‘Maybe if I Had Papers, It Would Have Been Different’: Undocumented During a Pandemic

‘Maybe if I Had Papers, It Would Have Been Different’: Undocumented During a Pandemic

‘Maybe if I Had Papers, It Would Have Been Different’: Undocumented During a Pandemic

The crisis is putting undocumented and migrant communities in the crosshairs. 


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Until he was laid off last week, Raúl worked as a busboy in a restaurant in Queens. He came to this country to help support his family in Mexico, and with his restaurant work, he was able to send back regular payments. He shared a small apartment with his brother and another friend, and put in a lot of hours. When the coronavirus started popping up in the news, he and his coworkers were nervous—both about the virus itself, and about the possible economic impact. For service-sector employees, working from home is not an option. “I couldn’t just stop working,” Raúl, who is undocumented, said. “I needed money for transportation, for rent, for all the basics, and… New York is so expensive.”

Although Raúl, 38 years old, and other workers had asked for gloves or other protective equipment, his employer provided nothing. Work continued as usual—busing tables, washing dishes, mopping floors—until Sunday, March 15, when his boss told him and his coworkers that the restaurant would temporarily halt operations until April, if not longer. “What am I going to do for food, for rent, to pay cell phone bills, to send money to my family?” Raúl said on a phone call. “We were left with nothing. Not even to eat.” The day after his last shift, he started feeling slightly ill. He reviewed the symptoms of the coronavirus, trying to keep track of what he was feeling. By Tuesday, Raúl had developed a fever.

The Public Health Peril of ICE Enforcement

Nervous of the immigration consequences of accessing emergency services and with fewer options for working from home, undocumented and immigrant communities are at higher risk of infection and death from the coronavirus. Their likelihood of living in crowded quarters, suffering from preexisting health conditions, and experiencing cross-cultural information barriers can make these groups more vulnerable, according to a 2009 paper on pandemic influenza preparedness. Now, some might delay seeking treatment out of fear that being deemed a public charge could jeopardize future chances of securing a green card—a Trump administration rule that took effect on February 24, a month after the first reported case of the novel coronavirus in the United States. Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has put undocumented communities on edge in recent months by ramping up raids—even calling in a SWAT-like Border Patrol force to target so-called sanctuary cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle.

As the virus began to take hold, ICE continued enforcement operations as usual. On March 17, the Los Angeles Times reported that ICE agents wore masks and swabbed their steering wheels with antibacterial gel as they sought to make arrests. By Wednesday, March 18, the agency announced that it would “exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions” in light of Covid-19 and claimed that it would “not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.” But the call may be too late to quell the fear. Similar partial reassurances in the aftermath of natural disasters have not eased undocumented communities’ reluctance to seek emergency services.

One undocumented man told AJ+: “We are afraid to go and get tested, not knowing if immigration agents are going to be there doing their work.”

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University and adviser to the World Health Organization, told The New York Times: “The first rule of public health is to gain people’s trust to come forward: People who don’t seek care cannot be tested or treated, and their contacts won’t be traced.” In New York, weeks after the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the United States, ICE agents waited outside a Brooklyn hospital, where someone agents had tried to detain had been taken, along with another man ICE agents had shot in the face.

But it’s not just fear of detention and deportation. A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 45 percent of the undocumented population lacks health insurance. Uninsured people are less likely than those with coverage to seek care, and when they do, expensive medical bills are likely to be financially disastrous. Even with officials reassuring the public of free Covid-19 testing for those who qualify, charges can quickly rack up. One uninsured patient’s bill for Covid-19 testing and treatment, Time reported, amounted to nearly $35,000 dollars.

Lack of health insurance also discourages people from seeking preventative care, which could make them more vulnerable to Covid-19 if underlying health issues have gone unaddressed. Some reports suggest a decline in immigrant families accessing health services since Trump’s election out of fear of heightened enforcement. Overall, half of all uninsured adults report having no regular source for care, and nearly one-quarter report delaying seeking health services because of cost concerns. One study, cited by The New York Times, found that people in the lower economic strata are up to 10 times as likely to die from Covid-19.

