As coronavirus takes their jobs, benefits, Houston immigrants feel 'like they suddenly don't exist'
April 06-- Apr. 6--One by one, the families who hired Julia de LeÃ³n as a domestic worker told her she was no longer needed, including a River Oaks residence where she kept house and at times, was a nanny, for 13 years. The novel coronavirus had spread across Houston and she soon found herself down to one job, pleading with God to not lose it.
Her hopes, however, did not last long. By the end of March, de LeÃ³n was no longer earning a penny and wondering how she would be able to survive the economic crisis caused by COVID 19 and with no foreseeable end.
"I understand that employers may be afraid that we may be carriers, and we are panicking," said de LeÃ³n, a 56-year-old immigrant from Mexico who is living with her adult daughter, son-in-law and grandchild. "Right now, I have food because my daughter is subsidizing me.
"I don't know what will happen if this lasts too long; if this is going to put me on the street," said the domestic worker who belongs to a family with mixed immigration status. "My daughter and her husband are already having less work; my daughter is very anxious."
Millions of Americans, including immigrants like de LeÃ³n, have lost their income as employers struggle to stay in business while the pandemic has pushed the country to one of its harshest economic downturns in modern history. A $2 trillion federal relief bill approved last month will send more $600 billion to taxpayers, to help families.
De LeÃ³n's family will not be one of them. Many immigrants in the country illegally and who are the backbone of Houston's underground economy, do not qualify for help, even though they pay taxes directly or indirectly. That includes hundreds of thousands of workers among housekeepers, nannies, gardeners, caretakers, handimen, day laborers and those in the hospitality, construction, manufacturing, food production and retail businesses.
Houston has just over a half million immigrants in the country illegally, the third largest in the nation after New York and Los Angeles, according to Pew Research Center. Texas is second to California with the largest amount of this population. Immigrants already live under a cloud of uncertainty because of immigration policies imposed by the Trump administration, and the economic upheaval of coronavirus compounds that fear.
Unauthorized immigrants pay sales and property taxes and most also pay income taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number issued to people who don't have a Social Security number. Statewide, they pay an estimated $4.2 billion in state, local and federal taxes, according to New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization.
ITIN holders, however, do not qualify for the checks the IRS will issue in the upcoming weeks. Families with mixed immigration status, such as undocumented adults with children or dependents who are American citizens, are also excluded since all individuals in a tax return should have a valid Social Securty number to be elegible.
"It's sad to think what's happening to them," said de LeÃ³n, who has lived in the U.S. for three decades and is also a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance board. "It's like they suddenly don't exist."
Asking for help
Daniana Trigoso-Kukulski, executive director of Faith and Justice Worker Center in Houston, a nonprofit that advocates for workers' rights, said many workers are calling and asking for help. The organization has already distributed more than 70 bags of food.
Some of those bags also include personal protective equipment to those still working. Trigoso-Kukulski said some employers are not providing masks or gloves.
"Many of them don't have work," she said, "(but) others are still working and putting their lives at risk."
Handyman Saul OlguÃn takes any job he can get, even if it means compromising his health.
"We are going to work at any cost, no matter what; I'll do whatever they ask," said OlguÃn, who came to Houston 15 years ago with his wife to work. They send money to family back home in Chihuahua, Mexico. "Otherwise, who is going to pay the bills!"
These days, that work has been slow. OlguÃn said he was lucky last week when he got a two-day gig to remove the exterior cladding of a building with other workers. The contractor didn't provide face masks to protect them from dust and debris, let alone to keep the coronavirus at bay.
"We ended up with the hair so hardened by the dust that it looked like we had it covered in dried mud," OlguÃn said, adding that it at least allowed him to bring home $240 that week.
Trigoso-Kukulski said she's also received complaints similar to what she saw during Hurricane Harvey, that some contractors don't pay or undercut undocumented workers after they finish the job. That's already happened to OlguÃn, who recounted what happened after an employer picked him up outside a hardware store, where some workers wait for the opportunity of landing a day job.
"I helped this other person with a roofing and, when I finished, he told me, 'Show me your green card so I can take a picture of it and pay you,' pretending he didn't know that I didn't have it when he picked me up in the parking lot." He said he was ultimately paid but much less than they initially agreed.
About 80 percent of immigrants in the county illegally have lived in the U.S. for more than five years and have become part of the social fabric of the country as workers and neighbors, experts say.
They and their families, many of whom are American citizens, are particularly vulnerable in this crisis, either through a job loss, potential lack of access to health efforts to battle the novel coronavirus, unsafe working conditions, and now, lack of access to federal relief, advocates say.
Local governments in the Houston region are trying to mitigate some of those concerns.
Houston and Harris county leaders have each set up free drive-thru testing sites for the virus and have assured no one will be asked about their immigration status. Meanwhile, health departments are providing information about the virus and testing in languages other than English.
One of the health and safety measures compels residents to practice "social distancing" and stay at least 6 feet apart.
Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, noted that most undocumented workers live in dense urban regions where they interact with many people, compounding their vulnerability amid the pandemic.
Olguin, the day laborer, said he is seeing small apartments getting crowded with six or eight people as renters try to accommodate immigrant friends who have lost income.
"It's a win-win because they go look for work and bring some money, and they help each other," he said. "But who can keep that social distance they are asking for; they are living like on top of each other."
Payan also said the job loss will hit the community hard.
"This population, which is among the lowest socioeconomic scales... have nowhere to make money if they don't go out to cook, mow the lawn, work in buildings, clean rooms...," he said.
For those immigrants who can still work, some are stockpiling supermarkets' shelves, cropping in the fields and producing food in factories, sanitizing hospitals and offices, and cooking restaurants' deliveries.
"It's in times like this one when we realize that immigrants are in the frontline of this pandemic regardless of their immigration" status, said Diego IÃ±iguez-LÃ³pez, policy manager for the National Partnership for New Americans, an advocacy coalition.
They deserve the same federal benefits that others are getting, advocates say.
"What this pandemic has highlighted more than anything is that our health and well-being are interconnected," said Marielena HincapiÃ©, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center headquartered in Washington, D.C.. "We cannot exclude immigrants from access to economic relief and health care, testing, and treatment; that leaves us all at risk."
Nora V. Demleitner, a chaired law professor and immigration expert at the Washington and Lee University in Virginia, echoed that sentiment.
"It is in our collective interest and in the interest of public health to take care of this population," she said.