NC does little to help immigrant families impacted by Covid-19

Emilia’s situation is desperate. In mid-, her husband, who is the sole supporter for her and their five children, was arrested in the Charlotte area and later deported to Mexico. A week later, Mecklenburg County ordered its residents to stay at home in order to stop the spread of the new coronavirus (COVID-19).

She says that even though her husband always paid his taxes for his work installing roofs, being undocumented means he does not qualify for the 1,200 check or the 500 per child as provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act).

Emilia says she is relieved that she does not have to deal with her lights and water being shut off, or with being evicted from her home in the coming weeks, thanks to measures taken by Governor Roy Cooper. However, she is overcome with fear when she thinks about the end of this grace period and how her debt has accumulated.

On Sunday, , two strangers knocked on her door. It was Maudia Meléndez from the organization Jesus Ministry and her husband, Samuel Meléndez. They found out about Emilia’s situation and went to deliver food and other supplies to her. The immigrant could not contain her tears-- she said that the food reserves she had for her children, all school-aged, were about to run out.

Members of our church made donations, and we have tried to help the most desperate cases that we hear about, said Meléndez. But there are too many members of the immigrant community suffering.

Along with Jesus Ministry, there are various groups and organizations throughout North Carolina that are doing their best to help thousands of immigrant families who have been impacted by COVID-19. However, all the community organizations we have consulted say that they are overwhelmed by the high demand for assistance and the limited resources that are available.

Undocumented but essential

The effectiveness of using public policies to control COVID-19 depends on members of the population following social distancing rules and immediately contacting a doctor if they are sick; but this becomes a challenge for undocumented immigrants.

Currently, thousands of the 350,000 undocumented individuals living in North Carolina (according to the Pew Research Center) work in sectors that are considered essential to the economy. They work in factories, harvesting crops, at food processing plants, in construction, cleaning houses, caring for children and the elderly, etc.

The group Student Action with Farmworkers explains that the number of migrant farmworkers has nearly doubled in the last 20 years and that the native language of 94 of migrant farmworkers in North Carolina is Spanish.

The group cites data from the Department of Labor that estimates that 53 of farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented.

The most recent data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) indicates that nationally, undocumented immigrants contribute close to 11.74 billion per year in state and local taxes. This calculation includes more than 7 billion in sales and consumption taxes, 3.6 billion in property taxes, and 1.1 billion in income taxes. In North Carolina alone, undocumented immigrants pay 277.4 million in state and local taxes per year.

These immigrants must go out to work to support their families; consequently, they are constantly exposed to COVID-19. The rest of society depends on them, yet they are not entitled to receive benefits from the stimulus package approved by the federal government. They are also not eligible for unemployment benefits. Moreover, they have multiple barriers to obtaining health insurance.

Economic, humanitarian, and immigration crisis

In addition to economic difficulties, many of these families face instability because of arrests made in various operations that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted in North Carolina during and of this year.

We have confirmed that at least 35 people were arrested, explained Kelly Morales of the organization Siembra NC. We have counted 42 children in North Carolina who were left without a father and without the person who financially supported the family.

According to the most recent data from ICE, there are 89 confirmed cases of people in custody in its detention centers who have had COVID-19. As of now, 25 ICE employees working in their detention centers have also tested positive for COVID-19.

Griselda Alonso from the group MOON- Mujerxs Organizando Oportunidades Notables (Women Organizing Notable Opportunities) works with families, one of whom is a Mexican woman and her three children. The woman’s 23-year-old eldest son was murdered in the Raleigh area recently, and soon after her husband was arrested by ICE. On , a judge denied him permission to remain in the country and recommended his deportation.

Her situation is very difficult since her husband is the one who was the sole provider, Alonso says. Nobody prepares you for such intense shocks.

As if that were not enough, Alonso adds that they suspect that the husband was infected with coronavirus at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia.

Yesterday [the wife] spoke to him, and he has a very high fever, Alonso says. To me, this is a violation of his human rights. They are trampling on them.

Real help is needed

Alonso, who is originally from Mexico and has been living and working in the United States for 22 years, is the founder of the organization MOON in the Raleigh area. She says that the support that organizations give to the undocumented must go beyond just providing references to food banks and local resources; it must be more real.

It’s good if they refer them, but they don’t follow up on whether those resources are actually being utilized, says Alonso. I know what it’s like to be told there are resources, and you go somewhere but they don’t give them to you.

Maudia Meléndez from Jesus Ministry added that despite the existence of free food banks and pantries, many undocumented immigrants decide not to go to these places, or to Social Services, for fear of being questioned about their immigration status, being arrested, or worse, having their children taken from them.

We have worked to educate the community that they should approach these places with trust, but the fear is still there. Last week we helped an immigrant mother and her husband, who is in danger of being deported, Meléndez adds. We saw her asking for help in front of a supermarket. She told us that she was afraid to go to Social Services because she thought that if they saw they were in need, they would take away her 7 children.

Meléndez says that there is also a cultural element that discourages undocumented immigrants from seeking help from some food banks-- the type of food they have available.

Many of the foods found in food banks are canned items and other things that Latinos are wary of. For many people, a meal for their children is not a meal unless it has a tortilla, for example. Meléndez explains.

