Undocumented Workers and the Pandemic

By Nicole Hertel Meirose & Leslie Davis

We work in the State of Wisconsin’s largest free medical clinic, here in Milwaukee, which primarily serves Spanish-speaking immigrants who have not been awarded legal status in our country. We both also share the experience of having worked along both sides of our country’s southern border and are continuing to communicate with people on the other side. During this global health crisis, immigrants around the world, including in our community, are bearing a heavy burden.

1.     Essential workers. Many of our immigrant brothers and sisters have found themselves on the front lines of this pandemic, doing essential work to keep buildings clean and safe, provide care for others, produce food and hygiene products, deliver essential items, and more. A recent article on CNN quoted California Governor Gavin Newsom, “That’s the occupational side of this — a disproportionate number of black and brown communities are… right on the front lines.”

2.     Unacceptable workplace conditions. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel eloquently stated: “For some Wisconsinites, staying home rather than heading to work is a luxury that’s out of reach.” What has surprised us are the number of individuals who have had to continue to work in construction and factories that produce products that in no universe would be considered essential. They were not given the option to not work, even if their health status or that of someone in their home posed risks. We’ve heard of many being told that if they did not appear, they would be fired. Many are expected to work over-time, presumably because their documented counterparts were opting out of work due to the virus. Finally, there are not adequate safety measures being taken at work around distancing and protective equipment.  In some instances, we were asked to call city health departments or police on their behalf to make anonymous reports. Immigrants are rightfully terrified about exposure to the virus.

3.     Higher infection and death rates. CNN stated: In California, Latinos represent 70% of all coronavirus related deaths within the demographic of those 18 to 49-years-old, despite making up just 43% of the population.  In New York City, Hispanics are dying at rates more than 50% higher than their white counterparts.  According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Latinos make up less than 7% of the Wisconsin’s population, but account for 29% of the COVID-19 cases.  Many fear that Milwaukee’s Latinos face a similar fate to its Black residents (an astonishing, shameful disparity). Wisconsin Health News:  “The near south side of Milwaukee, a part of the city with a high number of Hispanic and other immigrant populations, continues to be a hot spot for COVID-19.”

4.     Access to COVID-19 testing has been poor at best. Particularly in minority communities.  “These disparities existed before this pandemic.  But what we can do in this present circumstance is we have to, have to, have to test more people,” Governor Evers said in an interview.  “In order for us to do the best job possible serving the disadvantaged groups in this state who are disproportionately impacted by this virus, we have to test more.”

 5.     Financial suffering and exclusion from benefits. At the same time, immigrants have lost their jobs and income at high rates during this crisis. Hispanic unemployment sits at nearly 19%, an all-time high and higher than any other demographic. Most immigrant families are not eligible to receive the benefits of food stamps, unemployment, rent assistance, etc. for which we qualify. The CARES Act, which provided many of us with a nice sum to boost our bank accounts and the economy, specifically excluded our fellow taxpayers who are undocumented immigrants and households with mixed immigration status. Once again, they were left behind.

6.     Lack of access to crucial information. While many health organizations have made great efforts to create COVID-19 information in Spanish and other languages, there is still less available for non-English speakers and many of the translated materials haven’t been culturally adapted. WISN quoted Dr. Jeorge Ramallo of Sixteenth Street Community Health Center:  “Our culture is just so open and friendly. I think the messages about social distancing — handshaking and hugs — it’s something a little slower on the pickup.  A lot of the messaging wasn’t directed to the Latino community.” 

7.     Educational disparities for children. COVID-19 will almost certainly exacerbate the already existent education gap for Latino students. According to a recent comprehensive survey of Latinos conducted on the health and economic crisis our country faces: “…37% of Latino households have either no broadband internet connectivity or connect only through their phone. Among Latino families now home-schooling, 32% don’t have enough computers for their children to use, 35% have faced technical problems connecting. Worse, the burden is now on parents to assist and serve as instructor, yet 50% of Latino parents report having difficulty helping their kids with unfamiliar material and 58% are having problems communicating with teachers… just 11% of Latino households said their child’s school is providing technology.”

8.     Persistent anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. All of this is set against a backdrop of a presidential administration that has worked tirelessly to exclude and endanger our immigrant brothers and sisters for nearly 4 years: efforts to strip away DACA, inhumane conditions and deaths in detention, turning away asylum seekers, expanding the public charge rule (“wealth test”) and imposing income-based restrictions on immigration, heightened enforcement and border security, cuts to refugee admissions, religious-based bans on entry, endless anti-immigrant rhetoric and fear mongering. These efforts have not ceased amidst the pandemic: Trump has blocked new legal immigrant entry into the country, turned away thousands of people at the border without screening them for asylum claims, paused the issuing of visas, all but ending refugee admissions, ramped up construction of the border wall (to the tune of BILLIONS of dollars, even in an economy that has ground to a halt and a pandemic response that has failed on all fronts), and made efforts to decrease the pay efforts to decrease the pay of farmworkers.

We are living history as we speak, history in terms of a deadly pandemic like no one alive has seen before, and history in terms of the exclusion and mistreatment of so many members of our community. In Voces de la Frontera’s recent May 1st virtual event to honor immigrants and workers, spoken word artist Alejandro Jimenez said (in Spanish): “We (immigrants) have always been essential, not only as workers, but as people. We deserve… every opportunity to be able to flourish as a community and as individuals.” We couldn’t agree more. The time is now to raise our voices in solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters! We need to put our money, our words, our actions into the fight for justice for immigrants.

*  We must work for a fair November election and get out the vote.

*  We must advocate for health safeguards to be implemented at workplaces. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of Voces de la Frontera, said new safety protocols have been put in place only after workers and advocates spoke out about their concerns.

*  If you would like to share your government relief check with immigrant brothers and sisters who are in great need of it, please consider donating to the Ayuda Mutua Solidarity Fund for Wisconsin Undocumented Families.

*  A local community fund has also been set up to support immigrant families with paying rent. If you are interested in donating, please contact Leslie at

*  If you’d like to donate to efforts to support refugees fleeing violence, persecution and despair who are stuck at the U.S. – Mexico border, please contact Leslie at