Exclusionary policies that limit or deny vital resources intensify as political and public ethics quandaries

It’s undeniable that when discussing the topic of immigration in the U.S., even at the best of times, opinions are strongly held. Compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, that puts into question access to all types of goods and resources for every person within the U.S., and divisive lines related to citizenry are further intensified.

The U.S. has grappled with if, when, and how to include the undocumented Latino/a community in the American tapestry since at least the early 20th century. For many Latino/a Studies scholars, the simultaneous dependence on, yet exclusion of noncitizen Latino/a workers from conventional benefits is the veritable tale as old as time. Within the context of allocating aid during the eruption of COVID-19, exclusionary policies that limit or deny resources like medical care, sick leave, unemployment benefits and the like have become even more of a political and public ethics quandary.

Of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S., about 7.6 million are an active part of the American workforce. The service, agriculture, and construction industries are vastly buoyed by their labor, as are the more informal economic sectors such as house cleaning, gardening, and child care. In Vermont, dairy farms are on the list of employers heavily dependent on immigrant staff.

Until March 19, none of the COVID-19 information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website was available in Spanish despite it being the native language for roughly 41 million inhabitants.

Several states have declared at least two of these sectors — service and agriculture — as falling within the category of essential personnel needed to report to work while millions are mandated to shelter at home. Yet, the undocumented, mixed-status, and noncitizen individuals who are filling so many of these roles have been left out of the $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress on March 27.

If one of these individuals has a Social Security number, but their spouse does not, both are disqualified from receiving aid (even as taxpayers). Many undocumented, mixed-status, and other immigrant categories like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) use a legal government-issued ITIN number instead of a Social Security number in order to lawfully (and publicly) pay taxes. ITIN users are also excluded from the stimulus plan.

Dr. Kaitlin E. Thomas

Fiscal exclusion is not the only ethical conundrum that COVID-19 has ushered to the forefront for Latino/a studies, U.S.-Mexico border studies, and immigration specialists. Until March 19, none of the COVID-19 information on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website was available in Spanish despite it being the native language for roughly 41 million inhabitants (about 14% of the American population). The federal government left the task of translating to individual states, schools, medical sites or others (many of whom in places like Vermont do not employ on-site bilingual staff). Google Translate will go only so far when dealing with complicated medical jargon, hygiene guidelines and stay-at-home directives. It also lacks the compassion and patience needed to allay fears.

Changes made by the administration in 2019 raised still unanswered questions whether seeking medical attention might jeopardize one’s ability to earn a green card, or even result in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) being called to detain on site. Many do not want to risk the appearance of unnecessarily tapping into assistance resources since the public charge rule demonizes such behaviors among the non-U.S. born.

Thus arises the dilemma for our noncitizen neighbors. Will going to the hospital jeopardize their future chances of receiving a change in status? Will presenting to a local clinic result in ICE being called? Could family members be detained? Deported? A lose-lose calculation has emerged: does a sick (and contagious) undocumented person reveal to health officials the identities of others, or do they keep mum despite the health risk to their friends, family, and community?

Such fears (particularly during a pandemic) not only markedly increase the risk of morbidity and mortality among the 23% of noncitizen immigrants and the 45% of undocumented immigrants who do not have health coverage, but everyone.

Approximately 27,000 undocumented people who receive DACA work in health care. Seventy-three of 145 accredited medical schools in the U.S. accept applications from DACA-approved undocumented immigrants and subsequently graduate doctors of medicine into practicing in the U.S. As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on many U.S. hospitals, and states are recalling retired physicians and nurses to rejoin the ranks, the Association of American Medical Colleges is strongly urging the Administration reconsider the plan of terminating DACA as doing so could be “catastrophic” to the nation’s health security at this unprecedented time of need.

The toll of exclusionary rhetoric

Health sectors are not alone in feeling the stress perpetuated by exclusionary rhetoric and policies that target the second-largest ethnic group in the U.S. On March 18, immigration visa processing was suspended between Mexico and the U.S., halting categories like H-2A. Farms throughout the country depend on this program for seasonal workers. Without them, food production and distribution operations in the U.S. could very well cease. The American Farm Bureau Federation and the United Farm Workers are lobbying Congress that such a decision puts the nation’s food security and access at risk.

In a time of uncertainty as to how the federal government will lead the nation through the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofit organizations, local governments, school systems and bilingual volunteers are stepping in. A list detailing state-by-state assistance available to undocumented individuals is circulating on social media. Facebook groups such as “Spanish Teachers in the U.S.,” “Latino Studies” and “Latinx scholars” have become virtual philanthropic posting and messaging boards with hundreds of posts a day from every corner of the nation. UnitedWeDream has launched UndocuHealth, a web-based health and wellness repository full of tips, resources, and how-to’s.

COVID-19 is magnifying the fine print behind the idea that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest (in this case, most vulnerable) members. What type of financial and protective health compensation is appropriate for demographics that are openly acknowledged as essential during a crisis, but otherwise excluded from basic benefit and assistance programs? Asking that undocumented and noncitizen communities carry on despite the increased risk, and while being denied a safety net, is a social and political gamble of interest for Latino/a studies and immigration ethicists as COVID-19 continues to test the nation.

Dr. Kaitlin E. Thomas is an assistant professor of Spanish at Norwich University. Her research delves into U.S. and Latino/a identities that are resulting from transborder cultural and national fusion, undocumented Latino/a immigration, and contemporary Mexico.

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