JCR had been a cook for 15 years and had never had a problem finding a job in New York City, where his friends would always find him a place in a restaurant kitchen.
But when Covid-19 hit the city in March of last year, the work the immigrants had relied on seemingly disappeared overnight, especially hospitality, event and cleaning jobs.
While the city’s restaurant industry is now on the mend and struggling to re-employ the workers it had laid off, jobs were extremely hard to find last year, JCR says.
After losing his job, he was unable to find another in the food industry, as the city became the global epicenter of the disease. “Only essential or very experienced workers were hired,” he realized.
Many of his friends in the restaurant industry moved into construction, and there he finally got a part-time job after months of searching.
JCR’s experiences are similar to those of thousands of immigrants from Latin America, and one that Documented, a local newsroom that covers immigration in the area, was able to quickly identify through its WhatsApp service, a Spanish-language channel that provides valuable information to undocumented New Yorkers.
Last August, five months after the pandemic, the newsroom asked its undocumented readers how they were dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, and as dozens of responses started pouring in, some common struggles became apparent.
Questions about places to find food or ways to get financial help became more and more frequent, said Mazin Sidahmed, co-executive director of Documented.
“From the messages and interviews we were doing, we could see too clearly how difficult the pandemic has been for what is already a vulnerable group and on which American cities like New York depend so much.
“The struggles have been heartbreaking and the resistance has been heroic.”
A sample of the messages during the year (names have been summarized or changed):
“I am an undocumented Dominican who works in two restaurants. When the pandemic began, both closed and did not reopen. I have been unemployed for four months and I cannot pay the rent. I look for food in the pantries and that is why we have not been hungry, but I have not received any help for the rent, ”said AM.
“I no longer had a job and I have no income. As I am undocumented, I do not qualify for any type of assistance, ”wrote LP.
“I lost my job. I had to be very careful because I was pregnant. At first I had some savings, but they ran out,” said G.
Inspired by the dozens of submissions, Documented created a short film about an immigrant’s experience. The movie, I know what pandemic means was created with the production company Water welland directed by Frisly Soberanis, a filmmaker from Queens, New York.
Bills Mounted Amid Covid-19 Health Threat
Without a job or any income, many undocumented Latin American immigrants have struggled with paying rent, electricity and telephone bills, and other expenses. New York took until last April to announce special aid for immigrants. Called the Excluded Workers Fund, this assistance is expected to benefit 290,000 people according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a number considerably less than the 560,000 undocumented immigrants estimated to live in the city.
R tried to live through the worst months of the pandemic by selling food from his own home. Originally from Peru, R is proud of her home country’s specialties and began serving them.
But the superintendent of his building told him to stop.
“We are really scared. We are afraid to go out to sell food. Because maybe immigration is there. Then we can’t do anything. And that is our fear. We want to move on with our lives and survive, ”he told Documented in an interview.
Unemployment rates skyrocketed across all groups in the US when Covid struck, but the effect of the pandemic was particularly devastating among immigrant women like R, research from the Migration Policy Institute showed in June 2020.
“Initial job losses have been exceptionally high among immigrants, particularly Latinos,” the report concluded.
In addition to economic difficulties, immigrants had to deal with the virus itself. If they had Covid, they would not go to a hospital. Some suspect they contracted the disease, but are not sure. At that time, they were unable to pay for medical care. Health insurance has never been common among undocumented immigrants in the United States. In 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that four out of ten foreign-born undocumented people were uninsured compared to fewer than one in ten citizens.
Additionally, changes in immigration policy under the Trump administration were contributing to increased fears among immigrant families, the same research showed.
That was the case for MC, who got infected but refused to leave his home. “People were dying and they were scared because they were an immigrant. And if I died, I wanted to die at home and be close to my children, ”he said.
Eventually, she got better. She doesn’t know how she got sick, but she suspects it was through her husband. Some of his co-workers had died from the virus. That must have been the only way, he thinks, that the virus got into his house. “I never left. I didn’t go outside. I was scared,” said C.
She still is.
For undocumented immigrants in New York, fear of a deadly pandemic added to everyday anxiety about their status. And it took its toll. For C, that meant not being able to do anything outside his home. Even grocery shopping could cause you to panic. “If I went out to buy food and saw a lot of people in the store, I wouldn’t go in. My head would start to hurt. I didn’t want to go in, ”he remembers.
In its announcement, Documented also wanted to know what kept Latin American immigrants through the toughest months of the pandemic in New York. And so stories emerged such as the landlord who cut 50 percent of the rent amount, the priest who would provide online support, the friend who would give food to someone with Covid. Names change in messages, but many words remain the same: brothers, sisters, family, neighbors, God.
For C, it was his children. “I saw them and I said, no, I have to continue. I have to move on for them. “
For a community whose members have faced different crises in their home countries and have abandoned those seeking a better future, it seems that there is always hope, even at the worst time of the pandemic. “We have been through a lot. Come on, life is not easy, but you have to maintain a positive attitude, “said one of the Documentado readers in his message.
“I also had to be strong for my children,” R told Documented. Her son coped with anxiety, shivering at night, not sleeping. She says she still feels that fear in her chest. When that happens, she tells him to relax, to think about something else.
“I make tortillas and I try to give him incentives. I say, ‘Let’s keep going. This pandemic is not going to defeat us, my son. ‘
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism