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As coronavirus spreads, undocumented immigrants are losing jobs with no financial safety net

Vanderleia da Silva is a 53-year-old housecleaner and undocumented immigrant from Brazil who has lost all 20 of her clients.
Vanderleia da Silva is a 53-year-old housecleaner and undocumented immigrant from Brazil who has lost all 20 of her clients.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

As Congress hammered out a $2 trillion stimulus plan to help those left jobless by the coronavirus pandemic, some of the most vulnerable were once again invisible: Not a penny will go to millions of undocumented immigrants, many of whom work in the hardest-hit industries of restaurants, hospitality, and retail.

They are the hourly employees who work as cooks and dishwashers, cleaners and clerks. They are among the more than 250,000 unauthorized immigrants in Massachusetts who account for about 5 percent of the labor force, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

These immigrants typically pay taxes but don’t qualify for stimulus checks or unemployment benefits, which are reserved for US citizens and those legally authorized to work in the United States.

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One East Boston family of three went from two incomes to none on March 6 when both parents lost their restaurant jobs the same day. They’ve got enough savings — about $1,200 — to last a month.

“I see the president speak. I see the governor speak about programs and support,” said the mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she does not have legal status. “I know those programs and support are for Americans. They are not for us.”

She and her husband, who arrived on a travel visa from South America six years ago, worry about putting food on the table and paying their rent, but they won’t seek government assistance because they fear deportation. They just want to work again. Still, they wished they qualified for help, given the dire situation.

“I don’t want to be forgotten,” said the mother, speaking Spanish through a translator. “As immigrants, we shouldn’t be left behind.”

A family from East Boston who arrived from South America six years ago embraced as they posed for a photograph. Both parents lost their jobs on March 6 due to the coronavirus pandemic and they won't qualify for unemployment benefits or stimulus money because they are not legal residents.
A family from East Boston who arrived from South America six years ago embraced as they posed for a photograph. Both parents lost their jobs on March 6 due to the coronavirus pandemic and they won't qualify for unemployment benefits or stimulus money because they are not legal residents. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Her worries are shared across Massachusetts by hundreds of thousands of immigrants — documented and undocumented alike — who are wary of seeking government help for fear of being targeted for deportation, said state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat from Boston.

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“There has been such an accumulation of fear-mongering over the last three-plus years,” she said.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies and aggressive enforcement have fueled anxiety about deportation, and documented immigrants are also on alert because of new hurdles, enacted this year, that penalize potential citizens who access government assistance programs such as food stamps and public housing.

Concerns continue to linger, immigrant advocates said, even though federal immigration officials have said they will not conduct routine enforcement operations at or near health-care facilities such as hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices during the coronavirus crisis.

Unemployment benefits also will not count against the so-called “public charge” test for immigrants who must show they can support themselves, according to the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.

Still, it has been ingrained in some undocumented immigrant circles that applying for unemployment benefits is taboo.

"Filing for unemployment is a third rail,” said Diego Low, a coordinator at MetroWest Worker Center, which advocates for worker rights. “It’s a sure way of calling [Department of Homeland Security’s] attention.”

Congress’s economic rescue package aims to boost unemployment benefits, put direct cash payments of $1,200 into the hands of eligible taxpayers, and extend relief to nontraditional employees such as gig-economy workers like Uber drivers. These measures, however, won’t help undocumented workers, and immigration advocates are disappointed that more hasn’t been done to help this group.

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“We are happy to see the stimulus package but are concerned that immigration status has not been addressed,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, a group that has been fielding hundreds of calls from documented and undocumented workers who have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic.

That leaves undocumented workers fending for themselves and relying on nonprofit efforts, such as the MassUndocFund and Restaurant Strong Fund. Since last week, Restaurant Strong has helped 250 workers in need — giving them each a $1,000 cash grant.

One area that immigrants, regardless of status, should not worry about in Massachusetts is seeking testing and treatment for the coronavirus. The state is requiring insurers to cover the full cost of testing, counseling, and treatment; no copayments or deductibles for these services will be applied.

However, skepticism runs deep, immigrant advocates said.

“There’s a possibility that people who get infected are not going to reach out to health care, potentially until the last moment, until they’re trying to access an emergency room,” said Alexandra Weber, chief program director for the International Institute of New England, a nonprofit organization that offers resettlement, education, job help, and pathways to citizenship for immigrants and refugees.

“I’m afraid people won’t get the level of service they deserve,” said Weber, who added that institute staff have made more than 1,500 phone calls to reach out to clients about their options.

Dr. Julia Koehler, who chairs the Immigrant Health Committee of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she is worried that unauthorized immigrants will suffer disproportionately during the crisis.

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“They have been staying away from any official entity for years because they are afraid their information will be passed on," said Koehler, an infectious disease specialist who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “Some have never gone to the doctor since they came here.”

The ramifications for the health of the general public are enormous, she said.

“I find it deeply distressing and really heartbreaking. I cannot emphasize enough how this puts everybody else at risk,” Koehler said.

“These people are petrified. They do not have the space in their brain right now to think about what does social distancing mean, what does cleaning my hands mean, what is droplet transmission,” she added. “As we care for them, we are caring for ourselves.”

Koehler helped circulate an online petition to Governor Charlie Baker, signed by more than 2,500 people including hundreds of health professionals, that urges the state "to make clear that it is safe to seek appropriate medical care” and that immigrants “requiring isolation and treatment will be cared for and not punished.”

Those immigrants include Vanderleia da Silva, a 53-year-old housecleaner and undocumented immigrant from Brazil who has lost all 20 of her clients.

She has no income, no safety net, and no way of knowing what the future holds for her household of four in Medford.

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Da Silva spends her days cleaning her own apartment now, rationing the two to three weeks of food she has stocked for her 15-year-old son, a friend, and the friend’s mother.

If anyone in the home contracts the virus, da Silva said, she does not know what she will do.

“Of course, I’m afraid. I’m losing everything," she said.

“For now, we have a lot of food at home," da Silva said. “But last night I couldn’t sleep until 2 or 3, staying up and thinking about everything. What are we going to do?”


Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.