By Bonnie Jean Adams
Immigrants and their families are vital to Illinois, and they face increased challenges during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
One in seven Illinois residents is an immigrant, while one in eight is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent, according to the American Immigration Council. More than a quarter million U.S. citizens in Illinois live with at least one family member who is undocumented. More than 20% of all business owners in the Chicago metropolitan area are immigrants.
A 2020 report by the Center for Migration Studieseffectively documented immigrants’ contributions to the U.S. labor force and economy. In Illinois, 19.2% of the foreign born work in what the report described as “essential critical infrastructure” jobs, defined as being so vital to the U.S. that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, the national economy, national public health, or safety. Many immigrants’ jobs are on the front line during the coronavirus pandemic.
Jessica L. Boland, director of behavioral health services at Esperanza Health Centers and a licensed clinical social worker,explained that “Immigrant families are significantly impacted. Many of them work in jobs that do not care for their employees’ health needs, such as in factories, and as they are desperate for income to support their families, most do not have the privilege of staying at home, or else risk not paying the bills or having food to put on the table.
“Far too often, we hear that our patients are at work, even while waiting for the results of their COVID-19 test—and with a 53% positive test rate, that means exposure risks continue to stay sky high,” Boland noted. “Sadly, these families do not qualify for Federal stimulus checks, and there are very limited resources available among the social service organizations trying to help.”
“I am aware, particularly in times like these, of how much we rely on our immigrant community to provide essential services and how much they are underappreciated,” said Peter Zigterman, director of family services at World Relief Chicago, an organization that helps immigrants navigate paperwork and provides food and rental assistance. “Only when we begin to realize how important those jobs in agriculture, industry, manufacturing, and health care are to our own survival do we begin to realize immigrants’ contribution. On a policy level, on a personal level, this needs to change.”
Despite making up less than a third of Chicago’s population, Latinos now account for 42% of all positive coronavirus cases in the city. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her administration is focused on curbing the virus’s spread in neighborhoods recording the biggest spikes such as Little Village and other communities with large Latino populations. Community health centers such as Esperanza, which are open to everyone (including undocumented immigrants), are crucial to this goal.
Boland noted, “The City is increasing its testing capacity—along with other health centers on the South and Southwest Sides—which means we are getting a better scope of the virus’s spread. At the onset of the pandemic, we were one of the only non-hospitals offering testing. We have been able to ramp up those efforts and are now testing 150-plus patients per day, seven days per week. We need to continue testing as much as possible and need large-scale community outreach and education efforts—especially among the businesses in these communities.”
Lightfoot said she intends to work with local agencies trusted within the community. Boland agreed about this effort’s importance. “There is a sense of distrust and confusion around what seeking care means, or does not mean,” she said. “For example, we hear from some families that they do not want to get tested for fear of having a positive result reported to the government. Others do not want to risk getting care for fear of jeopardizing their legal immigration chances, due to the public charge rules handed down earlier from the current Federal administration.” Immigrants whom the Federal government deems may become a “public charge” may be denied visas or citizenship.
“Many are quite reluctant or outright refuse going to the hospital for treatment when they are seriously ill, as they believe that the hospital equals a death sentence, and no one wants to die alone, away from their family,” Boland added.
‘Always in fear’
Immigration attorney Susan Fortino-Brown confirmed that “The undocumented are always in fear. Many have family-based businesses and fear ICE [Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids. They fear for the health and safety of their loved ones currently in detention. With undocumented clients, there is no ability to get a green card. Undocumented immigrants cannot apply for a green card within U.S. borders. But if they leave the U.S. to return to their country, and apply at a U.S. consulate, they could be ineligible to return. Sometimes, the only chance to get a green card is to return to their home country and then apply, but it all takes time.”
