By Larry Borowsky
“My family is safe and healthy right now,” Marisol says. That’s about where the good news ends.
Marisol and her husband lost their service-industry jobs when COVID-19 shattered Colorado’s economy. They and their three children are now entirely dependent on the few hundred dollars a week Marisol earns as a part-time nanny.
She’s grateful for the work, but it cuts two ways in the midst of a pandemic. Especially for an undocumented immigrant like Marisol. (Marisol is an alias, used at her request due to her immigration status.)
Each time Marisol leaves home to perform labor deemed “nonessential,” she fears arousing the suspicions of law enforcement. She also risks contracting COVID-19 on public transit or in the homes where she’s employed.
“That’s my biggest fear,” she says. “If I get sick or the people I work for get sick, I will have to stop working. And then I don’t know how we will survive.”
This is the tightrope undocumented Coloradans are walking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Few can make a living in a stay-at-home economy. They have to venture out into the community routinely—a risk nearly everyone else has been ordered not to take.
But beyond that, undocumented people in the United States face a unique set of vulnerabilities that other marginalized communities are at least somewhat inured from. Unless they have work authorization or some other protected status, undocumented immigrants can’t tap the beefed-up unemployment benefits Congress approved last month, nor will they receive a one-time stimulus check (Marisol’s family would have received $3,900 if eligible). Those who still have jobs can’t take paid sick leave if they develop symptoms or have to stay home to care for a family member who takes ill.
Social distancing has disrupted the information networks that people like Marisol typically rely on for mutual support. She wasn’t aware of an emergency rent assistance program that had sprung up in her community, nor did she know that U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has temporarily softened some of its enforcement policies, although she didn’t trust the latter when told of it. The Trump administration’s relentlessly punitive stance has made her, in this time of great need, more wary than ever of social service agencies, emergency rooms and other potential lifelines.
That leaves undocumented families largely on their own, with uncertain income (at best), almost no safety net, and a new version of the terror of detention and family separation. And, like everyone, they live with fear of the virus itself—but often without the option of staying home to protect their health, and an added layer to the fear of needing to be hospitalized.
No other population in Colorado is caught in the same three-way vise of economic, medical and statutory pressures. Any one of these forces could tear Marisol’s family apart, but she doesn’t have the luxury of weighing one hazard against another. She sees her choice as pretty simple: If she doesn’t work, her family won’t stay housed and fed.
“We know people who are just sitting at home with nothing to do, with no way to make money,” Marisol says. “I don’t know what will happen to them. They may have resources for a couple of weeks, but the reality is that I don’t know how they will survive.”
“Pushed into a corner”
“The people we work with are scared of the virus,” says Ashley Harrington, an attorney with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN). “But jobs and money have to come first. These are people who, before COVID, were already making difficult choices all the time about whether to pay the rent, buy food or pay the electrical bill. Now, they’re really pushed into a corner.
“We have clients who took jobs at Denver Health when they added cleaning staff to disinfect over the virus. Some are working in nursing homes or home health care. They’re putting themselves at real risk.”
“I’ve asked my undocumented patients who are still working if they have any protections,” says Kathleen Page, MD, an infectious disease expert at the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine. “One person told me she was fired for wearing a mask at work, although she might have misunderstood; I’m not sure. Someone else told me he was crowded into a truck with a lot of other workers—the worst place you can be—to be driven to a construction site.”
As for undocumented workers who’ve abruptly become unemployed, Harrington notes that not every family is as isolated and vulnerable as Marisol’s. Many households have at least one member who can qualify for some federal benefits because they have a work permit, DACA status, pending green card application or other documentation.
However, some fear that filing for benefits might run them afoul of the so-called Public Charge rule, which took effect in late February after a lengthy legal challenge. Under this policy, receipt of unemployment, food stamps, public housing assistance or any other taxpayer-funded benefit—including Medicaid—can adversely affect your visa status or green card application. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has vowed to grant exceptions to the Public Charge rule for people who lost employment due to COVID-19, but many undocumented families don’t take the policy at face value. Not with this administration.
“Even if they say it’s not going to affect the Public Charge, there’s been years of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric,” says Page, “so I don’t blame people if they don’t trust that.”
While Harrington understands the skepticism, she says RMIAN is advising its clients who have Social Security numbers to apply for unemployment benefits. Those who lack any documentation at all are directed to the Colorado Immigration Rights Coalition (CIRC), which has been scrambling to muster resources for families who’ve suddenly been thrown into economic distress.
“If you don’t have a work permit and you’ve lost income,” says Harrington, “the CIRC has done a fantastic job. They are serving as a clearinghouse in this crisis—rent assistance, utility assistance, food banks, clothing banks.”
Several other organizations have stepped up for undocumented families in need, including Front Range Mutual Aid and the Center for Health Progress (a Colorado Trust grantee). Many school districts throughout the state are continuing to provide breakfast and lunch to all students who qualify for free meals; that includes children without documentation.
