Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

An undocumented Pennsylvania family is driven to the center of American misery

“I came here to support my family. It breaks my heart, because I’m not doing it.”

Aida Castellanos, 40, found out her children were at the Texas border when she got a phone call from federal immigration officials at the line, telling her to send two plane tickets. Make the Road PA raised the money for them to be reunited.
Aida Castellanos, 40, found out her children were at the Texas border when she got a phone call from federal immigration officials at the line, telling her to send two plane tickets. Make the Road PA raised the money for them to be reunited.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Her children appeared at the Texas border last month, surviving the dangerous 2,000-mile journey from Honduras as part of a migrant caravan.

Aida Castellanos, 40, found out when she got a phone call from federal immigration officials at the line, telling her to send two plane tickets.

Her relief was enormous — “Our family wants to be together” — but so was her anxiety. What, she wonders, is she bringing them to?

For Castellanos, the pandemic has driven a destructive relocation to the intersection of American misery: unemployment, eviction, and insecurity.

The coronavirus effectively ended her husband’s work as a painting contractor, and she lost her job at a restaurant. They couldn’t pay rent and had to move in with friends in Easton. They struggle even to buy food.

Today, as the death and sickness of the pandemic begin to subside, what continues is the economic annihilation. It’s particularly acute for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, who are excluded from government safety nets like unemployment benefits, and from the federal stimulus money that’s been a lifeline for many American households during the worst public-health crisis in a century.

President Joe Biden has big plans on immigration, seeking to put undocumented people — including nearly 600,000 in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — on a path to U.S. citizenship. But that could take years, and in the meantime, those like the Castellanoses are suffering.

» READ MORE: Undocumented immigrants who help police can be at risk for deportation. A Pa. lawyer is trying to stop it.

“The pandemic, poverty, and family separation go hand in hand,” said Armando Jimenez Carbarin, an organizer with Make the Road PA, an immigrant-advocacy organization that works in Philadelphia, Reading, and Allentown, and has been helping Castellanos. “Whatever families are going through, she and her family are going through more, because of a system that criminalizes immigrants.”

Carbarin organized a GoFundMe campaign that raised $1,500 for plane tickets. Castellanos’ son, 23, and daughter, 17, expect to process out of government custody and fly to Pennsylvania by March 21.

Federal regulations say that children who arrive at the border, such as Castellanos’ daughter, can be sent to live with parents or close relatives in the interior United States. Adults such as her son typically are sent back.

Today the situation at the southern border is in tremendous flux, strained by a flood of migrant children who are filling shelter beds even as huge numbers of people are turned away under a public-health law invoked during the pandemic. “The border is not open,” a Biden administration official said Wednesday.

But immigration authorities possess enormous discretion in handling specific cases, and sometimes adults are permitted to move on from the line to join their families in the United States, according to attorneys who work with people who crossed the border.

Castellanos just wants to hold her son and daughter close.

» READ MORE: ‘The hopes are huge’: Philly-area immigrants are optimistic, if cautious, about a Biden presidency

“There are layers of hardship that noncitizens have had to experience,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council in Washington. “COVID does not discriminate because of immigration status.”

But governments do.

Under Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, American citizens and legal permanent residents who are married to undocumented immigrants would receive stimulus checks, but their spouses would not.

Those without immigration status, including DACA-holders, already are ineligible for most federal public benefits, such as SNAP, sometimes referred to as food stamps, along with Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They can’t get health-care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act nor purchase unsubsidized coverage on ACA exchanges.

That exclusion hurts not only undocumented migrants, advocates say, but their American-citizen spouses and children. An estimated 1.6 million undocumented people are wed to U.S. citizens, and about 4.4 million citizens who are children have at least one undocumented parent.

» READ MORE: Immigrant family to leave Philly church sanctuary as ICE says they’re ‘not a priority’

In the absence of government support, immigrant groups and communities have stepped up to try to help.

Make the Road PA’s Solidarity Fund has donated $90,000 to 124 families and individuals. The Association of Mexican Business Owners has run food distribution and other relief efforts in South Philadelphia. Last year, organizations united as the Pennsylvania Immigrant Relief Fund raised $686,700 and gave $800 in cash assistance to about 859 people, mostly in the southeast part of the state.

Still, those good works are stopgap, lacking the scope and surety of government assistance.

“People were already making choices around ‘rent or health care?’” said Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, an immigrant-rights coalition. “Now it’s even more dire.”

New Jersey has one of the nation’s largest undocumented populations at 425,000 people, while Pennsylvania is home to about 157,000, including 50,000 in Philadelphia.

About 80% of immigrants in New Jersey who were undocumented or here on visas have lost their jobs or seen their hours reduced, according to a study by Make the Road NJ. More than 75% were worried about paying for utilities, groceries, or medicine.

They and others without status pay taxes but get little return for their tax dollars, advocates point out. For instance, the nation’s 4.2 million undocumented Mexican immigrants contributed $9.8 billion in federal, state, and local taxes in 2019, according to a March study from New American Economy.

» READ MORE: Berks detention center used by ICE is now empty, but will it stay that way?

Since 2018 Castellanos has lived in Pennsylvania with her husband and two teenage daughters. They fled to the United States, she said, because a criminal gang was threatening to kill them if they didn’t pay extortion money — a common circumstance among Hondurans who come here.

The rates at which women and girls are murdered in Honduras and neighboring El Salvador are among the highest in the world, and the threat of sexual violence is ever-present, according to World Vision, the global relief agency. Children risk their lives crossing gang territory to get to school.

Castellanos and her husband are pursuing asylum, a legal means of staying in the United States for those who could be hurt or killed in their homelands. But those cases can take years to play out.

Castellanos has worked hard to provide a better life for her family, laboring as a farmworker and more recently at a restaurant. But the pandemic, she said, “has been a disaster for my family.”

She and her husband were evicted in December 2019 as work began to slow amid the arrival of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

She wanted her children to flourish in the United States, but now they ask friends for money and struggle for necessities.

“I came here to support my family,” she said. “It breaks my heart, because I’m not doing it.”