Clementina was already struggling to support her two children after her husband, Jose, was hospitalized in April with COVID-19 and put on a ventilator.
Then she fell ill with the virus and landed in the hospital, too. The couple’s health and the state-mandated shutdown wiped out their ability to make a living. But as immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico, Clementina and her husband did not qualify for federal stimulus funds, unemployment benefits or other relief, though the Trump administration has agreed to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment costs for those without legal status.
“This is a horrible situation and it can happen to anybody,” said Clementina, a 45-year-old Minneapolis resident who declined to publicly share her last name because of her immigration status.
As federal, state and local governments scramble to provide assistance to Americans struggling to pay the rent and buy groceries, immigration activists are drawing attention to the fact that people without legal status are losing out despite paying taxes and often working in the food supply chain and other critical sectors. Nonprofits and foundations are raising money to provide emergency assistance to such residents, including more than 90,000 Minnesotans.
Most of them are Latino, a group whose 18.9% national unemployment rate is higher than others amid the pandemic.
The nonprofit Comunidades Latina Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) has raised $700,000 for 1,300 Latino families in Minnesota who do not qualify for government aid. President Ruby Azurdia-Lee said that the clients they serve don’t like taking handouts but feel they don’t have a choice during the pandemic. Since Gov. Tim Walz issued his stay-home order in late March, the organization’s Monday evening food shelf program in St. Paul has drawn about 220 people a week, up from 180. CLUES is now working to add the service on Saturdays.
“They’re afraid of getting evicted so if we don’t help sustain people in this process, we’re going to have a lot of homeless families,” Azurdia-Lee said.
The organization has had eight staff members working on a COVID-19 hotline. And CLUES has helped 700 people file for rental assistance from the city of Minneapolis, which does not consider immigration status; payments go directly to landlords.
In April, California began offering payments to immigrants in the U.S. illegally from a $125 million fund, giving $500 to adults, up to $1,000 per household.
In Minnesota, Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, and Rep. Aisha Gomez, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a bill to establish an emergency community relief grant program to support residents who don’t qualify for federal stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, and other relief programs. But that measure has no chance of drawing broad support in the politically divided Legislature.
The nonprofit Faith in Action’s La Red campaign, which translates to “The Net,” recently began raising money to support immigrants nationwide. The fundraising drive is also meant to highlight how the pandemic has affected immigrant communities.
But it’s not just those without legal status who are struggling to find help as the novel coronavirus sickens thousands and shutters businesses. U.S. citizens married to immigrants here illegally — those in “mixed-status” families — are barred from receiving federal stimulus checks, even if they have American-born children. The policy has spurred several legal challenges, including a lawsuit in Maryland by U.S. citizen children of residents in the country illegally.
“We were not expecting the level of penalization we are seeing,” said Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, executive director of Navigate MN/Unidos MN, an organization focused on immigration issues.
The Richfield mother of three U.S.-born children became a permanent resident late last year after living in America for two decades. She said the nonprofit recently teamed up with other social justice organizations to raise $200,000 to help those who don’t qualify for government aid. They’ve reconfigured a deportation hotline to focus on COVID-19 emergencies.
“The gaps are wider and harder to close,” Gonzalez Avalos said. “There is a crisis of undocumented and mixed-status people who the government is choosing not to see.”
Without a safety net, advocates say, workers who lack legal status are taking chances with their health. They feel pressure to show up for work despite the increased risks because without government assistance, they have few options.
Gasping for air
Days after her husband was hospitalized on April 10, Clementina herself struggled to breathe. Her 11-year-old son called 911 and paramedics rushed Clementina to the hospital, where she was given oxygen. She called a friend to take care of her son and 8-year-old daughter, distraught about being away from her children as she and her husband battled COVID-19.
Clementina was released after a week, but her husband is still in the hospital, unable to walk. They had depended on his earnings as a house painter. Clementina, meanwhile, had lost her part-time day-care job.
She got her landlord to delay the $1,300 rent for their two-bedroom apartment, but she didn’t know where to turn to pay other bills. She eventually got help from CLUES. She relies on a friend’s internet access for her children’s remote learning.
Clementina’s family lacks health insurance and has concerns about immigration enforcement, but she decided that it was safe to go to the hospital after health and government leaders urged people to seek medical help no matter what their immigration status.
“They were saying go to the clinic even if you’re undocumented, especially if you’re presenting all the symptoms,” she said.