COVID-19 is shaking up immigration policy, and inspiring grassroots activism

(Photo source: Pixabay.com)
(Photo source: Pixabay.com)

Language barriers, the threat of deportation and the high cost of health care are some of the key issues that make immigrant communities especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the urgent need to prevent the spread of the disease is, at least temporarily, breaking the ice on punitive immigrant policies, and inspiring grassroots solutions to basic public-health needs.

Immigrant communities rally online

In the United States, critical pandemic information — especially on major media outlets — is often only available in English.

This leaves many immigrant communities out in the cold.

But Oregon-based advocacy groups have found that social media are filling the gaps.

Asian, Latin American, African and other communities are using Whatsapp, WeChat, Facebook, and numerous other apps, to work around language barriers.

These services don’t just enable easy conversations and information-sharing locally and around the world.

Many also provide translation systems that enable immigrants who lack English fluency to access to vital information about public health and safety.

Fear of the ‘econo virus’

Although the stimulus legislation currently working its way through Congress will include protections and cash payouts for U.S. citizens, America’w 11 million undocumented immigrants won’t be seeing any of those benefits.

Domestic workers, laborers, restaurant staff and farm workers get by on some of the lowest wages in the nation — and with the economy mostly shut down, they’re not working, and not earning.

Advocates say this will create financial hardship and desperation that will only worsen the effects and spread of the disease.

Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, said that neighborhood bartering systems, food banks, and fundraisers for undocumented communities can help disrupt the impacts of the “econo virus” on immigrants.

Uninsured and underpaid

The high cost of health care, a general lack of health insurance for undocumented immigrants, and fear of punitive immigration rules, have led many Latino immigrant communities to leave their medical conditions unaddressed as long as possible.

This could be disastrous during a pandemic, and immigration advocates have called for the federal government to suspend its family separation, detention and deportation rules during the crisis.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has since said it would modify these policies and focus solely on public safety issues.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbot has also said that immigrants should have “no fear” about showing up at health clinics for testing, regardless of their legal status.

But advocates wonder if these messages come too late for immigrants alienated by current government policies.

Additional writing by Josh Wilson

Sources: Oregon Public Broadcasting, Fort Worth Star Telegram, USA Today, Texas Tribune

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