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Massachusetts immigrants hit hard by COVID-19 economic losses, safety concerns, new survey says

Three-quarters of the state's immigrant families reported at least one lost job in their household.

Cinthya Torres placed canned goods into boxes for a food distribution at the Chelsea Collaborative. The organization was among the members of the MIRA Coalition that conducted a survey to better understand how COVID-19 has affected immigrant families in Massachusetts.
Cinthya Torres placed canned goods into boxes for a food distribution at the Chelsea Collaborative. The organization was among the members of the MIRA Coalition that conducted a survey to better understand how COVID-19 has affected immigrant families in Massachusetts.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

COVID-19′s disproportionate impact on immigrant communities extends beyond health, with immigrant families in the state suffering high unemployment rates and 76.4 percent of respondents to a new survey reporting at least one job loss in their household, according to the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

Advocates and public officials said the survey commissioned by the coalition reflects the devastation they have witnessed in their communities and underscores the need for continued investment in immigrants and the organizations that serve them.

“Immigrant families face the same distress as all working-class Americans, BUT it’s exacerbated by their exclusion from crucial safety-net programs and stimulus payments, and for the undocumented, by limited work opportunities and pervasive fear,” a MIRA Coalition statement said.

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The survey, conducted throughout July and answered by more than 400 households online and over the phone, highlighted concerns about food and housing insecurity, COVID-19 testing, and personal safety.

“This was the first quantitative assessment that was done looking specifically to all immigrants across Massachusetts,” said Eva Millona, CEO of the MIRA Coalition. “We knew what was going on, but now we have the hard data to show this is real. And we hope that the policymakers at local state and federal levels will look into this carefully, and this will inform their decisions.”

More than three-quarters of survey respondents reported at least one job loss in their household. Temporary workplace closure or staff reduction was the primary cause, with half of respondents saying such changes had cost a household member his or her job.

Another 21.5 percent said someone in their household stopped working due to fear of getting infected with COVID-19. Loss of informal work opportunities — including domestic work and gig economy jobs — and lack of child care were other leading causes of unemployment.

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But despite significant employment losses, immigrant families reported difficulties receiving unemployment benefits. Just 30.4 percent of those who reported job losses collected benefits.

Advocates said this gap reflects a broader pattern of immigrants’ needs not being met by public resources.

Undocumented immigrants cannot claim unemployment benefits, even if they pay taxes. Of those with legal status, many fear that seeking assistance will endanger undocumented relatives or risk their own status down the line. Due to the pandemic, the federal government has temporarily suspended “public charge” standards that can deny visa and green card applicants who have sought aid, but many immigrants remain wary of ever-shifting rules.

“The fear is real and present,” said Millona. “People who were going to get food [assistance] were worried about, ‘How will that affect my family, or my application for a green card?’ ”

Only one in four households surveyed said they had enough to eat without seeking help. More than one quarter said they were behind on rent and worried about losing housing. That figure increased to 45.6 percent for households with at least one undocumented member, which accounted for more than a third of households surveyed.

These figures are significant, but not surprising, said Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative. The collaborative quickly realized the toll the pandemic was taking on its community, she said, and mobilized to open a food pantry that feeds more than 3,000 community members each week.

“Responding to the need — we didn’t think about it twice,” Vega said. “[The pandemic] has made our city more vulnerable and more marginalized, but we’re doing everything that we can and competing until the end.”

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Even employment does not equal security for many Massachusetts immigrants. Commuting to work raises another set of fears: COVID-19 infection and racial discrimination.

Though the majority of currently employed respondents said they have proper protective gear and health measures in their workplace, 23.1 percent did not feel adequately protected. Just 7 percent of working respondents reported feeling safe commuting on the T. Fewer than one in 10 work from home.

Commuting raised another fear: One in five said they worried they would be harassed or attacked based on their race on their way to work.

“This is heavily an experience of the Asian respondents,” said researcher Marion Davis, but she added that Latino and Black respondents also reported such fears.

The 433 households who responded represented 1,087 adults and 536 children. Forty-four percent were identified as Latinx, 32.6 percent were Asian, 16.0 were non-Latinx Caribbean, and 12.5 percent were Black or African-American. White, North African, Middle Eastern, and Sub-Saharan African immigrants accounted for the remainder.

MIRA conducted the survey in conjunction with coalition members and partners, including the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, REACH, Immigrant Family Services Institute USA, Agencia ALPHA, Brazilian Worker Center, Chelsea Collaborative, and Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence.

The coalition presented the survey results Friday morning over Zoom, along with a list of policy recommendations. Several focused on expanding state and federal benefits to ensure that immigrant households can access relief regardless of immigration status. The group also called on the state to invest in multilingual public outreach to better inform immigrants on public health resources.

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The need for better communication about COVID-19 testing was clear. Of the 91 respondents who said someone in their household got sick, only 30.8 percent said all members of the household got tested. Some feared “public charge” labels, while others lacked insurance or accurate information about the availability of testing.

“We have to keep the messaging up and keep up that work prioritizing [immigrants]” even as the pandemic seems to wane, said Marty Martinez, Boston’s chief of health and human services.

Millona of the MIRA Coalition said she is hopeful that policymakers will further invest in meeting immigrants’ needs. She also said she has faith in the continued strength of Massachusetts’ immigrant communities.

“It was really powerful to hear how powerful they are, how resilient they are, how courageous they are,” she said.


Dasia Moore can be reached at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore