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 and treatment. 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.