Driving along Throckmorton street off Route 9 in central New Jersey, one sees the railroad tracks appearing almost out of nowhere, side by side with the road, out of the shrubbery and trees that have grown like a hood around it. The immigrant workers of Freehold Borough call it La Via—the Way; for years they have walked along these tracks into the center of town to gather and look for work. You see them walking or sitting along the embankment—Hispanic men carrying backpacks, our pandemic era signaled now by the blue surgical masks they’ve donned to protect against Covid-19.
Freehold Borough—famous as Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home—is a tiny, historic town with a revolutionary past. A sign along the railroad on Throckmorton street commemorates the Battle of Monmouth, fought nearby in June 1778. In the 90s, Freehold became a hub for immigrant farm labor. By 2010, nearly half of its 12,000 residents were undocumented Hispanic workers and their families, crowded into the town’s barely two-square-mile radius.
In the early 2000s, Freehold’s day laborers congregated in the town’s unofficial “muster zone,” a shady patch alongside the tracks where workers waited to be picked up by contractors, landscapers, and anyone else hiring day labor. This irked some townsfolk who pressed the town council to prevent them from gathering. Things came to a head in 2003 when the incumbent mayor campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform, pushing for random home inspections that forced day laborers to stop looking for work. When protests and negotiations failed, the laborers filed a federal lawsuit against the Borough of Freehold and won. The court ruling permitted the men to return to the muster zone without fear of being ticketed by local police for loitering and panhandling, but when the pandemic hit in March 2020, there was still no town-sanctioned site where the workers could gather and safely seek work. These days, they cluster in the parking lot of a 6/12 convenience store that abuts the railroad, or outside the bus station and the Rita’s Italian Ice franchise adjacent to it.
Like it did elsewhere in the country, the pandemic shattered the fragile ecosystem of daily wage work in Freehold, subjecting its undocumented community to extreme loss of income. Studies have established that minorities and low-income communities are at persistently higher risk of falling severely ill from the coronavirus because of poor access to health benefits and economic challenges. The virus’s impact in Freehold is no different—by June, 72 percent of the town’s 404 positive cases self-reported as Latino/Hispanic. Casa Freehold, a local all-volunteer grassroots group that advocates for Freehold’s immigrant workers, began organizing food drives. Though the town stepped in to support the workers by providing free food and household supplies, and access to free hospital care, the CARES Act, the federal government’s bailout to aid families affected by the pandemic, completely passed them by.
The act has not only failed low-income, undocumented immigrant populations but, according to its critics, was designed to do so. It was widely criticized for denying financial relief to American citizens who are married to undocumented taxpayers and file taxes jointly, but in immigrant communities such as Freehold’s, it was a slap in the face to undocumented taxpayers because it excluded their dependent children who are American citizens. This exclusion of “mixed-status” families is particularly egregious because, in addition to denying relief to their American children, the CARES Act effectively penalizes undocumented workers for their compliance with federal law and for acting in good faith to document their residency in this, their adopted country.
Meanwhile, local health workers and activists have struggled to assuage stigma around the virus. Health educator Angelica Espinal-Garcia found herself advising concerned employers and encargados—middlemen who rent apartments to workers who live in shared spaces—against evicting sickened workers. Since encargados are not the actual homeowners, they can get away with charging high rents—as much as $500 per room—and can take over their renters’ lives, even holding their mail until the rent is paid. Even with the federal eviction moratorium in place, workers are afraid to come out and self-identify, she said. “They’re afraid of the police, of being fired.” One infected worker was told to move out within a week by his encargado, who feared he would infect other tenants. Casa Freehold had to intervene to prevent the eviction.
Men usually wire money on a monthly basis to their families back home from the local 6/12 store. Its owner told me that since the pandemic, the number of men coming in to do so has dropped; instead, in April and May, many came in to collect money that their families wired to them. He’s never seen this happen on such a scale. In the parking lot where the workers gather, I watched a car pull in and a group of young workers scramble to get in, ignoring an activist handing out free masks; the promise of paid work far outweighed the threat of the virus.
