To Stop The Pandemic, The U.S. Can’t Ignore Undocumented Immigrants Any Longer

Today, there are roughly 60 million Latinx people living in the U.S. — each one of us with our own unique cultural experiences and points of view. We are launching Somos, a cross-platform channel created in collaboration with the Latinx staff at Refinery29. We seek to elevate, educate, and inspire a new generation of changemakers committed to Latinx visibility. We’ll explore the unique issues that affect us and dive into the parallels and contrasts that make our community so rich‚ all while celebrating nuestras culturas.
The fever started on March 17. The next day, Juan mustered up the energy to go to his construction job. But by day three, he could barely move. 
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“I spent seven days just laying in bed,” the 56-year-old undocumented worker told Refinery29.
Juan, who lives alone in a rented room in New York City, suspected he could have Covid-19 but was hesitant to go to the hospital. Without health insurance, he knew he couldn’t afford the emergency room costs. 
When the fever wouldn’t break, Juan decided to go to a nearby public hospital. Doctors there told him he had a different virus and sent him home. But, on the evening of March 25, Juan started to feel like he was drowning. He called 911 and the ambulance took him to a nearby private hospital. 
“Everyone was screaming, crying, lamenting, praying to God, dying — drowning in their own phlegm,” Juan said. “I thought I was going to die. You are alone. You get depressed. You start to think about your family and you think about the debt that’s to come.” 
He was diagnosed with acute respiratory distress and pneumonia due to Covid-19, according to hospital records provided to Refinery29. He was given oxygen and spent six days in the hospital before being discharged. 
Juan said he already owes almost $2,500 for his first hospital visit and the ambulance. He has yet to receive a bill from the second hospital. But right now, he’s mostly worried about regaining his strength after losing massive amounts of weight while sick. 
“I need to get back on my feet because I need the money,” Juan, who has been unemployed for over a month, stressed. “I have to send money to my family in Mexico. I have to pay rent. I have to eat.”
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Juan is just one of the millions of undocumented immigrants struggling during the pandemic. 
An estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants were living in the United States in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. At the time, nearly 60 percent of this population was spread out between California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. All six are within the top 10 hardest hit states in the Covid-19 pandemic.
In March, a report by The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimated that 6 million immigrant workers, regardless of status, are currently working jobs deemed “essential” during the pandemic. The Institute also identified an additional 6 million immigrant workers in industries that were immediately devastated by mass layoffs — including restaurants, hotels, in-home child care, and cleaning services. 
“The economic fates of those with most constrained access to economic supports  — unauthorized immigrants — affect not only these immigrants themselves, but also their 2 million U.S.-citizen or lawful permanent resident spouses and their 4.1 million U.S.-citizen children,” wrote Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at MPI, in the report. 
Undocumented immigrants are not only more likely to be exposed to Covid-19 and be economically impacted by the pandemic, they’re also less likely to have access to financial and health assistance. 
In 2017, undocumented immigrants made up 4.6 percent of the labor force and contributed an estimated $27.2 billion in taxes paid to federal, state and local governments. This money helps fund federal programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Yet, undocumented individuals are ineligible to apply for these and other basic safety-net services, such as unemployment benefits and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), due to their immigration status.
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These immigrants and their families have also been left out of recent federal stimulus packages that have offered a record-number of unemployed Americans cash assistance and free COVID19 health services during the pandemic.  
Refinery29 spoke to several immigrant activists across the country and they all expressed hearing similar stories: Undocumented immigrants are losing their jobs, being threatened with illegal evictions, struggling to buy food for their families, and have no income to pay rent and other bills during quarantine. 
For those who get sick, fear of deportation and medical debt can discourage them from seeking Covid-19 testing or treatment. Every activist agreed that federal, state and local governments need to do more to protect undocumented immigrants during the crisis. 
“People are dying, people are suffering and Covid-19 is not discriminating on the basis of immigration status,” Sanaa Abrar, advocacy director for United We Dream (UWD), the largest immigrant youth-led network in the country, said. 
“As long as undocumented immigrants are excluded, I don’t see how we rise up from this,” she added. “It is despicable that they are being treated differently from any other human being in this country who is dealing with the challenges and the fears that this pandemic brings.”
Surviving More than the Virus
As far as Juan is concerned, surviving Covid-19 was only half the battle. Once he was discharged, he faced possible eviction from the room he rents from a family. The mother, he said, was afraid her sons would get sick. In response, he promised to quarantine in his room and only use the bathroom at 6am and 11pm. “Those days were tough,” he sighed. 
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“The undocumented community was already vulnerable, I think this health crisis just heightened that and highlighted that even more,” Yatziri Tovar, media specialist for Make the Road New York, the largest immigrant grassroots organization in the state, said. 
Now, as medical bills pile up, Juan is hoping he can work out a payment plan with the hospitals. When asked if he had any savings while out of work, he laughed. He said he’s staying afloat thanks to a $2,000 loan from a cousin and some money his sister sent him. He’s also received groceries from Bushwick Mutual Aid, a grassroots group helping struggling families with food. 
“Our people are hungry. Our people are unemployed,” Tovar said. “They’re having to choose between paying their full rent or saving that money to be able to buy food for the next couple of weeks — no family, regardless of status, should have to make that choice.” 
Still, the federal government has yet to act. Last month, President Donald Trump signed a $480 billion package to help financially boost small businesses and hospitals, plus expand Covid-19 testing nationwide. But, like its predecessors, the package did nothing to address the health and financial needs of undocumented immigrants. 
Abrar and Tovar said one major consequence of this exclusion is that mixed-status families with young adults who are U.S. Citizens or have DACA, a federal program that protects some undocumented immigrants from deportation and provides them with a work permit, have become the breadwinners for their households. 
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"As long as undocumented immigrants are excluded, I don’t see how we rise up from this.”

