You may have seen the meme bouncing around Facebook during the pandemic: Can’t visit your family? Can’t leave the country? Dangerous working conditions? Now you know what it’s like to be undocumented.
The United States is home to about 11 million undocumented immigrants, including 50,000 in Philadelphia. Undocumented workers make up roughly 5% of the U.S. labor force, according to the Pew Research Center. The time of the coronavirus can be especially difficult for people for whom every contact with government authorities presents a risk.
Here’s what you need to know.
I have symptoms of COVID-19. Could I be arrested and deported if I go to the hospital?
If you go to a hospital, you should not have problems because of your status. Hospitals generally have resisted attempts to force them to collect and share immigration information, saying they work to provide care, not to enforce immigration laws.
“Hospitals have no interest in discouraging people from using their services,” said Gabrielle Lessard, a senior policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center in California.
But a hospital should not be your immediate choice for care unless you’re terribly sick. You could become infected if you don’t carry the virus and spread it to others if you do. Contact your local community health center, as they generally serve everyone, regardless of status. Work with them to figure out what you should do next.
Both U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, operate under what are called “sensitive locations” policies. Those regulations bar agents from making arrests at churches, schools, and hospitals except in extraordinary circumstances.
However, those lines occasionally become blurry. The grounds surrounding hospitals are not necessarily safe for undocumented people who are leaving care or coming to visit family inside.
Last month, ICE took a Honduran man into custody at a Scranton hospital, then placed him in detention at the Pike County Correctional Facility. Pennsylvania lawyer Juliette Gomez said her client’s arrest clearly violated the locations policy. ICE said the arrest began at the federal courthouse, and what followed was a continuation of that process.
Am I at greater risk from coronavirus if I’m undocumented?
You could be, but not because of your immigration status. A 2009 public-health study found that some immigrants and refugees could be more vulnerable to a flu pandemic because of health issues and living conditions. They may have limited savings, and getting care even in normal times can be a struggle because of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings, the study found. Some migrants have lower rates of immunizations and preventative care, and higher prevalence of certain infectious illnesses.
Will I get a check from the $2.2 trillion stimulus package if I’m undocumented?
No, even if you pay taxes to the IRS, as do millions of undocumented workers. The stimulus excludes “nonresident aliens” and people without Social Security numbers. Nor can undocumented immigrants get unemployment benefits. Activists say excluding migrants from the stimulus puts everyone’s health at risk, because many work in food-growing and maintenance jobs that power the supply chain and keep equipment operating. They don’t have the option of working from home.
I’m out of work and my family needs food. Where can I get it?
The City of Philadelphia has set up distribution points to give people free food, with no identification needed. The limit is one box per household, with each box expected to last up to five days. The list of pickup sites is on the city’s website, and they are open Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon. The Cathedral Kitchen in Camden is feeding people as well.
Where can I get information about the pandemic in my native language?
The Inquirer is publishing many essential stories about the pandemic in Spanish. News and updates in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, and French has been posted on the city’s website. They don’t answer every question, and the Office of Immigrant Affairs intends to provide more information soon. Juntos, the Latino advocacy group based in South Philadelphia, continues to post and update information on its website in English and Spanish.
What’s the primary worry right now for people who lack official permission to be in the U.S.?
“The main concern we’ve heard so far is paying rent,” says Blanca Pacheco, co-director of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, who noted that the pandemic has put millions of people out of work. In Pennsylvania, renters are protected from eviction through at least April 30, and in New Jersey evictions are on hold through most of May. New Sanctuary Movement has been alerting renters that they have rights as tenants, and that eviction goes through the courts, which are largely closed for now.
Doesn’t Philadelphia treat undocumented people differently than other places?
The City of Philadelphia strives to treat all its residents the same, whatever their immigration status. It’s a “sanctuary city,” a term that has different meanings in different jurisdictions, but generally applies to places that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. That’s created conflict with the Trump administration, which wants Philadelphia to have its police officers help enforce immigration laws. City officials won a federal lawsuit over that issue, saying the community is safer when everyone, undocumented or not, feels comfortable coming forward as a witness or victim of crime.