Immigrants de­serve coro­n­avirus fed­eral re­lief

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Kr­ish Vig­nara­jah

Lu­ciana was well on her way to achiev­ing the Amer­i­can dream. As a wi­dow and a sin­gle mother who fled vi­o­lence in Venezuela with her five chil­dren last sum­mer, life in the United States of­fered a fresh start. She was work­ing full-time in a fac­tory, tak­ing English classes four times a week and watch­ing as her chil­dren be­gan to set­tle into their new lives.

Then the coro­n­avirus hit. Sud­denly, Lu­ciana found her hours at the fac­tory dras­ti­cally cut. She scram­bled to find an­other job, this time in food ser­vice, but it wasn’t long un­til she was laid off. She filed for un­em­ploy­ment, but mas­sive back­logs mean she is un­likely to have a source of in­come for weeks, if not months. And as a new Amer­i­can, she is in­el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive a stim­u­lus check and can’t ap­ply for a green card un­til she has been in the United States for one year.

Lu­ciana’s story is only one of hun­dreds like it that I have heard from refugees and immigrants since the pan­demic be­gan. The or­ga­ni­za­tion I lead, Lutheran Im­mi­gra­tion and Refugee Ser­vice (LIRS), fields dozens of re­quests a day from peo­ple like Lu­ciana in re­sponse to our newly es­tab­lished Neigh­bors in Need fund. Through it, LIRS is able to dis­trib­ute emer­gency fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to refugees and immigrants who have only just be­gun their lives in Amer­ica — and whose first steps to es­tab­lish their fam­i­lies and ca­reers have been en­tirely up­ended by the pan­demic.

Take Maryam, who just de­liv­ered a baby girl amid the pan­demic. She is anx­ious about how she is go­ing to feed, clothe and nur­ture her new­born child — an anx­i­ety that’s ex­ac­er­bated by her hus­band’s lay­off from his restau­rant job, lan­guage bar­ri­ers within the un­em­ploy­ment process, and a land­lord who is do­ing ev­ery­thing he can to cir­cum­vent the statewide halt on evic­tions. In an­other part of the country, three sib­lings Raul, Mayra and Julio are try­ing to stay afloat de­spite pan­demic-re­lated job loss. Their mother was de­ported and their fa­ther re­mains in im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion — what many call a “tin­der­box” for the spread of COVID-19.

There are thousands of such sto­ries. Sin­gle moth­ers, laid off from restau­rant or hos­pi­tal­ity jobs, strug­gle to make ends meet. Women and chil­dren flee­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence with nowhere to go. Fam­i­lies with mem­bers suf­fer­ing from se­vere men­tal or phys­i­cal ill­ness, no longer able to pay for care. Griev­ing rel­a­tives, un­able to cover fu­neral costs. Their ap­pli­ca­tions to LIRS’ Neigh­bors in Need pro­gram throws into sharp re­lief the des­per­a­tion faced by new Amer­i­cans in the midst of this cri­sis.

Most egre­giously, the COVID-19 cri­sis demon­strates just how dif­fi­cult it is for immigrants to be af­forded the same rights as so-called “nat­u­ral-born cit­i­zens.” These immigrants pay taxes, work full-time, at­tend school and con­trib­ute to their com­mu­ni­ties. And yet so many are in­el­i­gi­ble for the very same stim­u­lus fund­ing keep­ing their neigh­bors afloat. Some, like Lu­ciana, have not been in the U.S. long enough to qual­ify. Oth­ers are un­doc­u­mented and stuck with­out a path­way to cit­i­zen­ship, or — in a shock­ingly un­fair de­vel­op­ment — are sim­ply mar­ried to some­one who is un­doc­u­mented.

Thank­fully, some have pushed back. Cal­i­for­nia has pro­posed a $500 stim­u­lus check for its state’s un­doc­u­mented cit­i­zens through pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ship. Chicago and New York have ex­tended test­ing and treat­ment to all re­gard­less of im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus. Mary­land would do well to take note of these ef­forts.

But we can still do more. Through­out the pan­demic, immigrants have played a vi­tal role as the back­bone of this country: our doc­tors, nurses and health care work­ers; our agri­cul­tural work­ers; our gro­cery store at­ten­dants and our san­i­ta­tion work­ers. We bang pots and pans at 7 o’clock and post our grat­i­tude on so­cial me­dia, but immigrants work­ing on the front lines still strug­gle to make rent and put food on the ta­ble.

They need more than our praise. They need equal pro­tec­tion.

We must call on Congress to en­sure the most vul­ner­a­ble — like Lu­ciana, Maryam, Raul, Mayra, and Julio — also get the eco­nomic sup­port they need. It is ad­di­tion­ally in­cum­bent upon our elected of­fi­cials to elim­i­nate re­stric­tions for COVID-19 test­ing andtreat­ment. Only when we rec­og­nize the con­tri­bu­tions and com­mon hu­man­ity of immigrants — whether they be refugees, asy­lum seek­ers, Dream­ers, TPS hold­ers or un­doc­u­mented — can we truly over­come this cri­sis.

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