U.S. COVID Response Exacerbates Vulnerabilities for Immigrant Families

U.S. government policies aimed at addressing the coronavirus pandemic are exacerbating existing vulnerabilities for immigrant families in the United States. In March and April 2020, Congress passed several coronavirus aid bills with a total federal spending of $3 trillion—the most extensive economic aid measures in modern U.S. history. The bill aims to provide economic relief for small businesses, corporations, and workers. However, the aid packages passed thus far contain significant exclusions for  immigrants, DACA recipients, and mixed-status families, or households that have members with different citizenship or immigration statuses. Economic uncertainty is catastrophically crippling immigrant communities, and many immigrants who work in essential fields now face possible exposure to coronavirus. The federal government must ensure access to free COVID-19 testing regardless of immigration status, extend work permits automatically to immigrants facing expiration, and provide economic relief to all tax-paying immigrants.

I spoke to three such individuals about their experiences navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic with their families.

Ximena Magana was born in Mexico City and migrated to the United States at nine years old. She is a DACA recipient, and her parents do not have legal status. She is a student at the University of Houston, a community organizer of get out the vote events, and the youngest member to serve on the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Board for the City of Houston.

Jenny: DACA recipients are working on the frontlines of the coronavirus response but are excluded from the COVID stimulus package. How does this make you feel?

Ximena: Many essential workers are putting their lives at risk for the safety of all of us. Healthcare workers don’t ask for a patient’s status, because at the end of the day, they want to save that patient. I’m disappointed but not surprised that DACA recipients are not getting the respect that they deserve. People need to see the faces of DACA recipients and understand we’re human too, and we are here to help and support a country that we call home.

Jenny: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many families uncertain about their work authorization. Could you talk about what this means for you and your family?

Ximena: I have to renew my work permit in June, and I’m worried about the backlog that is accruing. It takes about six months, and I’m afraid I’ll be left without status for a while. My parents don’t have legal status.

Jenny: How are your parents coping with COVID-19?

Ximena: They’re very stressed, they’re not sure when they’re going to be able to go back to work or if their work will even survive. They are scared of not knowing if we are going to have enough money to pay for bills and rent. The undocumented community has always been in the shadows. I think people are starting to feel what undocumented people feel every day, having this uncertainty and fear of not knowing what is going to happen next. Now, people are in quarantine, not being able to see loved ones; this is what we face every single day of our lives. [Undocumented people cannot travel internationally and face apprehension domestically.] We are separated from our families, and we can only call or video chat. I think people are just now starting to feel what it’s like.

Magdalena* was born in Honduras and migrated with her son to the United States. She is awaiting her asylum case and lives in a mixed-status family as her father is a TPS recipient, and her mother lives in Honduras.

Jenny: COVID-19 testing excludes many immigrants who are ineligible for Medicaid and unable to afford private medical insurance. What would it look like if you needed to obtain testing?

Magdalena: If my son or I got sick, I have no clue what I would do. I wouldn’t know where or who even to turn too. I am thankful we are healthy, but we live in uncertainty. Luckily my father’s job is testing employees and making sure employees are safe, but during these times, you could face exposure without knowing.

Jenny: What toll does COVID-19 have on your family?

Magdalena: I don’t yet have work authorization and have to stay home to take care of my son. My son and I are dependent on my father’s income. My father works in waterproofing construction. His hours have recently been cut back, and it’s hard not to know what’s next. It’s unjust that my father, who has lived and worked here for over two decades, only has temporary status that would have already been terminated if not for a court case. There is a lot of pressure on him at the moment, and my mother in Honduras is distraught for the health and safety of my son and me.

Jenny: What would you like to see from the government?

Magdalena: I want the government to support everyone and open the doors for us. We are asking to live a life without fear. I don’t want my son to face discrimination and want to give him security.

Nehali* was born in Pakistan and is a full-time college student studying Psychology, aspiring to become a doctor. She and her family are awaiting their asylum case.

Jenny: How is your family coping with the pandemic?

Nehali: I am now at home with my family, my little sister’s schooling has moved online, and my mom is not working at the moment. My mom is very anxious and fears my dad is going to get sick. My father is a manager at the local gas station and deemed an essential worker. We are scared of him being exposed; he is the sole provider at the moment. We are making sure to take the best precautions because my family doesn’t have insurance.

Jenny: COVID-19 is making people so anxious and fearful. What do you think are the risks of that fear turning into xenophobia?

Nehali: Refugees, asylum seekers, and the undocumented community are anxious every single day of their lives, and I don’t think many people care about us. This virus has only heightened everyone’s fear. While most people in quarantine are living in their bubble, we don’t have that privilege to work from home. In addition to the risk of exposure, working people might be afraid to get tested or seek out help if needed. We stand with you all, but it’s time we help our most vulnerable.

Jenny: Is there anything else that you want to convey that we make sure to focus on at this moment?

Nehali:  People who need economic relief are being excluded from the narrative right now. Essential workers who are running this country right now are being ignored during these times, and it’s important to honor the sacrifices they are making.

*Names with an asterisk are pseudonyms to protect the identity of refugees and asylum seekers in this piece.