When her 22-year-old daughter’s pain started April 7, the mom thought it was another flare-up of lupus, a debilitating autoimmune disorder. But then the cough and breathing difficulties began, and the worries grew.
When her daughter got her test result back, it was COVID-19 positive.
The Seattle-area mom, who is an undocumented Mexican immigrant, spoke on the condition that she not be identified, for fear of immigration enforcement. She asked to be referred to as Maria and spoke to me recently in Spanish through an interpreter.
Last week I wrote about the urgent need for data to help us understand who is most affected by the pandemic. The numbers show that in our state, Latino families are being hit harder than others, but data can only say so much. Each number on a spreadsheet represents a human life, a story and a family and community that cares. Maria’s family’s story is just one of many.
Maria’s daughter’s illness on top of illness has been terrifying. She now cares for her daughter by leaving food outside the bedroom door, so her fragile immune system is protected. Maria stays in constant contact through video calls and texts from the other room. But she said it’s very stressful to be so close and yet so far away from her daughter when her child is suffering the most. The combination of the two illnesses leaves her daughter sometimes struggling to breathe. The doctors call three times a day to ensure her condition is not deteriorating.
Even before her daughter’s diagnosis, things were not easy for the family. While she and her daughter are both essential workers, Washington’s stay-at-home order drastically cut the number of hours they were given at their restaurant jobs. Maria has worked at the same restaurant chain for 18 years, earning the support of her employer and paying taxes. When her daughter became sick, they were quarantined and their income dropped to zero.
Unlike other workers, undocumented workers cannot get unemployment benefits and they are excluded from the federal coronavirus stimulus plan. In another punishing twist, mixed-status families — or families where one person might be undocumented but others have Social Security numbers — also are not eligible for the stimulus, which is an estimated 8 million people nationwide.
All of this leaves Maria both fearful for her daughter, first and foremost, but also worried about her ability to care for her family as a single parent. As the rent comes due and bills pile up, she doesn’t know how she will pay them all with no income.
Maria said it has been her community that has kept her going through this. Friends leave food on her porch, and call and text to see what she needs. Her church has offered support. She said the pandemic is bringing out the best in us.
The best in us has also been in full view in grassroots community responses to support immigrants and undocumented people in the absence of federal and state support. A hotline originally set up by the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN) to support immigrants with deportation issues was converted at the end of March to answer questions about coronavirus. They said they went from 60 calls in a week to 4,500. WAISN Co-Director Monserrat Padilla said that while immigrants have long been the backbone of our economy, with the exclusion from federal aid, “it’s heartbreaking to see families who are in crisis [have to] ask for food, ask if they’re going to have a roof over their head tomorrow. It’s sad to have to always demand dignity in our humanity at every turn.”
In California, the state announced a fund last week with $125 million to provide $500 to $1,000 cash payments to some of the state’s 150,000 undocumented residents. Undocumented Californians paid $2.5 billion in state and local taxes but are not eligible for unemployment or stimulus benefits, the governor said.
Organizations are pushing Gov. Jay Inslee to create a similar fund in Washington.
Washington announced a temporary disaster relief fund on Friday that would provide an income-restricted, maximum of $569 for a household of three for one month to all people, regardless of citizenship status.
For others, local individuals and organizations are left to fill the gap.
To provide direct financial help, a network of young, undocumented immigrants called Washington Dream Coalition in partnership with WAISN, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and Scholarship Junkies launched a relief fund at the end of March for undocumented people in Washington. The fund has already released over $150,000 in low-barrier support for rent, food and other necessities, organizers said. The $500 to $1,000 checks won’t replace the lack of income or unemployment insurance, but it can help avert immediate crisis.
Within the first week of taking applications, Alejandra Peréz, a Washington Dream Coalition organizer, said 9,400 people had already applied, including Maria, who was awarded $750. Peréz said nearly all of the applicants had lost their jobs.
Sometimes she feels powerless, Maria said, but she is motivated by her daughter’s fight for her life. Maria knows her daughter will survive, she said, because of all the love in the community and the love of God. This experience has shown us how good and resilient humans can be, she said, and at the same time, how vulnerable we all are.
Correction: This story was corrected at 10 a.m. Monday, April 20, 2020. An earlier version incorrectly stated that the state of Washington had not extended any direct relief to undocumented workers. A relief fund was announced Friday for some very low-income workers, including those that are undocumented.