Left behind: Immigrant communities try to navigate COVID-19 with language barriers, lack of resources

By: - March 19, 2020 4:12 pm

On the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it would limit enforcement action amid COVID-19 concerns, agents threatened to break a man’s truck window in a Cary parking lot to take him into custody.

Mariano Rosario-Rios and his daughter locked themselves in their truck Wednesday morning and called Siembra NC’s 24-hour ICE detention hotline for help while agents surrounded them and ordered they get out of the truck. They were in a shopping center parking lot.

“Do I really need to get out of the car? They’re telling me they’re going to break the window,” Rosario-Rios told a Siembra dispatcher.

Siembra NC is an organization of Latinx people, according to the group’s website, defending their rights and building power “with papers and without papers.” The group has  leadership teams in Alamance, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Orange, Randolph and Wake counties. If someone calls the organization’s hotline about suspected ICE activity, it will send volunteers to help.

The dispatcher Wednesday talked Rosario-Rios and his daughter through reviewing the detention order agents passed through the window. The dispatcher confirmed it was an administrative warrant, not a criminal judicial order, and advised them to stay in the car. An administrative warrant is typically signed by an ICE official without judicial review. A criminal judicial order is typically signed by a judge.

Within a half an hour, ICE watch volunteers from Siembra arrived along with a couple of journalists, and the agents left. Rosario-Rios is still expected to appear in immigration court, but at least for now he is home with his family and not in detention. 

The incident underscores the uncertainty immigrant and undocumented communities face with regard to ICE operations, particularly during a pandemic that requires social distancing for public safety reasons.

On one hand, the federal agency has reported scaling back enforcement and removal operations to instead focus on what ICE’s website states are “mission critical criminal investigations and enforcement operations as determined necessary to maintain public safety and national security.” Examples include child exploitation, gangs, narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, human smuggling and terrorism-related offenses.

However, advocates are still reporting unnecessary actions with an added layer of fear because immigration courts have temporarily shut down for public health reasons. Because of the shutdown, court services and hearings will be delayed.

“As far as we know, they have not stopped their normal operations,” said Juan Miranda, a lead Siembra organizer.

ICE has also stated that during the COVID-19 crisis, it will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, “except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.”

It’s not clear what would constitute an extraordinary circumstance, but the agency makes clear that undocumented individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear immigration enforcement.

Immigration advocates and attorneys are hammering the same message. They’re also emphasizing that seeking medical care for COVID-19 – the disease that is caused by the new coronavirus –  will not count against undocumented immigrants under the Trump administration’s new public charge rules.

“Public charge” is a term that refers to immigrants who the government believes will rely on public assistance. The new rule expands the definition of who would be considered a public charge so that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can “ensure applicants [for lawful admission to the country] are self-sufficient.”

Moises Serrano

“You should be seeking immediate help for the coronavirus if you believe that you have any symptoms,” said Moises Serrano, political director at El Pueblo, an organization specializing in leadership development for both youth and adults among Wake County’s growing Latinx community.

Serrano said the immigrant and undocumented communities are worried right now, and there isn’t a centralized place for them to get helpful information. 

Gov. Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services have established a COVID-19 webpage and have been putting out information daily. But while the live briefings are bilingual, none of the written guidance is in Spanish

“Right now it feels like we are kind of reinventing the wheel,” Serrano said, adding that local organizations, including El Pueblo, are scrambling to put out the same information in Spanish for people who aren’t fluent in English. “It does feel like the immigrant community and Spanish speakers, as we have seen in the past, are left behind with this.”

The immigrant and undocumented communities are being affected in may ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cancelled in-person services, which means people who had interviews to receive asylum, to get their green cards or to have their marriages certified for immigration purposes will have to keep waiting.

The Charlotte immigration court has ceased operation until April 10. Several U.S. embassies have also closed due to travel restrictions, which is particularly difficult for individuals who had a consular appointment to get back into the states; now they can’t return.

Undocumented workers who have been laid off or had their hours cut also can’t apply for unemployment benefits without a Social Security number.

“This is definitely having an economic impact,” said Andrew Willis Garcés, director of Siembra.

He said there is almost no aid right now for these individuals, but that several organizations are working on solutions. Siembra started an immigration solidarity fund earlier in the year for families impacted by ICE detentions, but Garcés said it’s been low all year because of increased activity.

Both Siembra and El Pueblo have been putting out vital information on their social media pages to educate and inform Spanish-language communities in North Carolina. The North Carolina Justice Center’s Immigration and Refugee Rights project has been doing the same.

Attorney Raul Pinto of the North Carolina Justice Center Immigration and Refugee Rights project.

Senior staff attorney Raul Pinto said the court and USCIS closures will have a profound impact on a system that is already under the weight of an enormous backlog.

“Closing the courts was the right decision, because we all have to do our part,” he said. “But obviously this is going to have a huge fallout for those people who need court services.” [Note: The Justice center is the parent organization of NC Policy Watch.]

When the government shut down in 2018 and 2019, Pinto said one of his client’s green card hearings was postponed for a year. He acknowledged that situation was very different from a pandemic but said they just don’t have a clear idea of how long people will have to wait for services or relief.

He recommended that anyone in the undocumented or immigrant community who is feeling seek medical assistance. He also said that if individuals are represented by an attorney, they should check in with them about the status of offices and the court before going to any appointments.

For more Spanish-language information about COVID-19, Siembra’s Facebook page, El Pueblo’s page or the Justice Center’s emergency information page.. Siembra’s 24-hour ICE activity hotline is 336-543-0353. Other initiatives organizations are working on include asking for a moratorium on all ICE detentions, asking for the release of vulnerable populations from detention and asking the federal government to approve all DACA renewals for the rest of the year.

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