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Undocumented immigrants face coronavirus, looming jobs crisis with no real safety net

The $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress on Friday excludes giving any direct aid to tax-paying undocumented immigrants.

Martha Diaz, 22, has temporary legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Martha Diaz, 22, is her parents’ safety net as they endure the immediate economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Hector and Sandra are scared. He’s diabetic and she has rheumatoid arthritis, putting them at higher risk of getting sick and dying from the coronavirus.

But since they’re undocumented, they have to keep working — no matter what.

“If we don’t work, we can’t survive. It’s just that simple,” Sandra said.

Hector and Sandra are pushing 50 and have lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years. Both of them work at a warehouse packaging Windex, Clorox disinfecting wipes and other cleaning supplies.

“They’re really busy right now,” Sandra said.

On March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic over the coronavirus, a worker near Sandra on the crowded warehouse assembly line started coughing.

“That worried me,” Sandra said. The rheumatoid arthritis weakens her immune system, she said, “and I already know to stay away from people who feel sick.”

Fearing the worst, she called off work the next week, but her husband still clocked in. The couple makes about $800 a week after taxes, just enough to cover the basics, including the $1,200 monthly rent for the two-bedroom apartment they share with their 13-year-old son.

“We both have to work to make it,” Sandra said. “I’m worried about my health, but what can I do?”

(The Sun-Times agreed not to use the last names of undocumented people quoted in this story.)

Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, a man has the sidewalk to himself as he smokes a cigarette at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle in the Loop, Tuesday afternoon, March 24, 2020.
Amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, a man has the sidewalk to himself at the corner of Randolph and LaSalle streets in the Loop.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

One day without work becomes a crisis

There are around 400,000 undocumented immigrants in Illinois. None of them can claim unemployment insurance even if, like Hector and Sandra, they’ve paid into the system for years.

Tax-paying undocumented immigrants were also excluded from receiving $1,200 checks from the federal government in the $2 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress on Friday. Those checks are reserved for qualified workers with Social Security numbers.

Nearly half of undocumented are uninsured, according to a recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health care think-tank. That means there’s a high chance many of them who feel sick are still going to work, said Jorge Mujica, an immigrant and labor rights organizer with Arise Chicago.

“There’s no real safety net for undocumented immigrants, not even during a pandemic,” Mujica said. “Most undocumented immigrants don’t have paid time off or sick leave. If they’re sent home, they’re left without an income at all. One day without work for them becomes a crisis.”

Many undocumented immigrants have seen their jobs evaporate in recent weeks.

Maria, 48, worked for nine years as a housekeeper at a downtown hotel before she was fired March 18 along with 20 of her coworkers, most of whom are also undocumented.

“I asked why they were firing us instead of laying us off, but they said they couldn’t give us any more information,” she said.

Maria had health insurance through her housekeeping job, which also covered her three sons and her husband, who works construction. “We all depended on that health insurance,” she said. “Now what are we supposed to do?”

To keep calm, Maria tries to stay off Facebook and watches the news only once a day. But without a job and unsure if she’ll get help from the government, she’s having a hard time keeping her head up.

“It’s really depressing. I want to work, and now I can’t,” she said. “I wasn’t worried that much about the virus. I always took care of myself and bought disinfectant and cleaning supplies. I taught my kids how to wash their hands all the time. But not having a job makes it a lot harder not to panic.”

‘I’m their safety net right now’

As undocumented immigrants feel the pinch, their children are stepping up to keep their households afloat.

Martha Diaz is one of an estimated 35,000 young people in Illinois who have temporary legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The 22-year-old works full time as a digital marketing strategist for an auto parts company in Broadview. She’s also a full-time student in her final year at Dominican University.

Diaz’s classes and her job have moved online, meaning she spends all of her time at her South Side home that she shares with her three siblings and their parents, both of whom are undocumented.

“My dad’s having trouble finding work,” she said. “My mom works with elderly clients as a home health aide but last week they told her not to go in anymore because of the coronavirus.”

“It feels like I’m their safety net right now,” Diaz said. “My parents always told us to save money, so I have some in the bank. But I don’t know if my company will start having to lay off people because there’s no income coming in. I guess we’ll see.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.