Esperanza, 56, lost her job as a Reno hotel maid in March, when COVID-19 restrictions closed Nevada’s casinos. Because she is an undocumented immigrant, she couldn’t apply for unemployment benefits and wasn’t eligible for help from the federal CARES Act.
The Sparks grandmother, who has been living in the U.S. for more than 17 years, turned to a skill she learned as a young woman in Guadalajara, Mexico. For the last nine months, Esperanza has taken food orders from family, friends and neighbors. She spends her days in her kitchen, amid simmering meats and sauces, making enchiladas, tacos, pozole, gorditas, tortas, tamales and other Mexican dishes.
She turns pork, chicken, garlic, cumin, cilantro, chili peppers, cheese, flour, onions, pinto beans and other ingredients into money for rent and other expenses. Esperanza, which is not her real name, considers herself among the lucky members of her community. Her family has remained healthy and she has been able to make a living during the pandemic, albeit with an off-the-books home business.
Immigrants in essential jobs
Many of Nevada’s estimated 210,000 undocumented immigrants haven’t been as fortunate. Many, like Esperanza, who worked in the hospitality industry, lost their jobs during the shutdown. Those who are still working may be able to meet their expenses, but face a greater danger from the virus. More than two-thirds of undocumented immigrant workers have frontline jobs considered “essential” to the nation’s fight against COVID-19, according to a national study, based on the latest Census data, released in December. The study also estimated that nearly one in five essential workers is an immigrant.
Even though undocumented immigrants in Nevada paid an estimated $241.6 million in federal taxes and $121.3 million in state and local taxes in 2018, they weren’t eligible for most benefits even before the pandemic. Most of those immigrants come from Spanish-speaking countries, and Latinos, nationally and in Nevada, citizens and non-citizens, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Virus strikes minority communities
In Washoe County, where about 25% of the population is Hispanic, more than 36% of the COVID-19 cases have been listed as Hispanic people. Officials said that percentage figure is probably even higher because the ethnicity of so many of the virus patients is listed as “unknown.” In addition to undocumented residents’ other worries, the specter of infection is an even greater threat. That fear is amplified when many of those people have no health insurance.
“We have all stayed healthy,” said Esperanza, who didn’t have health insurance even when she was working for the Reno hotel. “No one close to us has gotten sick.” Although some non-profit groups do provide assistance for undocumented people, she hasn’t had to apply for help. “The people with the larger families have a harder time,” she said. “It is very difficult for them when they lose their jobs or someone gets sick.”
All Americans are suffering in various degrees from the pandemic and its economic fallout. COVID-19 has focused a spotlight on the nation’s long-existing economic imbalances and exposed the frailty of systems we once thought were strong. Undocumented immigrants perched at or near the bottom of the economic ladder, often suffer more than most. At the same time, millions of those immigrants are working alongside their American-born neighbors to keep the country functioning. As hospital workers and home-care assistants, and in farm fields and grocery stores, they care for others and help keep the community safe.
And they do those jobs despite being excluded from many of the benefits and assistance efforts that native-born and naturalized citizens take for granted.
Excluded from CARES Act
Undocumented people are used to living with adversity, but the last four years of the Trump Administration’s harsh policies and anti-immigrant rhetoric made their existence more tenuous long before the pandemic arrived, said Hector Fong Jr., communications manager for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
“It’s been a very difficult time,” he said. “None of the CARES Act went to them. Even if one parent was undocumented, the whole household was excluded from the (previous $1,200) relief checks and all other benefits, including children who were born here and are citizens… When they need help, there are not many places they can turn.”
There has been some progress: under the new CARES Act, citizens in mixed-status families are eligible for the $600 pandemic relief payments.
PLAN launched the UNDOCUFUND, a relief fund to support Nevada’s undocumented workers and families who are on the front lines of the economy during the COVID crisis. So far, the fund has assisted more than 100 families with $300 stipends. All the money donated goes to the families, including mixed-status households, who have been left out of nearly all state and federal assistance efforts.
Fong said the state and federal eviction moratoriums helped keep families in their homes, but they weren’t eligible for the federal rental assistance or mediation programs available to citizens or legal residents. Even when citizen children in a household are eligible for other federal programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), their undocumented parent may not risk applying for the benefit.
The ‘public charge’ rule
“There’s still a fear in the community of applying for anything,” Fong said. “People are hesitant to do that and they are skeptical that it will come back to harm them. They are really stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
He said the “public charge” policy of the Trump administration frightened many people away from applying for whatever assistance they may qualify for. The “public charge” rule allows the government to deny a U.S. visa to anyone who “is likely at any time to become a public charge” — but without defining what “public charge” means. Under the Trump administration, the “Public Charge rule” is interpreted broadly to reduce the number of people who are eligible for green cards and other visas, by redefining what makes them dependent on government benefits — or “likely” to be in the future.
“People are now reluctant to get assistance, even for their (American-born) children,” Fong said. “Undocumented immigrants pay their fair share in taxes, and definitely a lot more taxes than a lot of corporations. They are contributing members of our society who have no real rights in this country. That’s especially a problem in Nevada, which has the highest rate (of undocumented people) per capita of any state in the country.”
Living in the shadows
He said undocumented residents have always tried to live “the most inconspicuous lives,” but during the last four years federal policies have driven them even deeper into the shadows and put them at greater risk of their health. Latinos in general are almost twice as likely to catch COVID-19 and nearly three times as likely to die from it, compared to other Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
If someone in Esperanza’s family gets sick, they would have to go to a hospital emergency room for testing and treatment. “It’s really hard for the common people,” she said. “No papers, no jobs, no health insurance.” She said she avoids doctor visits unless she is very ill, and then the emergency room is the only option.
Fong said he’s hopeful that the incoming Biden administration will reverse or eliminate many of the anti-immigrant policies of its predecessor. He noted that federal courts have invalidated much of the Trump administration’s assault on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That executive order was signed by former President Barak Obama in 2012. It provides temporary permission to stay in the U.S. for undocumented people who came to the United States as children.
DACA accepting applicants
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s attempt in 2017 to terminate the program. In December, the federal government published a notice that officials are accepting initial DACA applications, renewal requests, and applications for advance parole from DACA recipients.
“That’s a big sigh of relief,” Fong said. “Many (DACA recipients) are homeowners now; they are parents. They’ve been living under a constant threat of losing their status, their ability to have a job. But it’s not the end-all, be-all.” He noted that Trump’s attempts to eliminate or undermine the program were done via executive orders and “in the future there could be another attack on it.”
DACA supporters are pushing for federal legislation that would make the process more permanent and provide a pathway to citizenship for the young immigrants and for their parents. Fong said Congress has been deadlocked on immigration reform for three decades even though nearly all lawmakers admit that the system is broken and most Americans favor changes in policy.
Immigration reform overdue
“We definitely need our elected officials to listen to the community and be bold,” he said. “The whole Nevada delegation supports immigration reform, including Rep. Mark Amodei [the delegation’s sole Republican]. We need overall policies that are compassionate and comprehensive. We’d like to see that get accomplished under the Biden-Harris administration.”
Esperanza’s adult son, who is protected under DACA, said he also is hopeful that the new president and Congress will tackle immigration issues. He said undocumented Nevadans are part of their wider communities and their contributions should be recognized and valued.
“We’re hopeful that there will finally be some action on immigration reform,” he said. “People are doing so many important jobs and paying taxes. They do that without unemployment benefits or health insurance and are always in danger of losing everything… That has to change.”