July 7, 2020

It’s all the Same Movement: Intersecting Immigrant Justice, the Covid-19 Pandemic, Housing Stability and the Movement for Black Lives

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Banner image: Keepoing Immigrants Housing and Safe: A Virtual Discussion

By Miriam Zuk, Enterprise Community Partners, and Debbie Liu, Metropolitan Planning Council

Immigrants and undocumented residents are at heightened risk of being impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and are being left out of many solutions. Long considered a gateway metropolis, the Chicago metropolitan region is home to over 1.6 million immigrants who today make up nearly 20% of the population. The surge in coronavirus cases in Latinx communities lays bare the heightened exposure and vulnerability of immigrant communities, due in part to precarious or unsafe work environments for essential workers and overcrowded housing related to the affordability crisis, making it hard for many to stay-at-home.

On Thursday, June 26, MPC and Enterprise Community Partners hosted a conversation with Fanny Lopez Benitez from Latino Policy Forum, Seri Lee and Maria Said from National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and Fred Tsao from Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to discuss the short and long term impacts of the COVID-19 on Chicago’s immigrant communities, necessary actions, and the intersections with the Movement for Black Lives. This conversation was the second part in a series on stabilizing housing for vulnerable populations during the pandemic co-hosted by MPC and Enterprise Community Partners.

Immigrant Communities Have Heightened Exposure and Vulnerability to Covid-19

Graph of Covid-19 test cases per 1,000 peopleAccording to data from Illinois Department of Public Health up to June 10th, the rate of positive COVID-19 cases in Chicago metro area zip codes with sizeable immigrant populations (>15%) is over twice the rate when compared to communities with smaller immigrant populations (<15%). The map of positive case rates tells it all—neighborhoods with a higher density of immigrant populations also have higher COVID-19 rates.

“The pandemic revealed a lot of the underlying cracks in the in the current system” - Fred Tsao

“It’s layer upon layer” - Fanny Lopez Benitez

 Map of positive Covid-19 casesThe assaults on immigrant rights and exclusion from federal relief have amplified the health and economic impacts of the pandemic on immigrant communities. As Maria Said noted, “these are not new issues… the pandemic is exacerbating already existing conditions that are in these areas.” Among the many factors contributing to the higher rates of COVID-19 for immigrant communities are: heightened exposure due to over-representation in essential sectors (construction, food service, distribution, etc.) and the prevalence of multi-generational households, due both to housing costs as well as cultural preferences. Immigrant, and especially undocumented residents, are also more vulnerable to the disease, due to lower access to affordable and culturally competent health care, higher incidence of pre-existing conditions, and fewer resources, magnified by their likelihood to work in “impacted” sectors that have suffered from layoffs and furloughs. “Folks are already having a really hard time saving just for emergencies. So this pandemic really caught the community off guard, unprepared for being able to to pay for this,” noted Fanny Lopez Benitez.

To add insult to injury, Fred Tsao noted the ways that undocumented and mixed-status households have been left out of many of the federal responses to the pandemic including exclusion from stimulus checks, challenges in filing for unemployment and barriers to accessing PPP loans. Because of this, panelists anticipated the long term impacts of the pandemic for the immigrant community to be devastating.

We need structural changes... the only hope we have of a better future is each other and building power and community - Maria Said, NAPAWF

Immigrant justice organizations have been advocating for additional resources and removal of barriers to programs and assistance for undocumented and mixed-status households with considerable success including ensuring that the undocumented residents could be eligible for City’s rental assistance grants, increased budgets for immigrant services and welcoming centers and the launch of a new COVID-19 Immigrant Family Support Project, among other wins. But, as Fred Tsao noted, “the most immediate gap is the resources just aren't enough… as we saw from the exhaustion of the ... initial city fund and the two billion dollar state fund. And we anticipate that $2 million dollars that we we’re getting for the immigrant services line is also going to go fairly quickly.”

Panelists also noted that many immigrant families avoid applying for rental assistance or other benefits out of fear that it could affect their immigration status due to the federal public charge rule. However, as Fred Tsao explained, rental and cash assistance do not count for public charge. The fear of incarceration and deportation is also pervasive in immigrant community, making them vulnerable to illegal lockouts and landlord abuses, resulting in housing insecurity at a time when it’s more important than ever. Fanny Lopez Benitez noted the protections achieved through the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act of 2019 prohibit landlords from evicting tenants due to their immigration status and that immigrants are not required to report their immigration status to police. Yet many families still do not know their rights making education, outreach and organizing increasingly important.

“All these issues… are all part of the same system… we need a world where policing, surveillance and imprisonment is not how we solve issues [or] take care of each other and make our lives better” - Seri Lee

When discussing the intersection of the immigrant rights movement with the movement for Black Lives, Seri Lee noted both the debt organizers have to Black Liberation movements. Many immigrants would not have been able to come to the U.S. had the black liberation movements existed, she noted. Lee discussed the parallel experiences of the devaluation and criminalization of lives for Black and Brown communities, noting also the disproportionate impact of the prison to deportation pipeline for Black immigrant communities.

“In order to work on bigger social change, we have to start with ourselves” - Fanny Lopez Benitez

All three organizations noted efforts to reinforce solidarity between the immigration justice movements and the Movement for Black Lives, but in order to do so, they agreed that they need to address the internalization of white supremacy within their own communities. As Maria Said noted, “We need to identify anti-black racism among immigrant communities, which exists... and see how we can address that among among our own.”

To learn more about the work these three organizations are doing to protect immigrants in the time of COVID-19 please visit:

Miriam Zuk is a Senior Program Director with Enterprise Community Partners. Debbie Liu is a Community Engagement Associate with the Metropolitan Planning Council. 

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