Meanwhile, Griselda Alonso, along with La Semilla (The Seed), a faith organization that serves the immigrant community in Durham, and members of the Latino community in the Triangle, have been going directly to the food banks, choosing food, and delivering it to the homes of immigrants with the greatest need. She says they try to accommodate the needs of the community as much as possible, making sure they receive products that are nutritious and that are sufficient.

Scattered local efforts

During the week of , the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina, Inc. (AMEXCAN), whose headquarters is in Greenville, announced an initiative to provide support to undocumented immigrants living in eastern North Carolina. Juvencio Rocha Peralta, Executive Director of AMEXCAN, explained that the aid will come through the program Almas Unidas para el Bienestar Social (United Souls for the Social Wellbeing) and will involve distributing food, personal hygiene items, and monetary resources to cover the costs of rent and electricity for some families.

In addition, El Centro Hispano has distributed more than 20,000 to nearly 100 families. But Eliazar Posada, Community Engagement & Advocacy Department Director of El Centro Hispano, says that the organization is not taking any more applications for the COVID-19 Crisis Response Fund at this time.

The mayor of the city of Durham, along with six city councilors from Raleigh and Durham and 157 others, have pledged to donate all or part of their stimulus checks to a fund called the COVID-19 Immigrant Solidarity Fund.

The organization Siembra NC launched a social media challenge called #ComparteTuCheque (#ShareYourCheck), which began when a group of seven women from Wake County organized a fundraiser supported by Siembra NC. The fundraiser, dubbed Sábado Gigante, was held on via the organization’s Facebook page. During the 12-hour event, more than 13,000 was raised thanks to the generosity of 219 donors.

The funds collected will go, in part, to the families of the seven women who organized the event. Another portion will go to Siembra NC’s COVID-19 Immigrant Solidarity Fund.

People save each other, said Kelly Morales, who is a member of Siembra NC. It is clear to us today, more than ever, that the only way to move forward is by organizing and supporting one another.

The undocumented cannot get relief

The plight of the undocumented transcends borders; they cannot receive help from the government of the country where they live and work, nor from the country where they were born.

La Noticia asked the Mexican and Guatemalan Consulates in Raleigh about how their respective governments are currently helping their citizens in the United States in the face of this crisis. Since , both offices have been closed to the public due to social distancing guidelines, but they are continuing to work from home and in shifts in the offices to handle emergency cases.

Claudia Velasco, Consul General of Mexico in Raleigh, could not name any resources available directly from the Mexican government or consulate.

Jorge Archila, Consul General of Guatemala in Raleigh, stated that the Consulate does not have a relief fund and that they can only give their citizens information about organizations that offer assistance.

Should undocumented immigrants receive assistance?

Going beyond the political debate surrounding the issue of immigration in the United States, there are other places that see the importance of helping this group. We can see an example of this across the Atlantic, in Portugal.

At the end of , the Portuguese government decided to temporarily legalize all immigrants who had pending applications. The decision was made by the Council of Ministers and accompanies other social and economic measures to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic.

With this measure, these immigrants and asylum seekers have the same rights as all Portuguese citizens (including free medical care) until . The Council of Ministers explained that this action was taken to reduce the risks for public health of having a community that lacks access to medical care.

Back in the United States, although the federal government has shown no indications of offering immigration or economic relief to the undocumented, some state governments have taken their own measures.

What can North Carolina learn from California?

After a month of the pandemic, the state of California was the first to announce initiatives to support undocumented immigrants affected by COVID-19.

In , Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he will provide direct financial aid to affected undocumented immigrants.

California is the most diverse state in the nation. Our diversity makes us stronger and more resilient. Every Californian, including our undocumented neighbors and friends, should know that California is here to support them during this crisis. We are all in this together, Governor Newsom said.

The 75 million Disaster Relief Fund will help around 150,000 undocumented Californians who have been impacted by COVID-19, but who are not eligible to receive unemployment benefits or disaster relief benefits through the CARES Act. Those who submit a request will receive a cash payment of 500 per adult and up to 1,000 per family. They began accepting applications on .

What can North Carolina learn from New York?

On , the Open Society Foundations announced that it would dedicate 20 million (from a 37 million fund) to help undocumented families in New York City through a new program called the Immigrant Emergency Relief Program.

The fund will be administered by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, which will distribute the funds at one time through different activist organizations to help 20,000 undocumented families who did not receive the federal stimulus check. According to the mayor’s office, each individual will receive 400, couples and single parents will receive 800, and families with multiple adults and children will receive 1,000.

New York City had already demonstrated its desire to help the immigrant community by launching a website that contains information about resources and is dedicated to undocumented immigrants. The website provides information in ten languages, including Spanish.

The site explains that many city services are available to all New Yorkers no matter what your immigration status is and regardless of your ability to pay, although other eligibility requirements may apply.

In addition, it explains that many immigrants and their children may be eligible for cash assistance in New York through the website Access NYC.

The New York Immigration Coalition explains that anyone in New York State can receive COVID-19 testing at no cost, regardless of immigration status.

Resources for Immigrants in North Carolina

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This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort launched by the Solutions Journalism Network and supported by funding from Knight Foundation.

Periodista de La Noticia y WFAE, reporta sobre inmigración y la comunidad Latina en el área de Charlotte. Miembro del cuerpo de periodistas de Report for America 2020-2021.