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‘Maybe If I Had Papers It Would Have Been Different’: Undocumented During a Pandemic

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Until he was laid off last week, Raúl worked as a busboy in a restaurant in Queens. He came to this country to help support his family in Mexico, and, from his restaurant work, he was able to send back regular payments. He shared a small apartment with his brother and another friend, and put in a lot of hours. When the coronavirus started popping up in the news, he and his coworkers were nervous—both about the virus itself, and about the possible economic impact. For service sector employees, working from home is not an option. “I couldn’t just stop working,” Raúl, who is undocumented, said. “I needed money for transportation, for rent, for all the basics, and… New York is so expensive.”

Although Raúl, 38 years old, and other workers had asked for gloves or other protective equipment, his employer provided nothing. Work continued as usual—bussing tables, washing dishes, mopping floors—until Sunday, March 15, when his boss told him and his coworkers that the restaurant would temporarily halt operations until April, if not longer. “What am I going to do for food, for rent, to pay cell phone bills, to send money to my family?” Raúl said on a phone call. “We were left with nothing. Not even to eat.” The day after his last shift, he started feeling slightly ill. He reviewed the symptoms of coronavirus, trying to keep track of what he was feeling. By Tuesday, Raúl had developed a fever.

The Public Health Peril of ICE Enforcement

Nervous of the immigration consequences of accessing emergency services and with fewer options for working from home, undocumented and immigrant communities are at higher risk of infection and death from the coronavirus. Their likelihood of living in crowded quarters, suffering from pre-existing health conditions, and experiencing cross-cultural information barriers can make these groups more vulnerable, according to a 2009 paper on pandemic influenza preparedness. Now, some might delay seeking treatment out of fear that being deemed a public charge could jeopardize future chances of securing a green card—a Trump administration rule that took effect on February 24, a month after the first reported case of coronavirus in the United States. Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has put undocumented communities on edge in recent months by ramping up raids—even calling in a SWAT-like Border Patrol force to target so-called sanctuary cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and Seattle.

As the virus began to take hold, ICE continued enforcement operations as usual. On March 17, the Los Angeles Times reported that ICE agents wore masks and swabbed their steering wheels with anti-bacterial gel as they sought to make arrests. By Wednesday, March 18, the agency announced it would “exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions” in light of Covid-19 and claimed it would “not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.” But the call may be too late to quell the fear. Similar partial reassurances in the aftermath of natural disasters have not eased undocumented communities’ reluctance to seek emergency services.

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