Oscar J. arrived in Freehold in 2007 from Mexico City. He crossed over to the United States over eight days, walking through the desert, leaving his then-wife and two children behind in Mexico City. His daughter was 12 and his son 10, and he has not seen them since (he is now remarried).
For years, he worked for various construction crews, and in 2019, he began working independently. “I always liked my job, the people I worked with liked my work. I wanted to depend on myself, since I am good at what I do,” he said. In early March, he began feeling ill and had trouble breathing. A week later, feeling very weak, he went to CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, where he was diagnosed with Covid-19. He was admitted and kept in isolation, and because he has type-2 diabetes, he was at higher risk for severe illness from the virus—at one point he had to be intubated. He learned about the lockdown and the surge of the pandemic in New Jersey from television screens in hospital.
“It was very sad; I didn’t know what to think. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I had no strength left after I was released from the hospital,” he said. His wife, a domestic worker who cleans houses in Lakewood (many of the Orthodox Jewish community’s homes in Lakewood are cleaned by Freehold’s Hispanic women), continued working while he was in the hospital, but came down with a milder case of Covid-19 after he was released from hospital. Between her earnings and their savings, they are able to support their family. Meanwhile, the hospital bills are coming in, some with a notice of delinquency. “One is $1,500,” he said and shook his head. He hopes to pay them off in installments.
Shift Supervisor/Pharmacy worker
Alicia Valeriano is from Mexico City, and when the pandemic began, she was working almost 80 hours every week at three different jobs—waitressing, painting tiles, and as a cashier—alongside her work towards a GED. As the economy shut down, she lost both her part time jobs, but she still has 40 hours of work a week as a permanent employee at a major pharmaceutical chain. Before the pandemic, Valeriano had only to worry about providing dinner for her three children. But as the pandemic worsened in Freehold, her husband, a day laborer, contracted Covid-19 and lost two months of work. Despite having paid taxes for 18 of the 20 years she’s been in the United States, and despite the fact that two of her children are US citizens, her family did not qualify for financial relief under the federal government’s CARES Act.
“The children see that you’re nervous about the money. They see you walking back and forth, and they notice it,” she said.
Though the CARES act hurt her, nothing has disappointed Valriano more than having to postpone her dream of buying a home. Valeriano had a down payment ready and was approved for a mortgage taken in her nephew and her 23-year-old daughter’s names; her daughter is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. When the lockdown occurred, her realtor told her their lenders would not proceed unless she could show stronger credit. In June, Valeriano called her realtor again. She was ready to put down a larger down payment and take the loan in her name now. But the realtor had more bad news for her: The rules had changed since the pandemic, and the lender was no longer working with buyers who did not have Social Security numbers. Valeriano is soft-spoken and reserved, and in her quiet voice, insisted to me over the phone, that she was disappointed but not deterred. “I’m not going to let anyone come between me and my dream,” she said. “I’m going to find a way to buy a house.”
Domestic worker/ House cleaner
Gregoria R., a domestic worker, left Puebla, Mexico, in 1992 and entered the United States through California. She came directly to Freehold to join her father, who was already here, working as a day laborer. Her first job was at a greenhouse in Colt’s Neck, then as a busgirl at a local restaurant. In her first months in Freehold, she walked around town, hustling for work. “I could not speak much English,” she said, “but when I met people I asked—you need me?” She worked for 10 years in the dry cleaning business, keeping eight-hour days, six days a week, operating pressing machines for men’s shirts in very hot conditions. Since 2010, she has worked cleaning homes for members of the Orthodox Jewish Community in Lakewood, N.J., south of Freehold. So many Hispanic women clean houses in Lakewood that Casa Freehold offers classes on how to work in observant Jewish households. Before the pandemic, Gregoria was able to work five days a week, cleaning two or three houses a day. In March, when the lockdown began, her employers called and told her to stay home. “I lost all my former employers,” she said, “They just don’t call me.” Feeling desperate, she texted a woman she used to work for, asking if she could come back. With her help, Gregoria returned to work in the first week of June. Unlike before Covid-19, now she has no guarantee of a schedule.