Advocates have urged governments to extend emergency relief measures such as grants, free testing, and paid sick leave to all residents, regardless of immigration status. But at the city, state, and federal level, there is so far no indication these demands will be met. Manny Castro, executive director of New York Immigrant Community Empowerment, recently told City Limits that one lesson learned after September 11 and Hurricane Sandy was that “so much of the relief funds were tied up with federal monies that could not be used to support undocumented families.”

The Covid-19 crisis could also provide a pretext for more draconian immigration enforcement. On Friday, March 20, Trump suggested immigration “put a vast burden” on the health care system, promising steps to stem the “mass global migration that would badly deplete the health care resources needed for our people,” including sealing off the northern and southern borders. Canada and the United States announced that in addition to halting nonessential travel, both countries will turn back unauthorized immigrants crossing on foot. The US-Mexico border is partially closed to nonessential travel, and all asylum seekers presenting themselves at the border will be turned away.

“Deliveristas” at Risk

As cities and states shut down, restaurants close, and people hole up indoors, more are ordering in. The men and women delivering food and supplies, however, are increasingly vulnerable. Angeles Solis, lead organizer on the Workplace Justice Team of Make the Road New York, said that delivery workers face “pressure from their employers and economic pressures” to keep working, despite risks of contagion. Working for themselves through applications such as Seamless or Grubhub and lacking benefits, delivery workers—many of them immigrants with or without legal status—cannot request basic protective equipment. In New York City, as restaurants switched to take-out only, the city suspended the crackdown against e-bikes. But, as Solis put it, delivery workers may be “protected from the police, but not the virus.” Many undocumented and immigrant workers still making deliveries also live in intergenerational, shared, and often cramped homes, and getting infected could mean putting elderly relatives at risk.

Amid calls to stay home and help “flatten the curve,” Alberto Gonzalez, a 42-year-old delivery worker in Brooklyn, stressed the broader impacts of personal health. “The most important thing for deliveristas is that the employers and the city provide us the tools to protect not only the workers but the consumers,” he said. “While others are inside their homes, we are placing ourselves at risk to contract Covid-19. This truly worries me. I have four kids and a wife at home who are taking all measures to stay inside, but what purpose does it serve if I just put them at risk from being on the streets?”

Left Out of Relief Packages

With businesses shuttered and mass layoffs setting in, undocumented workers will not qualify for unemployment benefits and likely will not have access to the government subsidies potentially on their way. A Senate Republican plan to send direct cash payments of up to $1,200 to individuals would largely benefit middle-income earners, with lower-paid workers with little or no taxable income receiving only half that amount. The program excludes nonresidents, meaning undocumented immigrants will not be eligible for a check, regardless of their federal tax contributions. Democratic presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, has called for “emergency $2,000 cash payments to every person in America every month for the duration of the crisis.” In New York City—now the epicenter of the pandemic—Mayor Bill de Blasio announced loans and grants for small businesses, but added that the city would need to rely on “a massive federal relief program” to support impacted workers.

With much of the workforce already at home, some communities are working to offer emergency assistance. Various organizations launched efforts to provide relief for restaurant workers and other service sector employees out of work. One initiative aimed to support undocumented New York City restaurant workers; another encouraged Brooklyn residents working from home to consider donating the amount they would usually spend on restaurant tips to support sick and quarantined service workers; yet another created a form to connect people looking to directly help service workers in need of support.

The Coronavirus Is Compounding Daily Struggles

Gregoria Flores, a Garifuna woman originally from Honduras who runs Garifuna Community Services in the Bronx, explained that schools’ shutting down has created difficulties for undocumented and immigrant communities. Many children are expected to continue studying from home, and while “some schools have loaned out computers” to students for online learning, “some of our community members don’t have Internet at home,” she said. “We’re trying to facilitate communication with the teachers so they can offer computers with Internet access.” As of 2018, more than half of the city’s lowest-income households did not have access to broadband Internet.

New York City delayed closing schools even after suspending large gatherings amid concerns about the hundreds of thousands of students who rely on school lunch programs. Flores said her organization is working to inform parents that they can still access the lunches.

“We’re just paying close attention to what the options are for possibly obtaining food, or medical services, if they don’t have insurance, or don’t have papers,” she said. “It’s all changing so fast. We’re packing our bags on the run.”

