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).