Sanaa Abrar, advocacy director for United We Dream
But even some DACA recipients, who have social security numbers, were left out of federal cash assistance due to an exclusionary provision. So, advocacy groups have stepped up. UWD created a NationalUndocuFund to offer the community cash assistance. Other advocacy groups, like Make the Road New York, created campaigns urging people to donate at least part of their stimulus check to undocumented workers. 
Some states have joined the cause. On April 15, California became the first state to offer undocumented immigrants aid with a $125 million fund, created thanks to state donations and private philanthropists. New York City followed suit with a $20 million fund from a donation by Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organization. But both of these funds will only help a fraction of the estimated 2 million and 650,000 undocumented immigrants that live in each state, respectively. 
“We think it’s a good thing that this money was donated, but it’s also time for the city and the state to do more for undocumented immigrants, who we know contribute [financially] to the city and state,” Tovar said in response to the NYC fund. 
In terms of medical services, both California and New York have made Covid-19 testing and health services free of charge to everyone in the state, regardless of immigration status. But these states are the exception, not the rule across the country. 
Old Fears, New Problems 
Even if they can afford it, many undocumented immigrants are hesistant to seek care for fear of being detained and deported by immigration enforcement agencies
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“When you’re talking about somebody in the border zone who needs to go to the next town for health care, if that person is undocumented and they have to cross through a border checkpoint, it’s a no-go,” Abrar said.  
Texas has some of those zones. Felix C. Villalobos, attorney and the Affirmative Services Unit Director for the immigrant nonprofit RAICES, said what he’s seeing in his state is an exacerbation of fears that already existed among undocumented communities, particularly since the passing of a 2017 state law, also known as Senate Bill 4 or SB 4, that granted law enforcement the power to track down undocumented immigrants. 
“Here in Texas, it’s always been a little bit anti-immigrant,” the Dallas-based attorney said. “When [SB 4] passed, people immediately stopped going out. We are seeing that same kind of phenomenon but on a larger scale now. Driving and working has gotten pretty hard.” 
For those who contract Covid-19, things become far more complicated. 
Villalobos and other advocates said many immigrants are reluctant to seek medical care due to the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule, which allows the government to refuse green cards or visas to immigrants who are dependent on public assistance. 
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that testing and treatment related to Covid-19 would not be considered a “public charge” under the rule. Still, many immigrants are afraid, and Villalobos said more needs to be done to combat misinformation. 
At the same time, he thinks federal and state governments need to be more transparent about whether information collected during Covid-19 testing at drive-thru stations will remain confidential. 
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“Many are scared because this administration has been tapping into different databases to gather intel,” Villalobos said. “So, a lot of people simply don’t get tested. That can be problematic because if they are positive for Covid-19 and they don’t get tested, they’re just going to pass it on to other people, especially if they are asymptomatic.” 
Villalobos believes excluding undocumented immigrants from response policies and legislations is counterproductive to winning the fight against the virus.
“We are all susceptible to getting sick,” he said. “If we are going to overcome Covid-19, we have to do it everybody together and we can’t allow biases to dictate how we are going to go about it.” 

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