The Essential, the Undocumented

In mid-March, a local community group in New Orleans called Familias Unidas en Acción launched an initiative to distribute a “Latino Box” of groceries—­everything from corn flour to fresh vegetables—to undocumented workers who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and who are beyond the reach of federal rescue programs. By late April, about 400 families, many undocumented, along with others in need, were receiving this weekly free food delivery in the New Orleans area.

“We know that we have to create our own realities as immigrants,” says Mario Mendoza, who in 2018 started the group with his wife, Leticia Casildo. “That is the strength we are trying to transmit to our own communities.”

Across the country, undocumented workers are taking collective action to create their own safety nets. In Western New York, the group Alianza Agrícola has established an emergency fund for COVID-19. In North Carolina, Siembra NC is holding fundraisers to assist undocumented immigrants in a bind.

But it’s a difficult gap to fill. Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for federal rescue relief funds or state unemployment benefits, even though they have been paying taxes for years.

Worse, while immigrants including undocumented workers have been on the front lines of the pandemic, as health care workers and direct care attendants, activists say some are reluctant to seek medical care if they become infected. Many lack health insurance or are fearful of ending up in detention. Others worry about jeopardizing their chances of becoming a permanent resident under the Trump Administration’s new definition of “public charge.”

During an April 27 virtual town hall hosted by Senator Bernie Sanders, Perla Silva, a member of the activist group Make the Road New York, told how her mother, Concepción Barrios—sick with COVID-19—waited too long to get medical care.

“Eventually, it became too difficult for my mother to breathe, and we had to call the ambulance,” said Silva, who has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration protection and lives in New York City. “When the paramedics saw her, they were dismayed at how sick she was and that she had not received any medical attention earlier.”

At the hospital, Silva said, it was “shocking that the only regular phone calls we were receiving were from the hospital’s financial office, several times a day, asking us how we were going to pay, and for my mother’s legal status.”

Silva’s mother died at the hospital. And when her father, Margarito Silva, felt sick—and feared he might have the coronavirus­—he refused to go to the hospital. When the first bill from her mother’s care arrived, he said, “See, this is why I didn’t want to go to the hospital.” Dozens of members of Make the Road New York have already died of COVID-19.

Time and again, undocumented immigrants have been left out of COVID-19 recovery efforts.

Elvia, a thirty-six-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico living in Greensboro, North Carolina, says that she was supporting her son and daughter on the $400 a week she earned working full time at a dry cleaner. But with COVID-19 spreading, her hours dropped to one day a week in April.

Because of her immigration status, she didn’t qualify for unemployment or the federal stimulus payment.

“I have been paying taxes for at least fifteen years. And I feel saddened by being excluded from the $1,200. I feel wronged,” says Elvia, who asked that her last name not be used. “Everything worries me. My bills worry me. Not having food worries me. And continuing not to have [legal] status continues to worry me.”

According to Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, there are an estimated 7.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. labor force. “They fill critical jobs for the economy in food production, meat processing, construction, restaurants and hotels, cleaning, and child care,” she notes.

Undocumented immigrants also contribute $11.7 billion each year in state and local taxes, according to a 2017 estimate by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Yet the focus of the Trump Administration has been on finding ways to keep them out, including spending billions of dollars on a Southern border wall.

Activists say that it’s time to change the equation.

“The fact is we need to rethink our borders and leave behind [this] legacy of death and destruction,” said Southern Border Communities Coalition Director Vicki Gaubeca, in a recent conference call with other immigrant rights’ activists about Trump’s pet project. She called for a “new border vision,” with a priority on protecting rights and welcoming people.

From his first days in office, beginning with his Muslim travel ban, Trump has tried to close our borders to anyone who doesn’t fit his racist view of what will “Make America Great Again.” The COVID-19 pandemic has provided Trump with an opportunity to carry his exclusionary policies to new extremes. He admitted this much in his March 20 border closure announcementsaying that “with the national emergencies and all of the other things that we’ve declared,” his administration “can actually do something” about “unauthorized entries.”

Trump dusted off a 1944 public health statute as a way of wiping off the books the 1980 Refugee Act, which provides that those setting foot on U.S. soil must have the opportunity to show they have a well-founded fear of persecution and thus qualify for asylum.

Kate Jastram, director of policy and advocacy for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, says the President’s actions and “attitude toward immigrants, especially refugees, violate international and certainly U.S. law.”

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James Goodman