Gregoria raises her two school-age daughters in the second-floor apartment of a tiny house on Court Street. Sixth-grader Mari translated for us. Gregoria was able to pay rent for April, but not May. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s anti-eviction order protects renters who fallen behind on their rent during the lockdown, but the rent is not forgiven. “I feel stressed all the time—there is stress in my head,” she said. She takes a bus to Lakewood and back, paying $3.80 for a ticket each way. She and the other women from Freehold walk from house to house, earning an hourly wage between $10 and $14.
I later found out that Gregoria’s husband was deported to Mexico on charges of domestic violence. Casa Freehold intervened on her behalf to file a “U” visa, which is awarded to victims of domestic violence. In 2011, on the date she was to appear in court, Gregoria went to work, missing the single appointment that could have put her on a path to citizenship. She is not alone in this: Many undocumented immigrants are too overwhelmed or simply frightened to choose between putting a day’s wages on the table and showing up in court to speak for themselves. Does she regret it? “Yes,” she nodded, “but I didn’t understand at that time how important it was, and I had the pressure of working to pay my bills.” She added, “Now I know.”
Federico M. is from Puebla, Mexico, where he upholstered car interiors. Despite the perils of crossing the border, Federico is among many migrants who travel back and forth between the United States and Mexico, staying for years at a time. His second trip through the Sonoran Desert lasted five days and was a brush with death: “My legs gave out,” he said. His food and water ran out and he fell behind, unable to stand up and join the other men. His smuggler came back for him with water and medicines that gave him the energy to walk. He was told to follow a trail of garbage and items shed by those who came before him—or risk getting lost. He crossed over into the states somewhere east of the border with Tijuana.
In mid-March he was infected by the virus and checked into CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, where he was intubated and treated. The nurses pitched in to pay for his taxi-ride home when he was released from hospital. Casa Freehold arranged for funds to pay for his medicines and delivered food to the house where he quarantined. News travels fast in a town as small as Freehold, and it was not long before word spread among fellow workers that Federico had been sick. “After they know you have Covid, they don’t want to have anything to do with you,” he said. Leaving the hospital with no prospects for work, no home to go to, and no money to send his family was a moment of reckoning. At the end of this year, Federico plans to return to Puebla. He has, after all, fulfilled his dream of building a house for his wife and four children, and has paid for their education. “I feel like a cat with nine lives. I got two chances at life—once in the desert, and now after Covid,” he said. “Going home to Mexico will give me another chance to live, another start.”
Eleazar H. came from Oaxaca and worked in the same restaurant on Main Street in downtown Freehold since 2004. It has changed hands over those 16 years, and Eleazar reeled off the names of some of the cuisines he’s learned—American, Italian, Indian. Though he could earn more as a day laborer, he prefers the security of kitchen work. He got his first and only raise six years ago, from $250 a week to $550.
In 2016, when the restaurant changed hands once again, Eleazar’s new employers paid his wages a week late, so that he was always short one week of pay—saying they were withholding wages in the form of a “deposit,” a common practice with undocumented workers that is actually a bond intended to keep workers loyal. During the lockdown, Eleazar asked for his deposit to tide him over for the month of March, but was refused. Still, he went back to work on take-out orders. A week and a half later, feeling feverish and cold, he went to a doctor and found out he had Covid-19. He has since recovered, but he suffered malaise and panic, with sleepless nights spent pacing outside the basement apartment he shares with two friends.
