Minnesota undocumented population fears being overlooked in COVID-19 response

Minnesota's undocumented population fear being overlooked in state's COVID-19 response, facing layoffs and health risks with little to no safety net. Photo by Getty Images.

Minnesota’s population of nearly 100,000 undocumented immigrantsmostly Latino and from Mexico and Central America — is anxiously bracing for the economic and health fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As Minnesotans hunker down under Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-home order, this population of Minnesotans is grappling with fears about how they will survive a public health crisis that is expected to bring sustained economic pain. 

“Without health insurance, I know if one of us gets critically ill or ends up hospitalized, it’ll be a big bill,” said one Mankato woman now taking extra precautions at the townhouse she shares with her husband and two young daughters. 

“When he gets home from work, his clothes immediately go into the wash, he showers and I disinfect all the common spaces in the house,” the woman said in Spanish. She asked not to be identified to protect her family from immigration authorities.. 

Because they lack authorization to work in the country, undocumented immigrants will not be eligible for state unemployment insurance, nor the $1,200 per-person payments coming from the federal government. Many also lack health insurance and are not eligible for programs like food stamps and Medical Assistance. 

Nearly 300,000 Minnesotans have been idled from their jobs, mostly workers in restaurants, hotels and other service-sector jobs that have long been home to undocumented immigrants who seek a toehold in the American middle class.

And yet many of these immigrants will continue working, deemed “essential” workers in key jobs vital to the country’s vast economy of food production and distribution.

Immigrants, advocates say, are the unrecognized critical workers in the pandemic, deemed essential because of their role in producing and bringing to market the country’s fresh food supply. In California, undocumented farmworkers letters from their employers attesting to their essential work. 

In Minnesota, families and individuals who lack legal status told the Reformer they are worriedly cobbling together meager earnings to pay rent and stay healthy with little to no social safety net available to them compared to the average Minnesotan. 

For now, the 25-year-old Mankato father who works in a job classified as “essential” continues working, cleaning food manufacturing plants throughout Minnesota’s west-central region. He lacks a drivers license, but carries a letter from his employer identifying him as an “essential” worker, his wife said. 

“We hope that’s enough for the police,” his wife said. “His job sustains our household.” 

A Walz administration official said law enforcement agencies have been advised to educate people about the order, which carries with it a potential $1,000 fine or up to 90 days in jail. 

The disease does not discriminate based on country of origin or lack of legal status, and its continued spread is alarming advocates who fear this vulnerable population will be disproportionately affected. Nonprofit leaders and organizers are pooling resources and sharing information with families who have long toiled in the shadows. 

Through nonprofits who work to serve this population, many end up turning to the office of state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, who. represents a senate district of 81,000 people but serves this other vast constituency, as well. 

“She is a senator of south Minneapolis and Richfield, but she’s the statewide senator for the Latino community, because her office welcomes everyone,” said Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, executive director of Navigate/Unidos MN. 

Unidos MN has been working to provide Spanish-language resources for immigrants — including food bank locations — and encouraging them to contact utilities for economic assistance. Facebook is the main way Unidos directly reaches undocumented Minnesotans, many of whom are active on the social network and is it as their primary source of news. They also livestream official press conferences to provide information in Spanish to their followers.

Torres Ray acknowledged the lack of state services available to undocumented immigrants, but said she nonetheless encourages people to report issues, like unscrupulous landlords or employers violating Walz’s executive order, to her office so she can direct them to the appropriate government agency. 

“People suffer in silence in our community,” she said, attributing that tendency to cultural and religious customs. “A lot of us are Catholics, so you suffer in silence. You just work harder and you take care of yourself and your children. In Minnesota we share that culture with the Germans, and yet here we are not being understood and valued.”

Torres Ray and other lawmakers are currently considering their next COVID-19 legislative response, with bipartisan calls for rental and mortgage assistance. Undocumented immigrants are largely shut out of state programs, except in case of medical and housing emergencies like imminent eviciton

A Maplewood college student who is currently in his last semester of his undergraduate degree program said his life was disrupted as both his classes shifted online and he was laid off from his job as a housekeeping supervisor. 

The 29-year-old said he was ineligible for the Obama-era program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that granted legal status to immigrants who came here as young people because he was older than 16 when he first arrived.

He lives alone and has been applying for jobs since he was cut from work. So far, he’s been unsuccessful. “I haven’t had any luck,” he said.

Undocumented immigrants, the Augsburg College marketing major said, are being overlooked. 

“We’re the future of this country, especially Minnesota,” he said. “We have so many people working in the restaurant industry, we are not being taken care of. We are boosting the economy from the ground up and to just delete us from the map, I think is disgusting.”

He said he is challenging education systems to open their resources for students in the whole state. “They can do this, we can do better,” he said.

Many Minnesotans will be eligible for expanded unemployment benefits and forthcoming economic stimulus checks approved by Congress as part of a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 response package. 

As the IRS prepares to issue those checks to households who file taxes each year, immigrants without Social Security numbers will be excluded. Many immigrants, however, still pay taxes using IRS-issued taxpayer identification numbers. 

“We don’t qualify for any unemployment, despite paying taxes each year,” said one Shakopee housekeeper, 44, who is raising a teenager with her partner. The native of Mexico explained she files income taxes using an IRS-issued taxpayer identification number. “It’s unfair in that regard.”

They also lack health insurance. “It’s like our hands are tied,” she said. 

She was laid off from a Holiday Inn three weeks ago and is worried about paying rent on their trailer space in May, having just barely managed April. “If this continues, we will not be able to cover rent in the future,” she said in Spanish.

Her chief concern however, is what might happen if she is hospitalized. “We don’t qualify for anything and there’s no real help for us,” she said.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.