MIAMI — When undocumented immigrants call into the Florida Immigrant Coalition‘s telephone hotline these days, Laura Munoz is struggling to figure out what to tell them.
First, Munoz reads them the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on how to avoid contracting the coronavirus, citing recommendations to self-isolate and avoid crowds of 10 people or more.
But then, Munoz has to tell them that it’s critically important for them to show up in person for their check-ins at the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, where dozens of people cram into lines each morning to enter the building.
“We have people saying, ‘I have lung problems, but I can’t be separated from my family so I have to go to my appointment,'” Munoz said. “They are dealing with this horrible contradiction between these federal agencies. That’s not good for them, for immigrant communities, or the public health of our community.”
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As Americans are struggling to cope with a new way of life under government-issued restrictions due to the fast-spreading virus, the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants are being hit especially hard, juggling their fears of being deported with their fears of basic survival.
In California, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights completed a survey on Sunday of 500 people who are either undocumented or related to an undocumented immigrant. The poll found that people are more scared about their economic situation than they are of contracting COVID-19.
Of the 500 people surveyed, 95 percent were concerned about paying their bills and 89 percent were worried about losing their jobs, compared to 73 percent who cited coronavirus as a concern.
Diana Colin, political director for the coalition, said the results shouldn’t be surprising given the temporary, cash-based jobs that undocumented immigrants generally perform. As restaurants close, those jobs are drying up. As more businesses shift to teleworking, fewer janitors are needed to clean office buildings. And as more parents work from home and self-isolate, nannies could soon start losing their jobs, as well.
“They’re working hourly jobs. A lot of times, they’re getting paid under the table. And they don’t qualify for unemployment,” Colin said.
That combination is driving undocumented immigrants in Georgia to start thinking of alternatives to get through what could be a prolonged period of economic hardship.
Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said she was only half joking recently when she appeared on an internet radio program and offered up her collection of Silvio Rodriguez records in exchange for two pounds of onions. With no federal bailout or national organizations stepping in to save the undocumented population, Nicholls said they need to start working on the hyper-local level to figure out ways to survive block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.
To endure what she described as an “econo-virus,” she wants to help establish bartering systems among neighbors, work with local food banks to ensure that the most needy can find food, and see if there are fundraisers or other ways to help undocumented communities.
“What we have to do is organize in our homes with our neighbors and help each other,” Nicholls said.
As more people get infected, the next worry will be how they will be treated.
Daniel Perez, intake coordinator at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle, said he’s been fielding nonstop calls from undocumented immigrants asking how they can get medical help if they get sick.
The Trump administration instituted a “public charge” rule last month that makes immigrants ineligible for residency or citizenship if they rely on government benefits or are deemed likely to use them in the future. Perez said that has left a wide variety of immigrants — undocumented immigrants who are trying to legalize their status, legal immigrants who are applying for green cards and citizenship — hesitant to seek out medical assistance during the current outbreak.
That’s explains why Perez is hoping the existing network of clinics and individuals doctors who treat undocumented immigrants, no questions asked, can step up during the coronavirus outbreak. And that’s why Perez is stressing to immigrants that they are legally allowed to use the emergency room in their local hospitals if they are desperate.
“We need to be sure that people get convinced of that,” he said.
Munoz of the Florida Immigrant Coalition put it this way: “Even if I tell them to go, if they feel scared, they could just stay home and hope they don’t die.”
Hovering over all those concerns for undocumented immigrants is the constant fear that ICE agents will arrest them.
The agency put out a statement Wednesday saying it would focus its arrests on “public safety risks” and will “exercise discretion” for the time being by not arresting those who are not. But ICE has ignored calls from advocates to release non-criminal offenders from immigration detention.
Instead, the agency is now barring relatives from visiting people locked up in ICE detention centers, and limiting how attorneys and members of Congress can visit those centers. Many immigration courts have closed, but in-person check-ins at many ICE facilities continue as scheduled.
Immigration advocates say they’re hoping ICE officials start showing some sympathy in the weeks to come, as they apparently did when it announced Wednesday that it would scale back arrests. But given their history under the Trump administration, they’re not holding their breath.
“There isn’t a lot of trust right now with the federal government,” Colin said.