COVID-19 Impacts Immigrant Communities

Advocates say more needs to happen to address immigrants' health and safety

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has reassured undocumented residents they shouldn't be afraid to seek help from state government during the COVID-19 crisis, and pledged to make Department of Health updates and hotlines accessible in multiple languages.

Yet immigration advocates say relief efforts are not doing enough to include and inform immigrant communities, which are among those likely to be hit hardest by the economic consequences of the pandemic.

On Wednesday, Lujan Grisham acknowledged in a public update that the health department's website devoted to COVID-19 updates and resources had not initially included Spanish translations. That has since been remedied.

In the same public address, the governor also reassured undocumented residents who might be afraid of calling the state's COVID-19 hotline that there will be no immigration consequences for seeking care.

"This is a government that is working hard to protect all people in the state of New Mexico," Lujan Grisham said, imploring undocumented residents to call the health hotline immediately if they have symptoms such as cough, fever above 100.4 degrees and shortness of breath.

Personal information collected during testing will only be shared with public health workers and will not be disclosed to any other government partners or agencies, she said, adding that "this is not about immigration or any enforcement, this is about public health and safety for everyone."

Even if state government does not cooperate, it cannot stop the actions of the federal agency. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement continued to make arrests this week in cities across the country, says immigration lawyer Allegra Love, the director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. The organization provides legal services to immigrants in Santa Fe and in detention facilities in New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

As recently as March 13, US Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents showed up to at least five restaurants in Santa Fe to begin I-9 document inspections, part of which involves verifying workers’ documents.

On Wednesday, ICE announced it would temporarily halt enforcement efforts and arrests for undocumented individuals who do not have criminal records, and would not pursue arrests at sensitive locations such as hospitals. However, undocumented people with criminal records are still subject to arrest, and it is unclear whether the agency will halt I-9 inspections, says Marcela Díaz, executive director of the immigrants and workers rights advocacy group Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

Díaz says the state needs to provide more clarity about how undocumented individuals will be protected if they seek medical care or go to get tested for COVID-19. For example, she says, the state could explicitly prohibit test sites from requesting Social Security information from patients.

As lawmakers across the country order businesses to close or limit their hours to slow the spread of the virus, both Love and Díaz are concerned about how immigrant communities will experience the economic impacts of the crisis.

"We need to start thinking about how we can help people receive relief outside of the structure of traditional unemployment," Love says, pointing out there are many undocumented people employed in Santa Fe without valid Social Security numbers who will not be eligible for critical economic aid provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed into law by President Trump on Wednesday.

The act includes paid sick leave and expanded family medical leave for people who contract the illness or who must stay home to care for small children or elderly family members who are most at risk from the disease.

Lack of access to the act's provisions for some immigrants is "…not only unfair, it is also unsafe and puts us all at risk," Díaz says, noting that when workers know they will not receive critical relief from the federal government, they may continue going to work even if they are sick or have family members at home who are at elevated risk.

Díaz also says that it is critical for the state to provide a reliable source of accurate information to all its residents.

On Wednesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged the state has been slow to meet the needs of New Mexicans who do not speak English, but said that is being remedied, and that the state's hotlines are now staffed with Spanish speakers.

"We are working on translating all of the information we have available in any number of Asian languages, working with our tribal partners on tribal languages so that we are doing our very best to make sure there are no language barriers to these issues," the governor said, acknowledging that current efforts may still be "insufficient," and that she takes inquiries about the issue as "constructive criticism to do more."

The City of Albuquerque has provided a resources page with links to information about COVID-19 in Spanish, Dine/Navajo, Vietnamese, and Chinese.

The City of Santa Fe webpage includes a translation function via a tab in the top right corner of the page that will translate all city pages into multiple languages.  All announcements about the illness are accessible here. However, a new page created specifically for COVID-19 updates and info does not include translation options.

A handful of groups in Santa Fe are working together to make it easier for community members to help one another in this time of crisis. Local youth activism group YUCCA is one of several organizations collaborating to start a mutual aid network to connect individuals who are in need of or able to provide things such as childcare and transportation. Individuals can join by filling out a form in either English or Spanish.

Organizer Bianca Sopoci-Belknap tells SFR the mutual aid network is already "serving undocumented folks," along with other members of the community.

Meanwhile, in more national immigration news:

  • President Trump announced plans to close national borders with both Mexico and Canada.
  • The ACLU filed a lawsuit against ICE detention facility in Seattle demanding that the facility release detainees who are at highest risk of contracting COVID-19, including the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions. A federal judge denied the request on Thursday.
  • More than 3,000 doctors signed an open letter urging ICE to release detainees at all ICE detention facilities while their cases are being processed to avoid mass outbreaks of the virus in crowded facilities and surrounding communities.
  • US Citizenship and Immigration services closed field offices and postpones naturalization ceremonies and citizenship and asylum interviews. The Albuquerque field office is closed.
  • ICE prosecutors, Immigration Lawyers, and Immigration judges called on Department of Justice to close immigration courts, however many immigration courts remain open.
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