Miriam Herrera, another Garifuna woman also originally from Honduras, is living in the New York City shelter system with her two children, ages 10 and 15. Feeling nervous when she started suffering from allergies last week, she alerted the staff of her Bronx shelter, and they initiated the Covid-19 protocol, just in case. EMS personnel told Herrera that she’s not symptomatic enough to merit a test. Nonetheless, she wanted to stay in her room, but forgot to sign in at the front desk one afternoon—a strict shelter requirement. She was kicked out. “I was scared to take my kids outside” to look for another shelter, she said, especially as she saw that it was “business as usual” at another shelter assessment center. “People were lined up, not practicing social distancing,” Herrera described.

One shelter regulation, Herrera said, is that parents cannot leave their kids behind for any reason, even if they have individual apartments. Doing so risks losing custody. “You have to bring them downstairs even to take out the garbage,” or to go to the store for food, she said. “Some rules are not helping. It’s more dangerous to take them out.” In general, she said, people in the shelters are nervous. “There’s a lot of midnight crying.”

Immigration Court as Vector

Hannah Flamm, managing attorney for the Detained Minors Project at The Door, expressed concern about minors who were transported for immigration court hearings in Manhattan the week of March 15. (As of publication, immigration court is still open.) From the shelter to court, the minors are packed into vans, ride in the elevator, sit next to each other on courtroom pews, and speak into the same microphone. “It doesn’t appear feasible to put measures in place that comply with the government’s own directives” on the coronavirus, Flamm said. Immigration detention centers have proven notoriously unsafe, increasingly deadly, and unable to provide basic medical care even under normal circumstances. On Thursday, an ICE employee tested positive for the coronavirus in an Elizabeth, New Jersey, detention center. The same day, a staff member at an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility for unaccompanied minors in New York also tested positive.

Even if the immigration courts finally shut down, Flamm worried that a move away from in-person hearings would “prejudice the minor’s due process rights.” Video court hearings, riddled with technological problems, have been shown to lead to more deportations. Advocates have called for a moratorium on deportations in line with recommendations to avoid travel. El Salvador suspended deportation flights, Honduras closed its airports, and Guatemala paused the asylum cooperation agreement allowing the United States to send Hondurans and Salvadorans seeking asylum to the country. ICE deportation flights are still running, screening detainees for fever temperatures before boarding. Despite calls for ICE to release especially vulnerable—or all—detainees, immigration detention and court put tens of thousands at risk of contracting the pathogen.

All told, a history of draconian enforcement measures, lack of access to health care, an environment of fear and distrust of authorities, and being left out of the federal government’s promises of financial assistance, prime undocumented and immigrant communities to suffer an inordinate scourge, affecting both their own communities and hampering efforts to slow the virus’ spread.

Quarantined, and in the Dark

Worried that he was infected with the coronavirus, Raúl sought help at a Queens hospital on Tuesday, March 17. “I saw they were doing the tests,” he said, “and I asked what I needed to do to get the test. I told them I had a fever.” He said that when he told medical staff he didn’t have an appointment, they sent him home for 14 days of quarantine. “Maybe if I had papers it would have been different,” he said.

Still feeling feverish, he bought antibiotics. He said that in the last day or so, he’s been feeling better, but he wonders if he might have the virus, or may have passed it on. “My roommates are out of work as well. I’m basically in my room alone, wearing a mask and everything, but with my family in Mexico, they need money,” he said. Worried about venturing out for another test, and still scared of ICE, he decided to stick with his 14-day quarantine, though admits it’s difficult with two roommates, with whom he shares a bathroom. “Any help would be good now, even necessary. I just wonder when this will all be over, when I can start making money again. The worst that can happen is to be stuck, no money, in quarantine, and then, maybe sick.”

Asked if he was going to look for work if he felt better in two weeks, he responded, “What am I going to do? New York is closed down. We need to get over the coronavirus first. While you’re in quarantine, you can’t do anything. There’s no other options.” Besides his health, he remains worried about the basics. “What about rent, food, paying my cell phone bill? What about my family in Mexico?” Raúl asked. “It’s so stressful. We have no support.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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