As coronavirus spreads, undocumented immigrants lose jobs without financial safety net


A family of three in east Boston went from two incomes to none on March 6 when both parents lost their restaurant jobs the same day. They have enough savings – about $ 1,200 – to last a month.

“I see the president talking. I see the governor talking about programs and support, ”said the mother, who requested anonymity because she has no legal status. “I know these programs and support are for Americans. They are not for us.

She and her husband, who arrived on a travel visa from South America six years ago, are worried about putting food on the table and paying their rent, but they will not seek help from the government because they fear expulsion. They just want to work again. Still, they wished they had qualified for help, given the dire situation.

“I don’t want to be forgotten,” the mother said, speaking Spanish through a translator. “As immigrants, we should not be left behind.

A family from East Boston who arrived from South America six years ago hugged each other while posing for a photo. Both parents lost their jobs on March 6 due to the coronavirus pandemic and they will not be entitled to unemployment benefits or stimulus funds as they are not legal residents.

Jessica Rinaldi / Globe Team

Her concerns are shared across Massachusetts by hundreds of thousands of immigrants – with or without papers – who are reluctant to seek government help for fear of deportation, State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz said, a Boston Democrat.

“There has been such a buildup of fear messages over the past three plus years,” she said.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies and aggressive enforcement have fueled deportation anxiety, and documented immigrants are also on high alert due to new barriers, passed this year, that penalize citizens potentials who access government assistance programs such as food stamps and social housing.

Concerns persist, immigrant advocates said, even though federal immigration officials have said they will not conduct routine execution operations in or near health facilities such as hospitals, hospitals, hospitals and hospitals. clinics and doctors’ offices during the coronavirus crisis.

Unemployment benefits will also not count in the so-called “public burden” test for immigrants who must show they can support themselves, according to the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Yet it is entrenched in some circles of undocumented immigrants that applying for unemployment benefits is taboo.

“Filing an unemployment claim is a third rail,” said Diego Low, coordinator of the MetroWest Worker Center, which advocates for workers’ rights. “It’s a safe way to call [Department of Homeland Security’s] Warning.”

The congressional economic bailout aims to increase unemployment benefits, make direct cash payments of $ 1,200 to eligible taxpayers, and extend assistance to non-traditional employees such as gig economy workers like Uber drivers. These measures, however, will not help undocumented workers, and immigration advocates are disappointed that more has not been done to help this group.

“We are happy to see the stimulus package, but we are concerned that immigration status has not been addressed,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, a group that responded to questions. hundreds of calls from workers with or without papers. were made redundant or on leave during the pandemic.

This leaves undocumented workers to fend for themselves and rely on nonprofit efforts, such as the MassUndocFonds and Strong fund for restaurants. Since last week, Restaurant Strong has helped 250 workers in need, each giving them a cash grant of $ 1,000.

One area that immigrants, regardless of status, should not worry about in Massachusetts is seeking tests and treatment for the coronavirus. The state requires insurers to cover the full costs of testing, counseling and treatment; no user fees or deductibles for these services will be applied.

However, the skepticism runs deep, immigrant advocates said.

“It is possible that infected people will not seek health care, potentially until the last moment, until they try to access an emergency room,” said Alexandra Weber, program director Chief of the International Institute of New England, a nonprofit organization that provides resettlement, education, employment assistance and pathways to citizenship for immigrants and refugees.

“I’m concerned that people aren’t getting the level of service they deserve,” said Weber, who added that institute staff have made more than 1,500 phone calls to contact customers about their business. options.

Dr Julia Koehler, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics State Section’s Immigrant Health Committee, said she was concerned that unauthorized immigrants would suffer disproportionately during the crisis.

“They have stayed away from any official entity for years because they fear their information will be passed on,” said Koehler, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “Some have never been to the doctor since they came here.

The ramifications for the health of the general public are enormous, she said.

“I find it deeply distressing and truly heartbreaking. I can’t stress enough that this puts everyone at risk, ”Koehler said.

“These people are petrified. They don’t have the space in their brains right now to think about what social distancing means, what cleaning my hands means, what droplet transmission is, ”she added. “By taking care of them, we take care of ourselves. “

Koehler helped circulate an online petition to Governor Charlie Baker, signed by more than 2,500 people, including hundreds of medical professionals, which urges the state “to make it clear that it is safe to seek medical attention appropriate ”and that immigrants“ requiring isolation and treatment will be cared for, not punished.

These immigrants include Vanderleia da Silva, a 53-year-old housekeeper and undocumented immigrant from Brazil who has lost her 20 clients.

She has no income, no safety net and no way of knowing what the future holds for her family of four in Medford.

Da Silva spends her days cleaning her own apartment now, rationing the two to three weeks of food she has stored for her 15-year-old son, a friend, and the friend’s mother.

If anyone in the house contracts the virus, da Silva said, she doesn’t know what she will do.

“Of course, I’m scared. I lose everything, ”she said.

“At the moment we have a lot of food at home,” da Silva said. “But last night I couldn’t sleep for another 2-3 hours, standing and thinking of everything. What are we going to do?”

Shirley Leung is a business columnist. She can be reached at [email protected] Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at [email protected]

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