“This is an emergency,” one woman says in Spanish. “They’re keeping us here without masks, without antibacterial gel.” Another woman holds up a sign: “#No-Antibacterial. #SOS.” Then another in an improvised mask looks into the camera: “We’re trying to save our lives, so we’re making masks from our clothes,” she says. “So we need this to go viral. We need your help. Please help us.”
The video call from an immigrant detention center in Conroe, Texas, where people had tested positive for COVID-19, was released on Twitter with an urgent message: “Public health experts predict once a facility has 5+ cases, 72-100% of detainees could get #COVID19 within 90 days.”
Recent years had already made life harder for refugees and immigrants to the United States. Targeted Trump administration policies, such as family separation at the southern border, exacerbated the cruelty of the immigration system. It seemed that the gap between America’s celebration of its history as a nation of immigrants and its treatment of people now seeking refuge couldn’t get any wider.
Then the coronavirus hit—delivering a wallop to immigrant as well as Black and Brown communities. The outbreak exacerbated existing inequalities, making life for many immigrants, especially the undocumented, even more perilous. Employed in some of the hardest-hit industries and excluded from most government help, immigrant families scrambled to keep themselves fed and their bills paid. The crisis sent advocacy groups and organizations that normally work with these communities—like the ones you’ll read about in our special migration report that launches tomorrow—into overdrive to provide relief. They’ve been opening and stocking food banks, raising funds to help cover rent, and finding ways to connect people to health care.
The spread of COVID-19 through detention facilities was the most immediate crisis for organizations such as Detention Watch Network that for years had been demanding we shut down private detention centers across the country. Now that call became a roar, a movement, #FreeThemAll, urging U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release immigrants from detention now.
“Detention is inherently cruel and unnecessary, but it is especially unconscionable while we face a global pandemic,” Gabriella Castillo and Adriana Quiroga, community organizers for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, RAICES Texas, wrote to YES! Media. “Even before COVID-19, detention centers were unable to meet the basic health and living needs for those detained. Now we’ve seen an inability to flatten the curve because of these systematic abuses and medical neglect. Our call to #FreeThemAll is not only a humanitarian response but also addresses a public health concern.”
In April, immigrant detainees protesting conditions and the increased risk of the coronavirus went on hunger strike at a facility in Georgia. And when 70 men at Mesa Verde detention center in California went on a similar hunger strike in June, they began with a statement in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, and Tony McDade, Black people killed by police. “Almost all of us have also suffered through our country’s corrupt and racist criminal justice system before being pushed into the hands of ICE,” said their statement, bringing #BlackLivesMatter from American streets into detention centers.
Outside in the community, the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities, making life for many immigrants, especially the undocumented, even more precarious. As states and cities ordered shelter-in-place directives and many businesses closed their offices or shut down entirely, recent immigrants and Brown and Black Americans were more likely than White Americans to have jobs as essential workers in grocery stores, food service and delivery, or food supply chains.
“In New York, the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, undocumented immigrants form an even more significant share of the delivery workforce, with almost 1 in 3 food delivery people being undocumented,” the research and advocacy organization New American Economy stated in April.
Nationwide, for people ineligible for unemployment benefit because they were undocumented, the choice was stark—go to work, usually without adequate protection and social distancing—or go without income.
The exclusion of immigrant communities from government assistance during the first months of the pandemic was stark. Carlos A. Guevara is associate director of Immigration, Policy, and Advocacy at UnidosUS, an organization that serves the Latino community nationwide in areas ranging from civil rights to health and housing.
He wrote to YES! of his organization’s disappointment with the federal recovery legislation that excluded the spouses of undocumented people from receiving stimulus payments. “As a result,” he wrote, “an estimated 3.7 million children and 1.7 million spouses who are either U.S. citizens or green-card holders didn’t receive economic impact payments last month. We are fighting to ensure full access to this and other forms of economic supports going forward, especially as many Latinos are being called on to perform the “essential” work—all along the food supply chain, health care provision, gig workers delivering our goods—that is keeping the nation afloat today.”
Even at the best of times, the U.S. economy is heavily reliant on the labor of immigrants, including people who are undocumented. According to census data cited by New American Economy, in 2018 nearly 40% of workers in roles that supported health care services—from nursing assistants and home health aides to housekeepers, receptionists, janitors, and cooks—were undocumented.
The Washington Budget and Policy Center, in coordination with immigrant advocacy organizations, estimated that undocumented workers contribute more than $300 million in taxes to Washington state every year. Yet they and their families had been excluded from some $700 million in unemployment assistance and stimulus payments.
“They cannot be excluded any longer,” it said. In May, the Policy Center and a coalition of immigrant organizations and Seattle leaders asked the governor’s office to create a Washington Worker Relief Fund of at least $100 million to be distributed to undocumented Washington state residents by community-based organizations. It’s unclear whether it will happen, although California just implemented a $125 million relief fund for undocumented immigrants, the first of its kind.
Meanwhile, on farms across eastern Washington, immigrants have been doing essential agricultural work with little or no accommodation to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It’s a familiar scenario in other agricultural regions such as California and Florida.
Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, an independent farmworker union of Indigenous families, helped immigrant workers organize for better conditions, and in mid-May, 500 workers in Washington state’s Yakima Valley, a primary agricultural area, went on strike to get masks, gloves, and disinfectant, plastic dividers between workers, and the extra $2 per hour given to other essential workers.
By the end of the month, that strike and the advocacy of the national farmworkers union, United Farm Workers, pushed Washington’s governor to announce a new policy to limit the spread of the coronavirus among agricultural workers in the state.
Like much of the country, many advocacy groups have moved some of their activities online because of the pandemic. RAICES Texas, for example, hosts monthly virtual convivios (community gatherings), to provide bilingual information on health care and financial relief for those excluded from the federal stimulus bill. The organization has also been engaging DACA recipients, young people whose security to remain in the United States, where they grew up, rests on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the immigration policy reprieved last month by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Our nation has ways to begin to correct the injustices heaped on immigrants during the pandemic. The Heroes Act, a wide-ranging stimulus bill passed in the House of Representatives, would provide temporary protection to undocumented workers doing critical jobs and make them eligible for stimulus payments.
The Heroes Act is scheduled for debate in the Senate this month, and representatives have put forward other stimulus proposals. The corporate immunity agenda is likely to reemerge in the negotiations. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued that Congress use the next stimulus bill to protect companies from COVID-19 lawsuits. Such legislation would remove the strongest incentives for companies to provide effective protections, presenting immediate dangers for the most economically vulnerable workers, including immigrants and the undocumented.
As it reveals the structural exploitation of our economic system, the ongoing crisis of the pandemic shows how what is harmful for one population is eventually harmful for all. Why not begin to correct this permanently? According to the Department of Agriculture’s statistics, about half of the hired workforce in agriculture is undocumented. Not deporting them is necessary to put food on our tables and keep the economy moving. But giving them, and other undocumented essential workers, a path to citizenship would be transformative for our country in myriad ways.
Valerie Schloredt is the former books editor at YES!, where she led print and online coverage of literature, media, and film, with a focus on social change movements. Valerie worked for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies in London for seven years, has followed the police reform process in Seattle as a citizen activist since 2010, and continues to monitor developments in both London and Seattle. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English.