Supporting undocumented communities amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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The Core Civic Detention Center in Otay Mesa, San Diego County, is the site of the first death of a detainee in ICE custody. Photo: Simone Hogan/

It’s more important than ever to ensure that the most vulnerable people among us receive the health care, financial assistance, and humane treatment they deserve.

While the US is struggling to respond to the coronavirus, the Trump administration has taken advantage of this pandemic to double down on its longstanding anti-refugee and anti-immigrant agenda. In response, Oxfam is fighting to make sure that the rights of everyone in the US—regardless of race, gender, or migratory status—are protected and respected. That includes undocumented people.

This pandemic is exposing deep systemic inequalities in the US and is quickly making disparities worse, as millions of marginalized people are struggling to pay bills, stay healthy, and survive. Undocumented people in the US were already marginalized and vulnerable; COVID-19 has compounded this.

First things first. What does it mean to be undocumented?

An estimated 11 million people—more than half of them women—live in the US without legal documentation and are therefore referred to as “undocumented.” Approximately 40 percent of undocumented people entered the US as tourists, students, or through other regular channels and overstayed their visas. Many others fled their home countries because of persecution or economic devastation; they and others are constrained by an outdated US immigration system that leaves people with no viable way of entering the country through regular means.

Undocumented people live in all 50 states, enriching the country socially, culturally, and economically, and likely count among your friends and neighbors. Perhaps even you—or members of your family—have been without documentation at some point in your lives.

What are some of the challenges undocumented people face?

The US economy relies on undocumented labor in many sectors, including the growing, packaging, and processing of our food; housekeeping and hospitality; and caring for our families, yet undocumented workers often face the most dangerous labor conditions, have the fewest protections, and are least able to assert their rights. The climate of fear stoked by the current administration and the looming threat of immigration raids, arrests, detention, and deportation only further dis-empowers the community, leaving people vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. For many undocumented women, fear of being fired for reporting sexual harassment and violence in the workplace is compounded by the risk that they could be deported as retaliation for speaking up. Undocumented women are also less likely to report intimate partner violence for fear of being arrested themselves.

How is COVID-19 affecting undocumented people?

Millions of undocumented people are over-represented in many of the essential, low-wage occupations hit hardest by the pandemic: meatpacking plants, hotels, farms, restaurants, and retail. They pay billions of dollars in state and federal taxes each year, but have been excluded from congressional relief packages and, with few exceptions, unemployment insurance or other essential pieces of social safety nets, such as Medicare and Social Security—even if they’ve been paying into these systems for years.

The CARES Act not only excluded undocumented people from relief, it also excluded household members who are US citizens. Given that an estimated eight million US citizens have at least one undocumented family member living with them and nearly six million citizen children have at least one undocumented parent, the consequences of this exclusion are massive.

Ongoing immigration raids and arrests spread fear across entire communities and also deter people from seeking medical care, with potentially dangerous consequences. These enforcement actions cruelly tear parents away from their children, only to channel them into the administration’s massive and non-transparent immigration detention system where they are at risk for COVID-19.

How is Oxfam supporting undocumented people during the coronavirus crisis?

This global pandemic is proving to us that no one is healthy unless all of us are. That’s why it’s more urgent that all people—regardless of their migratory status—are included in the response.

Since the start of the pandemic, Oxfam has worked to ensure that the needs of undocumented people and their families are addressed by policy makers. We are advocating for the inclusion of undocumented people and their families in future congressional relief measures and encouraging state governments to provide support to people who have been excluded from the federal packages.

We are also providing support through local partnerships to help families across the country weather the worst impacts of the pandemic and to support education and advocacy on the issues facing undocumented people. These partnerships include Seattle’s Casa Latina Worker Relief Fund, Los Angeles’ National Day Laborer Organizing Network, San Diego's Immigrant Relief Fund, and Boston’s Undocufund.

Oxfam is also working with partner organizations across the US to demand the suspension of immigration enforcement actions and secure the release of people from immigration detention.

Why is Oxfam concerned about people in immigration detention facilities?

Approximately 30,000 people are currently being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody. None of them are being held for committing crimes; they are being held in civil confinement for the administrative violation of being present in the US without authorization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the inhumanity of the US immigration detention system; it imprisons vulnerable people, violates their dignity and human rights—particularly in the case of women and LGBTQIA+ people—and puts the health of detained migrants, detention center workers, and local communities at risk. This system is also costly and unnecessary, especially given the existence of alternatives to detention that have a proven record of success. People housed in detention facilities are especially vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 because of well-documented substandard conditions, over-crowding, and poor and infrequent access to healthcare.

The majority of people in immigration detention are men and boys, but the numbers of detained women and girls has increased significantly in recent years. Despite this increase, detention facilities remain unable to adequately provide basic healthcare or specific support for the many who are survivors of trauma and gender-based violence.

Social distancing is impossible in detention. People are also being charged to buy soap and other hygiene materials, and hand sanitizer is frequently unavailable. To make matters worse, ICE continues to place people into detention and transfer people between facilities, potentially spreading the virus further.

On May 6, the first person in ICE custody to die from COVID-19 was reported in an immigration detention facility in San Diego and in April, two detention facility guards in Louisiana died of the virus. As more and more people—both detainees and workers—test positive for COVID-19, the likelihood of a major outbreak in detention is high.

Oxfam is also supporting new legislation from Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) that would restrict immigration enforcement at and around sensitive locations, such as hospitals, and ensure the large-scale release of people in detention—starting with the people most vulnerable to the virus.

Releasing detained immigrants and asylum seekers would be safe and manageable. Many have lived in the US for years and have strong ties to their communities. People who have arrived more recently, including asylum seekers, have close ties to family, faith networks, and other community members who would house and support them. For those who lack support, local organizations and networks across the country stand ready to assist.

What is Oxfam’s history working with undocumented people?

For years, Oxfam has actively worked to protect migrant workers and their families, defend their rights and dignity, and recognize the crucial role they play in our economy and society.

Alongside allies and partners, we have fought to ensure that all workers, regardless of immigration status, can exercise fundamental rights on the job (including in the poultry industry), supported the efforts of farm workers to legalize their status, and brought awareness to the obstacles undocumented workers face in combatting sexual harassment on the job, especially in the context of immigration enforcement efforts.

We are also part of a coalition of anti-trafficking, labor, and worker advocacy organizations in the US and Mexico that advocates for the rights of temporary migrant workers (otherwise known as guest workers) through policy change, education, and direct engagement with migrant workers.

How can I help?

We’re supporting two important pieces of legislation that address the rights of undocumented people:

  • The Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act would ensure that all communities in the US—including undocumented people—have access to COVID-19 testing, treatment, and relief benefits. The bill also suspends immigration enforcement activities around sensitive areas, such as health care facilities, schools, and houses of worship, and limits the government’s ability to deport people during the pandemic.
  • The Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together (FIRST) Act mandates the release of most people from immigration detention, starting with the people in high-risk health categories.

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