“Everything that the City provides is available to all residents, regardless of immigration status,” stated Lightfoot at a recent town hall meeting. For those without transportation, without English language skills, and fearful of applying for aid because of how it could affect their status and their stay, however, professionals working with the immigrant community feel these words provide insufficient comfort and still no broadly implemented, workable solutions—which makes local efforts and solutions critical.
“All we have is community,” said Elizeth, who requested her last name not be used. A resident of Little Village, she talked about Increase the Peace, a community organization of young leaders, who began a GoFundMe campaign for the Covid-19 Relief Fund for Street Vendors. The fund already has reached nearly the halfway point toward its $65,000 goal.
A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient currently attending Dominican University, Elizeth said she realized she was fortunate but knows so many in her community who are not. Her mother is a street vendor who has a regular corner where she goes every day to sell homemade tamales. “People in the community help by buying, and we help by feeding them,” Elizeth said. “What is sad is when people we’ve known for years stop coming because of being sick or dying of the virus.”
From the age of ten, Arias, who also requested her last name not be used, remembered going out every day, walking the streets with her mom to sell homemade cakes and traditional breads. Also a DACA recipient, Arias is in her second year at Georgetown University but does not know if she will be able to return. With the stimulus check she received, Arias was able to buy food for her family of five and pay the rent. She does not know what will happen now and noted she might have to quit school and get a job.
“You can just see the pain in my parents’ eyes,” she said. “There’s no type of assistance. They’re just trying to keep a roof over our heads—trying to make a living.”
Workers without jobs must rely on savings, their families, or private charity to survive. Job loss affects not only individuals and their families but communities.
“I believe that the universe and a higher source is giving us a chance to think about how we want to rebuild our world and our community,” Elizeth said. “This is a time to look within, to see what our values are, and to help each other to be better. We’re all living in uncertainty. Unfortunately, we’re used to it.”
“Federal relief has done little to nothing to help undocumented families in this country who are struggling to keep food on the table and to keep their families sheltered and healthy during this pandemic,” said Marie Newman, who won the Democratic primary for the 3rd Congressional district in March. “The disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on black and brown communities is stark in Illinois. In Chicago, 25% of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in the Latinx community and statewide 40% of all deaths have occurred in the black community. These stats underline the inequalities that have long existed in our healthcare system. As we emerge from this crisis, we must advocate for a universal system of care that we can trust will provide the highest quality of care possible to every single person in this country.”
The Unsheltered Chicago Coalition/COVID Rapid Response Team is working on ways to prevent or mitigate coronavirus outbreaks in shelters. The coalition includes such local health providers as Cook County Health, Heartland Alliance, Lawndale Christian Health Center, Rush University Medical Center, Salvation Army, and University of Illinois Health.
UI Health and Mile Square Health Center have opened evaluation and testing sites in South and West Side clinics to serve communities that have been hit hard by the pandemic. In Pilsen, the UI Health Pilsen Family Health Center Lower West, located at 1713 S. Ashland Ave., has been converted in to a COVID-19 evaluation and testing center. In South Shore and the Illinois Medical District, Mile Square clinics have also launched testing sites. At its main clinic, located at 1220 S Wood St., the testing is a drive-up site, so that people do not need to leave their cars for a test. In its South Shore clinic, located at 7037 S. Stony Island Ave., testing is open to all community members. All testing sites are by appointment only, to limit crowds and promote social distancing.
For the American Immigration Council, log on to www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org or call (202) 507-7500. For the Fortino-Brown law firm, log on to sfortinolaw.net or call (312) 341-9009. For the GoFundMe campaign for street vendors go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/covid19-relief-for-street-vendors. For the Center for Migration Studies, see www.cmsny.org or call (212) 337-3080. For Esperanza Health Centers, log on to www.esperanzachicago.org or call (773) 584-6200. Call UI Health at (866) 600-CARE. For the Unsheltered Chicago Coalition, go to https://twitter.com/CovidRRTChicago. For World Relief Chicago, visit www.worldrelief.org or call (773) 583-9191.