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CIANA Explains: How has COVID-19 Impacted the Immigrant Community in Queens?


Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona are home to large immigrant communities from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. Many of their residents are cashiers, shopkeepers, and medical professionals throughout New York City; in the food industry alone, 20% of its workers are immigrants. While New Yorkers rely on these working class individuals for their services every day, their role has only recently been put into the spotlight, as they have been labeled “essential.”


With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many New Yorkers to work from home, we still rely on essential workers to provide us with food, medical care, and other essential services. These low-wage, supposedly low-skill professions are held by nearly 6 million immigrants throughout the country, including 1.8 million in New York. According to the Center for Migration Studies, about ⅓ of medical workers are immigrants, and about 70% of undocumented New Yorkers work in essential positions. Yet despite being on the front lines of the pandemic, they are frequently left out of economic recovery packages.


Working in close proximity to so many people every day puts essential workers at an extra risk of not only catching the coronavirus, which has caused over 15,000 deaths in New York City so far, but of spreading it to the people they live with and to the communities they live in. This has been especially true in the Jackson Heights area, with Elmhurst Hospital experiencing severe overcrowding, lack of equipment, and, in late March, 13 coronavirus-related deaths in 24 hours.


Why Have Immigrants Been So Disproportionately Affected?


As we wrote about in 2018, not having healthcare is one cause of rampant health crises in immigrant and low-income communities. Language barriers and lack of citizenship or legal status prevent many new Americans from seeking medical assistance, even when they’re experiencing symptoms of illness. Although fear plays a large role, doctors and nurses are not allowed to report patients to ICE or border patrol.


The nature of essential jobs puts workers at a disadvantage. Working in environments filled with people throughout the day puts them at risk, but many of these jobs don’t come with health benefits, and don’t pay enough for workers to afford doctor’s visits. While many immigrants, especially in Queens, have Medicaid, the Public Charge rule has caused many immigrants to disenroll themselves and their families from Medicaid, out of fear that they might not gain permanent residency status (green card).


Undocumented workers are especially impacted. Farmworkers, who already do not receive mandated labor protections, continue to grow produce and provide nutrition to the rest of the country. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of opposition to support them during the pandemic. For instance, Republicans refused to pass the $2 trillion CARES Act for coronavirus relief, which passed on March 30 if any of it went to undocumented immigrants.


New York City allotted $20 million in relief for immigrant workers and their families on April 17, in collaboration with Open Society Foundations, but even this package was limited in its coverage to undocumented workers. As a result, immigrant communities continue to suffer economically, in addition to having the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.


Broader Impact on the Community


The pandemic has affected communities beyond health and finances. Schools in NYC will be closed for the rest of the school year. Even in families where parents are able to work from home or have lost their jobs, some parents have many children to take care of, while others do not have the linguistic or technological capabilities to help their children navigate online learning.


This is why CIANA has launched online tutoring and SONYC programs to give our younger clients the academic support they might not get at home, as well as to give them enrichment and social interaction that are crucial to their development.


COVID-19 has already impacted the American immigration system itself. Trump banned all flights from China at the end of January, when the coronavirus was becoming widespread there. Since early April, Refugees and asylum seekers have been barred from entering the U.S., leaving many of them stuck in refugee camps in Mexico. On April 22, Trump signed an executive order halting most immigration to the U.S. for 60 days.


Immigrants seeking medical professions are also still allowed into the U.S., but many immigrant medical workers could soon be impacted. Over 27,000 DACA recipients currently work in the medical field. The Supreme Court is expected to reach a decision on last fall’s case to determine DACA’s fate. Ending DACA would not only threaten the livelihoods of the nearly 800,000 Dreamers in the U.S.; it would severely cut down our essential workforce, and consequently continue to overburden our healthcare system.


What Is Being Done, and What Can I Do?

As always, grassroots movements spring into action when obstacles facing immigrants arise. Advocacy organizations like RAICES Action and the New York Immigration Coalition have been lobbying federal and state governments to include immigrants- both documented and undocumented- in future economic recovery acts. Individuals can voice their support on social media and by signing petitions and letters to elected officials.


CIANA will be participating in #GivingTuesdayNow, a day of giving in response to unprecedented need caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many ways to give, both financially and non-financially, all of which bring awareness to the issues that Astoria, Queens, and New York City as a whole are facing, as well as the immigrant communities within them.


One of the most effective ways to support the community is to fill out the 2020 Census. The Census will allot billions of dollars of federal funds to communities across the country, and will fund a number of public services, including health. Past undercounts have prevented immigrant-heavy communities from getting necessary funding.


CIANA has been active in getting out the immigrant count in this year’s Census, which can be used not only for COVID-19 relief, but for funding for clinics, hospitals, and medical equipment overall for the next 10 years. Recovering from the effects of the pandemic may take a while, especially in immigrant neighborhoods which have been hit the hardest. But the Census assures the federal government will provide funding and resources to communities that need it in order to rebuild and renew.