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.”
Mendoza, a forty-eight-year-old undocumented immigrant from Honduras, had been doing construction work in New Orleans ever since he helped rebuild the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But in March, the outbreak left him jobless.
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 announcement, saying 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.”
By the second week of April, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had made almost 10,000 summary expulsions of immigrants seeking asylum at the Southern border, according to The Washington Post. Fewer than one hundred detainees were in the agency’s custody awaiting their chance to prove they qualify—compared to nearly 20,000 the year prior.
Even minors wanting asylum are not given a fair shake under Trump’s border shutdown. Many have been either immediately returned to Mexico or put on deportation flights to their homelands, says Lisa Frydman, vice president for international programs for Kids in Need of Defense. “There is no check by either country whether the child is in a dangerous situation.”
Between March 23 and April 16, the administration sent 150 unaccompanied children back to Guatemala, says Frydman, who learned about these deportations from sources in Guatemala. The majority were children expelled straight from the border.
The 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act requires careful screening of unaccompanied minors. Those from Central America are supposed to be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services and placed in formal court removal proceedings. Customs and Border Protection agents are also supposed to thoroughly review cases of Mexican youths detained at the border, but Frydman sees no evidence of that.
“They are just pushing them back,” says Frydman.
Closure of the Southern border has put about 25,000 asylum seekers in the Trump Administration’s Remain in Mexico program in a dangerous limbo. They are still waiting on the Mexican side of the border for their claims to be considered in U.S. immigration court.
Their hearings have been put on hold, but they must show up at specified bridge crossings to the United States on the date of their scheduled hearing to get a new date.
“They want to have their day in court,” says El Paso immigration lawyer Taylor Levy.
Since the border shutdown, Levy has been getting up in the early morning hours to greet the dozens of asylum seekers who are expected to line up at 4:30 a.m. on the Paso del Norte International Bridge connecting El Paso to Ciudad Juárez on the Mexican side of the border.
“I explain the process and why the courts are closed,” says Levy, who is thirty-three. “Many people have been here for more than a year.”
All those in line can do is get a slip of paper from the CBP agents in the middle of the bridge that tells them when to show up again.
To offer some protection against the pandemic, Levy brings with her masks to hand out. She also gives stuffed animals or coloring books to children waiting in line with their parents.
Eduardo Beckett, another El Paso immigration lawyer, tells of receiving telephone calls from the Remain in Mexico asylum seekers not knowing what to expect. One such call, around early April, was from a Brazilian man.
“He said, ‘We’re stuck in a shelter—just waiting and waiting, with no end in sight.’ ”
With the Southern border closed, the number of immigrants in the network of more than 200 detention centers used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CBP has dropped from 37,888 in mid-March to 27,908 on May 9.
Detention centers have a history of deplorable conditions and have been woefully negligent in protecting detainees in the face of COVID-19. Social distancing is often impossible in such crowded living quarters. Protective masks have been hard to come by.
Activists have called on the government to release desperate immigrants from these facilities. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed more than a dozen immigration lawsuits, including some demanding the release of detainees. But as of mid-April, ICE had released only about 700 detainees.
Nothing would preclude a much larger immediate release, since the immigration detention system is based on civil—not criminal—law, and ICE has broad discretion in detention decisions.
Many immigrants in detention are merely seeking safe haven from persecution in their homelands. They were contributing members of their communities in the United States, but often ended up in detention because of a violation that put them on ICE’s radar.
Lesly Zelaya, a Honduran immigrant awaiting permanent residency approval, tells how she and her husband, Jose, started a successful tile installation business in Raleigh. He is also from Honduras but met Zelaya in North Carolina.
In 2018, Jose was arrested for driving under the influence and put on probation. Although he had stayed out of trouble, ICE agents were waiting for him when, in February, he showed up for a check-in at the local probation office. “This is really not fair,” says Zelaya.
As of May 18, there were 1,073 confirmed COVID-19 cases among detainees in ICE facilities. But the number of those infected with COVID-19 could be vastly undercounted because there is so little testing. Just 2,172 of nearly 28,000 ICE detainees at all facilities had been tested by that time.
At the Federal Detention Facility in Western New York, the number of confirmed cases shot up when all forty-eight detainees who had not been tested in a housing unit with bunk beds were tested in April. Twenty-seven of them were found to be infected, according to a Trump Administration filing in response to a court case seeking release of a group of detainees.
From the start, beginning with his insistence on calling the new coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” Trump has used the pandemic to whip up xenophobic fears. In April, his re-election campaign began running an ad depicting Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee, as beholden to China and suggesting Asians were responsible for the pandemic.
Rather than accept responsibility for his own belated and inept handling of COVID-19, Trump has tried to scapegoat immigrants.
“By pausing immigration, we’ll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens,” he declared in a statement on April 22, announcing a temporary ban on issuing certain kinds of visas. “It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad.”
Fernando, an undocumented farmworker since 2001, doesn’t see it that way.
“We’re not taking jobs from anybody,” says Fernando, who lives in North Carolina and like other undocumented immigrants asked that his last name not be used. Fernando, who is forty-three and from Mexico, came to North Carolina in 2001 to work on a hog farm. He continued on that job until last September, when the farm was shut down.
He then landed a job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant, earning $11 an hour. But with COVID-19 spreading, the restaurant closed in early March, leaving him out of work and ineligible for unemployment.
As an associate member of the AFL-CIO’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Fernando is getting help looking for a farm job as his meager savings dwindle. But he says farmers have been reluctant to hire him because of ICE’s increased checks of farmworkers.
Although farmworkers are essential to the nation’s economy, the President’s $19 billion COVID-19 relief program is earmarked for people who own farms, not the nation’s estimated 2.5 million farmworkers, at least half of whom are undocumented, according to Farmworker Justice.
“The narrative debate in Washington is all wrong,” says Baldemar Velasquez, founder and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. “It does not do anything to address the designed inequity in supply chains.”
Almost all the growers the union deals with are suppliers to grocery or restaurant chains and major retailers including Walmart. These buyers, notes Velasquez, control the price structure. And so he wants to “join forces with the small farmers and go after the big buyers of these crops and adjust prices to have a sustainable pricing model for growers and appropriate wages for farmworkers.”
Familias Unidas en Acción, the New Orleans-based group distributing the “Latino box” of free food to families in need, raised about $30,000 in little more than a month to help cover costs and has enlisted dozens of volunteers, says Fernando López, an immigrant rights activist who has helped publicize the program.
Mendoza and Casildo plan to continue the program and increase distribution.
In Western New York, Alianza Agrícola, the self-help group of undocumented dairy farmworkers, launched the Emergency Solidarity Fund COVID-19 in mid-March. Within six weeks, about $19,000 was raised from more than 200 donors to help farmworkers facing the crisis.
As Alianza Agrícola puts it, “Undocumented immigrant farmworkers are now considered ‘essential’ yet once again we are left out of most public benefits.”