by Daniel Zawodny | April 25, 2020
Arnos has made Baltimore feel like his second home — he worked at the iconic Lexington Market for 12 years, has family all over town, and has spent nearly half of his life as a proud Marylander. Now, like many, he’s stuck at home thanks to the novel Coronavirus pandemic, but there’s one thing making Arnos feel the brunt of the fallout more than his neighbors — his lack of a Social Security number.
Immigrant service providers say that with less stable access to healthcare and fewer economic safeguards, Coronavirus has disproportionately affected undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Arnos, a native of Guatemala whose full name has been omitted to protect his identity, had been working as a delivery driver for a mattress distribution company for just a couple months when he was laid off in late March.
Although he has filed income taxes for years using an ITIN, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, his immigration status makes him ineligible for both state unemployment benefits and the $1,200 stimulus check that most adults in the United States will receive from the IRS.
“It’s a lot of people that work, it’s a lot of people that pay taxes, and through no fault of their own are now unemployed,” said Giuliana Valencia-Banks, co-chair of the Latino Racial Justice Circle (LRJC), an organization that seeks to stand in solidarity with, serve, and raise awareness about Baltimore’s Latino immigrant community.
LRJC started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for families of undocumented immigrants for things like food, cleaning supplies, and to help with rent and other bills. Their initial goal of $3,000 was quickly met, and a month of fundraising has now raked in over $30,000.
Although some, like Arnos, have lost their jobs due to the slowing economy, many undocumented immigrants continue to work in industries that have been deemed essential like construction, cleaning, and food service.
According to Katherine Phillips, Health Services Manager at the Esperanza Center, a Baltimore clinic that provides primary care services to the undocumented, this continued exposure puts workers at greater risk for contracting the virus. Yet, many of them feel they do not have a choice.
“I think the idea of not going to work really puts the community in a tough position where they are having to choose whether to feed their families and pay their rent but also put themselves and their families at risk for contracting Coronavirus,” said Phillips.
As guidance for seeking COVID-19 testing pointed people towards their primary care doctors if and when they experience symptoms, Phillips and her team quickly realized that this would create a sense of worry within a community that was widely uninsured and without a primary care physician on record.
In partnership with Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Mayor’s Office of Baltimore, Esperanza Center established a hotline that connects immigrants living in the Baltimore area with volunteer medical providers that can order testing for them through Johns Hopkins.
Phillips points to data coming out of New York City indicating a higher mortality rate in Hispanic men and women than their white counterparts from COVID-19 when describing her fear that the pandemic will disproportionately hit her patient population.
“And we anticipate that those trends would likely be similar in a city like Baltimore,” she said.
Phillips and her team also worry about the people that may never come forward seeking treatment at all — as she described, some undocumented immigrants rarely seek medical care in general over fears of affecting their immigration status.
Last August, the Trump administration offered up new public charge guidelines that allow immigration officials to use stricter measures when evaluating whether or not to grant a visa to a foreign national to legally enter the United States. These guidelines include taking into account a person’s level of education and English proficiency as well as their potential for becoming economically dependent on the government.
The rule change, which was decried by immigration activists as unlawful, was upheld by the Supreme Court in February of this year and sent shock waves through undocumented communities nationwide.
“And those who are here in the US who are undocumented, they are the main target – not necessarily the main target – but the ones principally affected by the public charge ground, especially if they seek to right themselves with the law in the future,” said Mikhael Borgonos, managing attorney of Esperanza Center’s Immigration Legal Services.
Although the federal government has said that even undocumented immigrants will have access to Coronavirus testing and treatment, Borgonos explained that whether or not this specialized medical care could factor into an individual’s public charge consideration is unclear.
“It sounds like a catch-22,” said Borgonos. “The government is saying that you can avail yourself to testing and treatment during Coronavirus, but how you obtain the funds for testing and treatment could be problematic.”
According to Borgonos, the issue may truly never be clear until litigated in federal immigration court.
For the time being, Arnos and his family are trying to stay positive, and keep busy by looking for work, even if all they can find are odd jobs here and there.
“It’s been hard for us even to find one day of work in the week – it’s very difficult to find,” he said.
Arnos, like many, finds hope in a sense of community solidarity — he and his family have been able to receive some food donations through his nephew’s school, and they keep in touch virtually with family that they have in other parts of the city.
“I think that, as undocumented people, and citizens of this country, we’re all really the same, and that I hope we can understand one another and support each other,” he said. “I say to my neighbors here that I hope that we can move forward, day after day — this is going to pass, god willing, this is going to pass.”