In addition, some landlords are honoring Gov. Jared Polis’ request for lenience toward tenants who can’t pay their rent because of job loss. And numerous counties (including Denver) have directed their sheriff’s offices to suspend eviction enforcement. But these are hit-or-miss forms of relief that not every family can count on, and it’s unclear how long some landlords are willing to forego collecting rent.
“It’s location dependent,” says Colorado State Sen. Julie Gonzales (D-Denver County). “If you lose your job, are stuck at home and are facing eviction, it’s better to be in Denver than in a place that’s more hostile and unwelcoming to immigrants. It’s just a patchwork. In some counties the sheriffs won’t be enforcing eviction, or the courts either aren’t accepting eviction cases or are kicking them down the road.”
One thing that’s consistent from county to county is the statewide Eviction Legal Defense Fund, which the legislature created in 2019 to underwrite representation for indigent tenants who are facing eviction. And this session, Gonzales introduced the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act to prevent landlords from wielding citizenship status as a weapon against renters. The bill is still pending before the now-shuttered assembly.
“The fact is that crises exacerbate structural inequalities,” Gonzales says. “They existed before COVID, and the pandemic is making them worse. One of our goals in navigating the crisis should be to address the structural inequalities, so they don’t just return once this is over. What happens five or six months down the road, when things go back to ‘normal?’ Do we have a wave of eviction proceedings across the state? We need to ensure that people at the margins are included in the solutions we offer.”
Promises of leniency meet skepticism
If resources to mitigate economic harm are confusing and contingent, protections against the virus itself are relatively straightforward.
The Denver-based Center for Health Progress issued a comprehensive COVID-19 resource guide for uninsured Coloradans, including those without documents. It lists clinics, labs, websites, bilingual helplines and other facilities across the state that offer low- or no-cost testing and treatment. To assuage concerns that enforcement ambushes might be staged where people are seeking care, ICE served notice on March 18 that it would temporarily suspend enforcement activities at hospitals, physician offices and other health care facilities.
“You know it’s a pandemic,” Gonzales says dryly, “when ICE is encouraging undocumented people to get health care.”
Whether undocumented families will feel reassured is another matter. Marisol, the part-time nanny, wasn’t aware of the ICE advisory, but when informed of it she waved it aside—an understandable reaction, given reports of immigration-related arrests continuing during the pandemic.
Would fear of detention prevent Marisol from seeking care? “If one of us gets very sick, of course we will go to the doctor,” she says. But she’ll do so uneasily—and she’s not sure everyone in her shoes would be willing to take the chance.
“She’s right to be extraordinarily skeptical,” Gonzales says. “ICE has undermined any shred of credibility it ever had over the past three years by arresting people in incredibly vulnerable circumstances—courthouses, domestic violence situations, hospital emergency rooms. People will become sick and die because they were afraid to seek treatment, and that accountability should be laid at the feet of Donald Trump himself.”
“It’s more a fear than reality that if they use the emergency room or health care, they’ll be at risk for bad immigration outcomes,” says Johns Hopkins’ Page. “But the concern is there. And my patients who have kids have the added concern of family separation and deportation. So it’s difficult for them.”
Will this deterrent effect, combined with the economic imperative to keep working through the pandemic, cause undocumented families to suffer more adverse COVID-19 outcomes than the population at large? It’s too soon to know, says Page. But the question bears watching.
A second, perhaps more telling set of factors will be the rates of hospitalization, ICU admission and mortality from COVID-19.
“My suspicion is that the total number of diagnoses for undocumented immigrants will be relatively low,” says Page, “but those who do get diagnosed will be very advanced, because they’re only coming in and getting tested if they have absolutely no choice, so a higher proportion will be very sick. Those cases may be just the tip of the iceberg, and there will be many more we’ll never know about.”
Early data are at least partially bearing out Page’s prognosis. COVID-19 death rates so far have been disproportionately high among people of color in several U.S. hot spots. One possible reason: African Americans and Latinos appear to be tested for COVID-19 less frequently than the population at large. Civil rights lawyers have urged the federal government to publish demographic data about the pandemic’s impact on communities of color.
Finally, Page believes it’s important to track overall rates of mortality in varying communities during the pandemic. “Because of the quarantine and the disruption of overall services, there will be unintended consequences,” she says. “There will be people who die not because of COVID, but from some other cause that maybe could have been treated in a more normal situation. For one example, diabetes is a huge issue among Latinos in general. Will we see more people dying of renal failure?”
As uncertain as her circumstances are, Marisol says she has kept her emotions in check so far. “We are following the rules of the state,” she says, “and that gives me faith we’ll come through this. We’re not going out and seeing people. I just go back and forth from my house to work and then come straight back. I don’t go anywhere else. Aside from that, we don’t leave.
“I hope to God we’ll be free of this soon. I have faith it’s going to work out.”