“People are still getting deported. It’s a pandemic, and they are tearing apart families for nothing.”
Alejandra came to the United States from El Salvador when she was seven years old. Now 19, she lives with her family in Dorchester, and until recently worked at a bakery and café in Cambridge.
An undocumented immigrant, Alejandra (an alias used to protect her anonymity) used the income that she made to contribute to rent and pay for schoolbooks. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, she had to leave her job, and now studies for school online. Her father is considered an essential worker and continues to go to a janitorial and transportation job, working at night when there are few people around.
Alejandra said that she is fortunate that her family is still able to make ends meet, and has not had a first-hand encounter with COVID-19. Still, in the throes of the crisis, undocumented immigrants have largely been considered invisible, Alejandra said.
“It’s shown a lot of disparity in the United States, in terms of healthcare and the way that people treat immigrants and minorities,” she said. As this story was being reported, President Donald Trump was sued by a Chicago man, citing the Migration Policy Institute, for denying coronavirus stimulus relief checks to Americans married to immigrants.
Alejandra added, “People have shown their true intentions in government. They exclude a vulnerable population. … At the end of the day, people are still getting deported. It’s a pandemic, and they are tearing apart families for nothing.”
Many who work in cleaning or the service industry have lost their jobs, found themselves without income, and are facing difficulties in paying their rents. Others continue to work on the frontlines as essential workers, often lacking sufficient protections. In both cases, these individuals are at heightened risk, according to Ben Echevarria, executive director of The Welcome Project, a social services organization for immigrants in Somerville.
“There are so many people now who are unemployed,” Echevarria noted. “Employees, especially undocumented, are really afraid they’re being exploited in a lot of ways. I had one person tell me that their boss said, ‘If you want a mask, go get one yourself.’ They’re concerned. They’re worried about their health, and they’re worried about their family’s health. They’re not sure how to handle this.”
Organizations like The Welcome Project are taking action to ensure that their constituents are safe. Echevarria said they are practicing case management, calling their clients to see what their needs are, connecting them with sister agencies, and helping them navigate the system. Their biggest concerns are finances and access to food, he said, as many are struggling with paying bills, rent, and finding meals. The Welcome Project has also been calling local officials to advocate for people without social security numbers to have access to unemployment insurance. In all cases, the organization’s job is to make sure that the voices of immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, are being heard.
The nonprofit Centro Presente, an organization that serves Latin American immigrants, is also taking steps to support undocumented individuals. Executive director Patricia Montes said that one priority is to support immigrants who have recently crossed the United States-Mexican border and have had to do ICE check-ins. Montes said that Centro Presente has asked that ICE temporarily cease its check-ins and establish a moratorium. The organization is also distributing food to people’s families, going directly to their houses. Centro Presente received financial backing from the City of Boston and will be offering support to undocumented immigrants who have been excluded from other packages. Many immigrants who have lost their jobs do not have a safety net in place, as they frequently do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Centro Presente is tuned in to the anxieties and struggles that undocumented immigrants face. Many are afraid of going to a clinic to be tested for the coronavirus, Montes said, and the organization works to make sure they are aware of their rights and do not fear having their status found out. John Walkey, Waterfront Initiative Coordinator of GreenRoots, an organization that is helping Centro Presente with food distribution, said that undocumented immigrants may be at risk of contracting the virus because of their housing situations.
“We’re working with people very much at the bottom,” Walkey said. “There’s a family in each bedroom. For social distancing, that’s a nightmare. Many people do not know what their rights are. If someone threatens them and says that they need to get out, for people who are undocumented, they are not going to be calling the police, and they’re not going to be standing up so much for the rights, because they’re not aware of them.”
The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) has made demands on policy-makers to support immigrants affected by the coronavirus. The organization has called for free COVID-19 testing, a moratorium on ICE operations, and the dissemination of multi-language information, among other provisions. Director of communications Marion Davis said that the virus has exacerbated the difficult conditions that undocumented immigrants routinely experience, citing an example of a woman who is an essential worker and finds herself at risk of exposure to the virus.
“She was working as an office cleaner, and week after week, she would have to ride the bus from Everett into the city, which was really scary for her, because she felt very exposed,” Davis said. “Then she would get to work, and she would have to bring her own gloves and mask, because she wasn’t getting anything. And she was really scared. She’s somebody who already has health issues, and she worried. But she also felt that because she was undocumented, she really couldn’t complain too loudly. …She was having to weigh, Is it better to have my job and be at risk, or do I go home and know that I can’t claim unemployment, and I have a daughter to feed?”
Davis affirmed that undocumented immigrants continue to struggle during the virus and that the risks and demands are real. As individuals persevere in their fight to stay afloat, she said that she hopes people will be recognized.
“There are so many layers of vulnerability right now,” Davis said. “It is very deeply concerning for community organizations. MIRA has members all across the state who are working with communities that are desperate right now. They’re working day and night, using every single tool they know, and still, they can’t meet the need.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project.
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Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.