Undocumented Residents Fear Coronavirus Could Lead to Deportations

(Editor’s note: This post contains two stories about the pandemic’s impact on New York City’s undocumented residents. The first covers worries many people have about seeking medical care; The other is about one group’s efforts to help the community financially.)

By Melissa Bacian; additional reporting by Jose Nieves Herrera

For Luciana, a 46-year-old waitress who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, the coronavirus outbreak has added intense worry to her already stressful existence as an undocumented resident.

“I just pray every day nothing happens to me or my children because if one of us gets the virus, we are all in jeopardy of being sent back to Nicaragua,” said Luciana, who asked to be identified only by her first name due to her immigration status.

Speaking during an interview in late March when New York City and Queens, in particular, had emerged as an epicenter of the pandemic, the mother of three children ages 16, 10 and 7 said she feared the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would learn of her undocumented status if she or members of her family sought medical care in the event they contracted COVID-19.

“I’m more scared of ICE than I am of getting sick,” she said.

Jackson Heights is one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19. Seen above is 82nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue, near Elmhurst Hospital. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

New York City is under a shelter in place order, but Luciana is considered an essential worker and commutes every morning from her Jackson Heights residence to Manhattan. Before leaving her apartment, she places an N95 mask over her nose and mouth and slips plastic gloves over her hands. In her travel bag is her packaged lunch, hand sanitizer and a spray bottle of alcohol.

Luciana does her best to protect her family from the virus. However, the confined space of their one-bedroom apartment has made it difficult to stay apart. She has made it a daily habit to leave her shoes outside the door, immediately discarding her clothes and jumping into the shower. “I clean everything, even my phone. I don’t feel safe going near my kids until I’m clean,” she said.

A nurse walks into Elmhurst Hospital to begin his shift. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

The coronavirus outbreak has hit New York’s large immigrant community particularly hard. According to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, New York has an estimated 3.1 million immigrants, of whom approximately 500,000 are undocumented. In Queens, which has more than 1 million immigrant residents, the city health department reported on April 26 that the borough had 48,382 confirmed cases, 3,581 confirmed deaths and another 1,047 probable coronavirus deaths.

The coronavirus has proved deadly for Latino and Hispanic New Yorkers, who have experienced the highest death rate due to COVID-19 among all ethnicities. According to figures released by the city on April 6, the preliminary death rate for Hispanics was 22.8 people per 100,000. The rate for black residents was 19.8 per 100,00, 10.2 for whites and 8.4 for Asians.

Many undocumented residents, like Luciana, worry that they risk being identified by ICE if they get sick and seek medical care—and with good reason. As recently as mid-March, ICE agents continued to round up and deport undocumented immigrants despite social-distancing measures set in place by state and local officials.

“It’s hard, you want to believe the government. But this country has been very unwelcoming to people like me lately and it’s hard to trust that they’re going to do the right thing,” Luciana stated.

Luciana lives a mere 10-minute walk from Elmhurst Hospital Center, where many coronavirus patients have been treated. When making a trip to the grocery store, she tries to maintain her distance; however, she has witnessed the massive queues outside the hospital.

“The line goes on and on, for what seems like forever. There’s so many people standing outside there every day,” she said.

A sign across the street from Elmhurst Hospital shows appreciation for the work of the hospital’s employees during the crisis. (Photo by Kenneth Sousie)

For Alejandra Diaz, a 48-year-old undocumented cook at a day care center and her husband, Jose, a driver for a food distribution company, the onset of coronavirus-like symptoms at the end of March left them scared and sheltered at home in Queens.

Diaz, who has not been working since the day care center closed because of the pandemic, said her husband began feeling sick on March 26. “His body aches, his bones are hurting, he gets dizzy,” she said in an interview in late March, adding that she developed milder symptoms soon after.

During the days that followed, she instructed her 21-year-old daughter to stay in her room as much as she could to avoid getting sick. They did not seek testing for COVID-19 and rode out their symptoms at home, relying on over-the-counter medications and hot liquids.

Four weeks later, they have recovered and Jose has returned to work, she said. She hopes to return to work in June if the lockdown is lifted and the day care center reopens.