In June, after two months at home without pay, he got a call from the chef at the restaurant. The restaurant was reopening, the chef said, but Eleazar needed to prove that his “body was clean” before he could come back to work. He asked Eleazar to get tested again. By now, with help from Angelica Espinal-Garcia, a health educator, Eleazar refused to get retested. There was no guarantee that the results would be negative, even though he had recovered: “No more, I told him, no more.” He wasn’t coming back, he told the surprised chef—despite their owing him $700 in back pay. He was more than a cook at the restaurant; he was their handyman, plumber—an all-in-one guy—but his wages never reflected this except for occasional extra cash. He is now working a new job at a restaurant in Manalapan and paying off bills for his treatment.
Angelica Espinal-Garcia, MPH, MCHES
As news of the novel coronavirus began to spread in February, Angelica Espinal-Garcia, a health educator for Freehold’s department of health and president of the board of Casa Freehold, began holding information sessions at local churches and in the offices of Casa Freehold on Jackson Street. “There was a lot of interest,” she said, “I felt that people were looking for me.” She advised them on what symptoms to look for, and what precautions to take, using guidance from the CDC, before the pandemic was declared a national emergency. Now, she is a liaison with the Hispanic community, helping them navigate the health care system when they call her or Casa Freehold with questions about the virus. “I try to listen,” she said, “so they can tell me. Trust is very valuable in the Hispanic community.” At the end of the initial surge of cases in Freehold Borough, however, Angelica found herself dealing with a unique situation among workers who had recovered from Covid-19: Social stigma and fear within the community was preventing them from returning to their jobs and their living quarters as employers and the middlemen who rent to them required assurance that the workers were not contagious. “I get calls all the time,” she said, from desperate workers. She reaches out to their encargados: “Your renters are not the only people you can get it [the virus] from,” she tells them. “We’re Hispanic, we should support each other.”
Angelica is from Honduras: Her parents separated and her mother left for the United States to escape political violence when Angelica was 7, leaving Angelica’s grandmother to raise her. She arrived in the States when she was 16 on a petition from her father, who is a citizen. Now an American citizen herself, Angelica was able to sponsor her siblings, who came to New Jersey last year—that was the first time that Angelica’s sister had seen her mother in 29 years.
“When I see inequities in the health system, to be honest, I see my parents, because I have seen them struggle,” she said. “I feel I’m doing the right job. Just talking to the patients’ co-workers, and to their encargados. They’re scared, they want to get the people out of the house if they tested positive. I feel I’m making a difference.”
“I am afraid of the water,” Mario said with an apologetic smile, about his decision to avoid coming to the United States by crossing the Rio Grande. We met in the backyard of the house where he rents a single room. He keeps the tools he needs as a landscaper and day laborer—the wheelbarrow and other implements—against a wall, beside the herbs and flowers he tends. There were patches of mint and an evergreen pruned to a perfect spiral, which he had brought home one day when a client didn’t want it anymore. “It was too pretty to throw away,” he said. He chose the desert and its hazards over the water and crossed into the United States in 2006.
In 2019, he was walking home from Casa Freehold when local police stopped him without cause and asked his name. When he hesitated to immediately disclose it, they took him to the police station, where he called Rita Dentino, executive director of Casa Freehold and an old friend. She went to the police station immediately and filed a complaint with the ACLU. Mario, who has no criminal record, was released without either party pressing charges.
Since the lockdown, his work has dropped to one or two days a week. Before the pandemic, he was able to wire up to $400 a month to his family in Puebla, Mexico. This April he sent them $100, in May, $150. The pandemic has forced him to consider returning to Mexico within a year—he is simply not able to make ends meet. “I am tired,” he said. He has a wife, eight children, and some grandchildren back home. He plans to leave when he has earned enough to buy a plane ticket home. “This country is beautiful. But for immigrants, it’s not easy.” Tears sprang into his eyes. “The people are listening to the president, and so they say, ‘Mexicans are no good.’ Sometimes I am scared.”