EVERETT — The undocumented workers who staff hotels, restaurants, farms and grocery stores are “essential” in name only, an Everett resident without papers said.
For the most part, they’re on their own — despite the crucial role they play in keeping the economic engine running.
“They’re risking their lives for folks,” said the undocumented woman, who wished to remain anonymous. “And they’re not being acknowledged by no one.”
The coronavirus pandemic has created a unique set of challenges for undocumented immigrants, crippling the industries that many of them work in and infecting them at higher rates than other demographics. While some have lost their jobs amid the COVID-19 crisis, others are continuing to work without protective equipment and health benefits.
Those who have entered the country illegally are also ineligible for most government assistance, even though they pay federal taxes. And undocumented residents who only speak Spanish must navigate language barriers to access the few resources available to them.
The Everett woman, though, said she’s lucky. Her business of selling watercolor paintings at events has collapsed as the pandemic has canceled fairs and festivals, but her friends and family are helping her and her 16-year-old daughter make ends meet.
“I’m not sure what I would be doing, to be honest, if it wasn’t for them. I would have to definitely figure something out. But I wouldn’t know where to start or who to talk to — who’s safe to talk to. Because you just don’t know these days.”
Undocumented immigrants who’ve suffered job losses and other financial blows during the crisis aren’t receiving weekly unemployment stipends. Nor are they getting $1,200 stimulus checks.
They aren’t in the same boat as legal residents, another undocumented Everett woman said.
“It feels like some people are on dry land, there are some folks who are on the boat and have unemployment, and we’re trying to swim along the boat,” she said. “We’re all impacted, but not everyone is as lucky to be on the boat.”
Instead, they are left to rely on food banks and other nonprofit organizations to get by.
“For a lot of us when something goes wrong, there’s a plan B, a safety net — whether that’s unemployment benefits, food stamps or (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families),” said Sara Boyle, director of Connect Casino Road, a nonprofit that centralizes services provided by other groups in one of the county’s most racially diverse neighborhoods. “There really is no plan B for these families.”
Even for the undocumented folks who speak English, misinformation and worries of deportation can keep them from asking for help, she said.
“We’ve had families that have been almost more willing to accept homelessness than rent assistance, because there’s a very high level of fear and distrust,” Boyle said.
At the same time, the public health crisis has hit Snohomish County’s people of color harder than white people, data suggests. Case rates among Hispanics were more than double that of white or Asian people, the Snohomish Health District found when epidemiologists reviewed roughly 1,100 of the some 3,000 cases the district has logged.
Even before the pandemic, undocumented immigrants struggled to access health care, people who work with the population said. Undocumented children are eligible for insurance through the state’s Apple Health for Kids, but most parents aren’t. Instead, they are largely dependent on clinics that serve the uninsured and emergency rooms; and if they do see a health care provider, it’s often when they have become very sick.
“Right now, with the coronavirus, I think the disparities are very clear. It’s painful,” said Lynnwood City Councilwoman Julieta Altamirano-Crosby, who serves on Gov. Jay Inslee’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs. “Many communities just feel disconnected. They have no idea what’s going on.”
Maria Behrens, of Everett Community College’s Diversity and Equity Center, works with some students who are undocumented. She’s seen them struggle to afford basic necessities before — but “never like this,” she said.
“This community is really hurting,” said Behrens. “I’m not sure that people know where to go.”
Another undocumented woman said her family lost its only source of income when her husband, who works in construction, was temporarily laid off.
They couldn’t pay last month’s rent on their Everett duplex, and they’re worried about paying next month’s, she said.
Other bills, too, are piling up.
“We’re running behind,” said the woman, who’s 37 and has four children.
She was studying early childhood education at the Everett college until the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools. She couldn’t focus on her class work when she was helping her kids with theirs, she said.
“I just couldn’t handle it. It was too much,” she said.
The Lynnwood-based WAGRO Foundation, which serves indigenous and marginalized Latino communities, recently received more than 300 applications for financial assistance, said Altamirano-Crosby, the president of the foundation. With grant money from a local COVID-19 response fund and another nonprofit, the foundation will help 110 Snohomish County families pay rent, she said.
A COVID-19 relief fund for undocumented people in Washington has raised more than $1.8 million. Individuals can apply for $500 to $1,000 from the fund, established by Scholarship Junkies, the Washington Dream Coalition and a host of other organizations.
The fund has received upwards of 1,300 applications requesting more than $1.1 million in aid from Snohomish County, said Paul Quiñonez, an organizer with the Dream Coalition. That’s the second-highest number of applications from any county in the state, behind King County, he said.
So far, the fund has approved applications from more than 200 Snohomish County families who will receive a total of $220,000, Quiñonez said last week.
“Really, this is one of the only resources that they can access,” he said.
Advocates have called on the state government to provide financial relief to undocumented immigrants, much like California has.
In April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state would provide $75 million in disaster relief assistance to undocumented residents who have been impacted by COVID-19 but are ineligible for employment insurance benefits and disaster relief funds due to their immigration status.
The nonprofit OneAmerica urged Gov. Inslee to create a $100 million “Washington Worker Relief Fund” for undocumented immigrants in an April 20 letter, signed by more than 400 organizations from across the state.
According to the letter, Washington is home to more than 250,000 undocumented immigrants who pay more than $316 million in state and local taxes each year.
“They are overrepresented in industries that have been decimated by the pandemic, including restaurants, hospitality, landscaping and construction,” the letter says. “Often living paycheck to paycheck, undocumented workers suddenly face the prospect of serious illness and complete loss of income, with no safety net.”
Many of those workers are having to choose between foregoing a paycheck and potentially exposing themselves, Quiñonez said.
They’re fearful to report the businesses to the state, though, because of their immigration status, he said.