The “Pandemic at Work” series explores the work environment in the era of COVID-19 through the voices of those trying to survive through it.
At the dawn of a new year, COVID-19 has so far claimed more than 470,000 lives, closed millions of small businesses (many permanently), and kept unemployment numbers above 10 million for months. The pandemic has hit every corner of American society, but statistics don’t tell the full story of its impact on the country’s workforce.
When factoring in the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants—74 percent of whom work in critical infrastructure sectors such as health care, construction, food service, and agriculture—a clearer picture of the COVID-19 struggle emerges, one in which not everyone gets a safety net.
Undocumented workers don’t show up in labor reports, and for them there haven’t been any stimulus payments or $600 a week in unemployment benefits. There is no $300-per-week aid from the $900 billion pandemic relief bill passed shortly before the new year. And as COVID-19 infections surpass 27 million, there is usually no health insurance. Being both undocumented and unemployed has often meant stretching pennies and food to get by—all while trying to avoid deportation and a deadly disease.
Upon taking office, President Joe Biden immediately gave many immigrants a reason to hope for a more stable future through the U.S. Citizenship Act and several pro-immigration executive orders, as well as a healthier one should we emerge from COVID-19 a stronger, more equitable nation. Still, in the meantime, tangible aid remains out of reach for millions of undocumented workers.
Here, a few of them describe the challenges they face—and the help they have found in each other.
Sandra Pita, Tennessee
When Sandra Pita and her husband, Juan Perez, came down with COVID-19 in June, they were bewildered. She, a domestic worker, and he, a painter, had been taking every precaution to make sure they wouldn’t bring the virus home to their six children.
“We protect ourselves by always wearing masks and gloves. As soon as I get home, I get in the shower, wash my clothes,” says Pita, whose family does not have health insurance. “We didn’t know who got it first or how.” Two of their children tested positive too.
When Pita and Perez were home recuperating from the potentially deadly respiratory virus, they were unable to work and ended up draining their savings. But the family was grateful to receive a little COVID assistance from the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, a statewide, multiethnic advocacy organization headquartered in Nashville.
“It’s hard as an immigrant, because we were not included in the relief package—no unemployment, no food stamps, nothing. What we work for is what we survive with. The worst part is our kids are American citizens but have no rights to relief help because their parents are immigrants. It’s not right.”
Pita, who is 37, has lived in the United States since she was five years old, emigrating from Mexico with her mother, Josefina Santos, and older brother, Oscar. First in Los Angeles and then in Memphis, Santos worked in warehouses during the week and cooked and sold food out of their home on the weekends.
As one of the 650,000 undocumented immigrants enrolled in the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Pita has been running her own housekeeping business in Memphis for 15 years. She started with individual homes and then expanded by contracting with the home remodeling firm where Perez, 40, worked. Cleaning 10 homes weekly, Pita was able to employ four other women. Together, she and her husband grossed about $2,000 a month. After the pandemic hit last spring, business dried up, and their monthly income plummeted to $800—barely enough to cover their $775 mortgage.
“We’re just surviving. We’re not OK,” Pita says.
Enacted in 2012 by President Barack Obama, DACA allows those who came to the country as children, known as DREAMers, to continue to live and work here without fear of deportation. President Donald Trump reignited that fear in 2017 when he promised to terminate DACA. While the U.S. Supreme Court blocked Trump’s effort, the program remains vulnerable. For instance, a lawsuit brought by Texas and eight other states is currently challenging the program’s constitutionality.
Pita’s husband is not eligible for DACA, and she’s looking to the Biden administration to offer a permanent solution for her and her family. This could come via the immigration bill Biden sent to Congress, which would prioritize DACA recipients in the issuing of green cards and offer an eight-year path to citizenship. Still, the legislation faces a long road ahead.
“My 20-year-old turns 21 this year, so we’re looking to see if he can help us get status. Trump changed the laws drastically for immigrants, putting impossible restrictions on whether a 21-year-old can legalize their parents,” Pita says. “My hope is Biden will help the millions of immigrants across America just like us.”
Glo Harn Choi, Illinois
Glo Harn Choi feels like he’s lived in fear of deportation his whole life.
It began at age four, when Choi’s father came from South Korea to study in the United States, settling in Chicago with his wife, son, and daughter. Two years after arriving, Choi’s sister was diagnosed with autism. Afraid that their daughter would be ostracized or unable to receive the care she needed back home, Choi’s parents decided not to return. His mother later secured her own student visa, and for the next 17 years the couple kept going to school and renewing their visas.
“I rarely saw my father. He was at school or working all night—in laundromats, as a taxi and limo driver, in factories. Same with my mom,” says Choi. “That was my entire childhood—my parents trying to stay financially and legally afloat.”
Choi’s worries intensified at age 21 when he lost his coverage under his parents’ visas and had very limited employment opportunities as an undocumented immigrant. Soon after, his parents’ visa renewals ran out, and they joined him in a shadowy world where there are few footholds for security and prosperity.
“My family was always struggling. Being witness to that, it’s like you don’t see a pathway forward,” Choi says. “When tomorrow seems so bleak, it’s like, what’s the point of trying?”
His father eventually stopped working to become his sister’s full-time caregiver. In 2015 his mother started a catering business from home that saw success until the pandemic arrived. “People were no longer gathering. As a caterer, COVID hit her very hard,” Choi says. “I’m very fortunate to be working the job I have now instead of at restaurants, as I’ve been able to help out financially.”
Choi, now 28, is a community organizer for the HANA Center, a member agency of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. His current $40,000 salary is a far cry from what little he had been making during the decade prior—working for a Korean restaurant at age 17, then a hibachi grill for six years and a sushi place for two.
He stumbled into advocacy work after visiting the community center looking for help with DACA. It turned out that he wasn’t eligible for the program, but he got hooked on the sense of community he found at HANA, and his lifelong fears began to dissipate.
For the past two years, Choi has advocated for social services and the cultural and civic engagement of Korean-American and other Asian immigrant communities. Asian-Americans are the country’s fastest-growing demographic group, and estimates by the Center of Migration Studies and the Migration Policy Institute place the number of undocumented Asian immigrants—representing up to 48 nations—at 1.7 million, which is about 16 percent of the undocumented population.
Choi says the need he sees daily in immigrant communities underscores the urgency of enacting fair and humane immigration reform. “It’s reflective of America’s shift to the service economy. Think of all the businesses that have closed—employees who aren’t able to work because their jobs are based on being with others,” he says. “A lot of them are undocumented. They’ve received absolutely no kind of support.”
Patrice Lawrence, District of Columbia
At 18, Patrice Lawrence came to Roanoke, Virginia, from Jamaica after winning a scholarship to attend Hollins University. After graduating with honors and earning a bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work for The Links, Inc., an organization of professional Black women volunteering in service of Black communities. Then Lawrence got a job with USA for UNHCR, the nonprofit arm of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and hoped to acquire a new visa through the organization.
“We had been in talks for a long time that they would sponsor me, but that visa prospect fell through,” she says. “I was confident something else would work out. Then my visa expired.” Lawrence spent the next five years as a live-in nanny, a tutor, and a home health aide, working for families from New York to Ohio to Michigan.
Like Lawrence, nearly half of the 11 million undocumented immigrant population are people who have overstayed a visa. “I am sure many did not know the consequences of what they were doing at the time, or knew the consequences but also knew the alternative and decided it was worth it,” she says. “I knew what was at home, the financial situation of my family. It was worth the risk.”
In 2016 Lawrence and her friends began laying the foundation for a new organization, one that would advocate for people like themselves and dispel the notion that immigration is only a Latino issue. The United States is currently home to some 630,000 undocumented Black immigrants. “And they are fighting for survival each day,” says Lawrence, who left the Michigan nanny job the following year to return to D.C. as part of the core leadership team of the UndocuBlack Network, where she is now codirector. “We’re really interested in making sure the immigration narrative of Black undocumented people is heard, and we’re changing what that looks like.”
Lawrence and other activists are busy preparing for the fight to pass Biden’s citizenship bill. (The most recent battle for comprehensive immigration reform wound through Congress for three years before dying in 2014.) The UndocuBlack Network pushed for a 100-day moratorium on deportations and extended deportation protections for some 4,000 Liberians whose temporary protected status (TPS) has expired, and both measures have already been put in place by Biden executive orders. But UndocuBlack is still seeking the release of the tens of thousands of people being held in profit-driven detention centers—overcrowded due to Trump policies and even more dangerous places to be during a deadly pandemic.
COVID-19 has made the group’s work even more critical as it tries to meet the rising needs of the people it serves. “My job has gotten harder, because for the first time ever, we had to do direct financial aid,” Lawrence says. “We’ve helped people apply for TPS or DACA, but we now had to find a way to give people resources—because people like me do not get stimulus checks and unemployment benefits.” UndocuBlack recently raised $310,700 for an emergency fund to assist 400 households in which undocumented Black people have been laid off.
“I have a degree and I was a domestic worker. I don’t have health insurance. I’m not eligible for a driver’s license in most states,” Lawrence says. “Like most undocumented, I’ve tried everything, speaking to this lawyer and that lawyer. You get swindled. I’ve tried getting married. I’ve had my money stolen, all of it. In the end, you just try to figure out, ‘What can I do that will allow me to keep my head down and get paid?’”
In Part One of our “Pandemic at Work” series, a hotel housekeeper, a fast-food worker/drugstore manager, and an elementary school janitor share their journeys through 2020—and anxieties for 2021.
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