequate medical care, they don’t have [access to] help with those diseases. And that’s been a long-standing issue. Human rights organizations have been following and have been trying to bring visibility to it. And now it’s compounded by the fact that we have this virus that can kill them. 

We’ve made the argument that you should release the majority of these people, if not all of them. But if you can’t release all of them, at least you release enough of them so that they can put measures into place that will keep those still being held safe. And they don’t implement any of it. And it’s very frustrating. 

How are women and LGTBQ people in immigration detention especially affected by these conditions during this crisis?

If [LGBTQ immigrants] are immunocompromised from HIV, for instance, that makes them specifically vulnerable. The other vulnerability is that often in immigration detention, [LGBTQ] people, because they’re so misunderstood and discriminated against in general, are often placed into solitary confinement. Unfortunately, this virus gives [facilities] even more reason to do that because the rationale there is like, ‘Well, you know they’ve been exposed, or they’re positive with COVID, so we need to put them into solitary.’ And solitary is not the same thing as airborne isolation rooms. With the latter, we would be having somebody visiting that person frequently to make sure that their vitals are stable and giving them medications as needed to deal with symptoms. Solitary is not that. 

Also, our government has used COVID-19 as a rationale to deny women of reproductive health services. They deliberately attack it as being non-essential services, when in reality, they are essential services for half the population. We should be able to have all services available to us for our medical needs — just as much as any man. And in Texas, they’ve used it as kind of a way to justify what they’ve been trying to do anyway, which is to deny us access to abortion rights.

How has this pandemic shaped your activism?

I’ve been doing a lot educating and organizing and advocating around the science of COVID-19 and how we manage the disease and respond to it as a society to keep ourselves and our community safe. That was really inspired by a friend of mine. She was a critical care nurse seeing just a lot of misinformation about this disease, and it was at a time when I contracted it. So I actually had COVID-19 for 28 days. I suggested to her that we start a Facebook group to help people with misinformation and disinformation. 

That group — Data Driven Community COVID-19 Response — now has almost 13,000 people in it. We populated it with a large number of physicians and scientists and public health officials. We encourage people to share what their credentials are when they post in comments or original posts, and then we also teach people how to dissect claims that are made. Our government has done a poor job of teaching people how to be scientifically literate. And that’s why I think so much of the population is susceptible to being misinformed or disinformed.

Is there anything else that you want to share about your work on immigration reform and rights?

The reason the government has been able to get away with the system of immigration detention that has emerged is because a very long-standing history preceded it. And that is the system of mass incarceration, which really is the heritage of the system of slavery ultimately. Understanding that history is so critical to understanding that it’s going to take time to pull this all apart. And it’s going to take courage. Because it is immense. But I have a lot of hope that in a democracy where people are educated, and they’re motivated to do the right thing, that we’re going to do the right thing together. I think that requires the inclusion of the people who are most intimately affected by these issues. And I think it’s important to have those individuals who are affected as part of the stakeholders who are at the table making the decisions.