Amanda Gonzalez, 22, a nursing student at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College, said she understands the stress many individuals, especially undocumented immigrants, were experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic.

“As a nursing student, I would want my future patients to come in if they’re showing symptoms correlated with COVID-19, regardless of immigration status. Our priority is not to report, it’s to save lives,” said Gonzalez, who was born born and raised in New York, though her family is from Ecuador.

The nursing student noted the overwhelming bouts of stress health care professionals are under right now and noted that it was ultimately up to the efforts New Yorkers to social distance in order to flatten the curve of the virus’ spread. “Practice good hygiene and social distance as much as possible. Eventually we will see this through,” Gonzalez said.

The New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation will be providing free tests to any individual, waiving any costs including emergency room, urgent care, and office visits related to the coronavirus, according to the New York City Council. Emergency Medicaid has also been extended for undocumented immigrants and will cover COVID-19 testing and treatment, according to NY Health Access.

Luciana acknowledged that if someone in her family did contract the virus, she likely would seek medical help.

“At the end of the day, my life and my children’s lives are more important,” she said. “If I have to see a doctor, then I will.”


Group Serving Undocumented Families Struggles to Help Amid Coronavirus Hardship

By Jose Nieves Herrera

On March 18, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a non-profit organization that works with immigrant youth, launched an emergency fund to help undocumented families experiencing financial hardship due to the spread of coronavirus.

Donations poured in – nearly $80,000 in the first two weeks – but were not enough to cover the requests for help, said Angy Rivera, the organization’s co-executive director. They expected to receive about 100 requests for funds but got about 1,500. “We closed the requests because we were getting requests faster than the donations were coming in,” said Rivera.

The overwhelming number of aid applications that the NYSYLC received illustrates the extreme economic distress that undocumented New Yorkers are experiencing during the pandemic lockdown, which has closed countless businesses and left many without incomes. Undocumented residents and mixed status families are particularly vulnerable to economic hardships because they are ineligible for federal emergency funds.

“Trump knew this was a threat to our community and did nothing about it,” Rivera said. “It’s something we’re used to seeing.”

New York’s undocumented residents often work for delivery services, restaurants and supermarkets, jobs considered essential, putting them – as well as family members sharing crowded homes – at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Many of the requests made to the NYSYLC emergency fund were by young people on behalf of their families, whose parents have tested positive for coronavirus or lost their jobs. They listed rent, medical needs and groceries as reasons why they needed funds. Assuming the average person living in New York City pays around $1,500 in rent, “we would need around $1.5 million to support families requesting money for rent,” she said.

Rivera noted that the coronavirus has hit immigrant communities particularly hard. “It’s usually poorer neighborhoods, black and brown, that are most at risk,” she said.

This is reflective of the current situation in Queens, the borough that has rapidly become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. Its population is overwhelmingly non-white, and it is home to the most undocumented residents in the city – over 180,000. Overall, New York City is home to around 500,000 undocumented immigrants – mainly from Asian, Caribbean, and Latin American countries, according to a city government report released this year and using data from 2018.

On April 16, The NYSYLC and other immigrant aid organizations co-signed a letter addressed to Mayor Bill de Blasio, demanding that he help New York City’s undocumented workers who are struggling during the pandemic. They asked the city to initiate a fund that would give monetary aid to workers excluded under the government stimulus bill, expand New York unemployment benefits to all workers – including taxpayers who filed taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, and provide small-business grants to help immigrant-owned businesses survive the pandemic’s economic blow.

Later that day, the mayor announced a $20 million COVID-19 emergency relief program, in partnership with the Open Societies Foundation. According to a press release, the fund will provide an estimated 20,000 immigrant New Yorkers with a one-time, direct emergency relief payment.

In a subsequent social media posts, the NYSYLC said the fund did not go far enough to help the city’s undocumented population.

Even though the city has stepped in to help, Rivera said the NYSYLC, a small, local non-profit group, is still struggling under the weight of the immense needs of the people that the organization serves.

“In the past we have provided tuition support for undocumented students, and sometimes some scholarship recipients had emergency needs around housing stuff, and we internally support some of our members,” she said. “But this is a bigger scale. We’ve never provided support on this scale.”