How living undocumented in Michigan is more challenging during COVID-19 pandemic

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The pandemic has altered the way undocumented immigrants live in southeast Michigan, pushing some further to the fringes and challenging how they seek help or pay for groceries and other necessities, advocates say.

Resource groups say they are flooded with requests and worry about reaching the growing numbers of impacted families during the crisis.

They point out undocumented immigrants who are out of work don't qualify for unemployment or federal relief checks that many Americans have relied on in the pandemic.

Even worse, they say, reaching out for food stamps or other government help could jeopardize their chances of obtaining legal status in the country. 

A sign reading "No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor," outside of fundraiser Luz Viviana Meza's home in Detroit.

"We realized early on that a lot of the (government) relief efforts and programs ... have intentionally excluded undocumented community members, despite the fact they work, pay taxes and provide to the fabric of our community," said Fatima Tayebi, assistant programs administrator for the African Bureau of Immigration & Social Affairs.

"They have been blocked off from accessing food, medical testing, and basic necessities to survive."

Many of the areas of the economy where they worked — hospitality, restaurants, greenhouses, landscaping, dairy farms — have closed during the coronavirus outbreak. Now, out of work and disqualified from unemployment, many are turning to family or charity.

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, Zaman International and Detroit Hispanic Development Corp. are focusing on helping undocumented families during the crisis, representatives said.

The Pew Research Center estimated 100,000 undocumented immigrants lived in Michigan in 2016, the latest year for which there are statistics, a decline of 45,000 from the previous decade. More than 70,000 citizens live with at least one family member who is undocumented, according to the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

Darleen McCoy, of Detroit, puts a bag of food in the rear of a vehicle at Zaman's Hope for Humanity Center, Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Najah Bazzy, founder and CEO of Zaman International, an Inkster nonprofit that aids women and children in poverty, said they are struggling to keep up with the crush of phone calls for help amid the crisis.

"Our phone calls are coming in two ways, either for food and security but also coming in from families who have come from refugee crisis situations," she said.

"...We’re working on both fronts. We’re trying to manage all of that and keep our doors open and trying to maintain the integrity that we have, our core values and as responsible stewards to our donors."

'We're not going to let you starve' 

Juan Carlos Dueweke-Perez, a Mexican immigrant who obtained his U.S. residency two years ago and has been involved in Detroit communities, has teamed up with other immigrants to help struggling families. They are becoming more vulnerable as the crisis grows, he said.

"One of the ways you (gain) leverage on a crisis like this is you consolidate resources and rely on family, but it’s dangerous because if there’s something that spreads quickly, you risk the safety of your entire family and others," he said. 

"You don’t go to the doctor or do anything that would involve taking your name and putting it on record."

And they are reluctant to call their utility company or others who bill them for services, something citizens who would have to prove hardship might not hesitate to do. 

"One of the things I never felt comfortable doing when I was undocumented was calling DTE or the water department and asking for an extension because that would make me look vulnerable," Dueweke-Perez said. "It would take away the possibility of changing my status; it wasn’t worth the risk."

Dueweke-Perez and his three co-fundraisers started a GoFundMe to support families who have lost income during the COVID-19 crisis. They have raised more than $40,000 and rely on referrals from religious institutions and neighbors to find families who need help.

Fundraisers, Luz Viviana Meza, Maria Ibarra-Frayre, Juan Carlos Dueweke-Perez and Catalina Rios, gather before distributing funds to families in Detroit and downriver on Monday, April 6, 2020.

► More: Michigan filmmaker produces Netflix series 'Living Undocumented' for firsthand stories

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Ypsilanti is helping with resources for the 5,200 Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals recipients in the state who have been in limbo since 2017, when President Trump announced the termination of DACA.

Courts have kept the program alive for those who rely on it for temporary protection from deportation and work authorization. Meanwhile, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos blocked DACA recipients from receiving aid from higher education funds in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act relief package, approved by Congress last month.

The center serves immigrants who work in many of the areas of the economy shut down during the pandemic: hospitality, restaurants, greenhouses, landscaping, dairy farms, and those who are not eligible for unemployment benefits.

Making maneuvering through the hardships of the pandemic more troublesome, federal immigration rules may make it difficult for some immigrants to obtain status as a legal permanent resident if they access government benefits. The possibility leaves many hesitant to go to the doctor’s office or apply for food stamps, said Eva Alvarez, public policy coordinator at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

"Not only are these barriers encountered, but parents (are) wondering if there will be food security for them and their children; (there’s a) fear of going to medical facilities due to their immigration status and a lack of identification or driver’s license," she said.

ABISA's Fatou-Seydi Sarr taking aid requests. The background shows a tracking system with family initials, how much money is being sent and what for.

The African Bureau of Immigration & Social Affairs in Detroit said they have helped 53 families through a Facebook fundraiser. The requests for aid, it said, seem endless. After screening, the bureau sends checks directly to landlords and utility companies, or to families who've asked for food and other necessities.

Tayebi said while local small-business grants through Wayne County don't require proof of citizenship, the applications can be lengthy and not available in multiple languages such as French, which many African Bureau of Immigration & Social Affairs members need.

"We hear far too often from families that 'we might go hungry, but at least there’s still a roof over our head,' " Tayebi said."Detroit is an epicenter of the outbreak and to be black, an immigrant and undocumented, you can’t catch a break. Someone needed to say, ‘We’re not going to let you and your families starve.’"

Friendship House in Hamtramck is remaining open with the help of online donations so families in the city can access an emergency food bank.

Meanwhile, Friendship House in Hamtramck remains open with the help of online donations so families in the city can access an emergency food bank. Patrons must bring a utility bill or show proof they live in the city.

Are deportation efforts still happening?

Trump tweeted on April 20 that he would sign an executive order to temporarily suspend immigration to the U.S. in response to the pandemic. The details have not been disclosed, and it’s not clear who would be affected.

Some don’t seek care fearing, under the new Public Charge Rule, immigrants who use public benefits can be denied a green card. The rule doesn’t apply to permanent residents renewing their green cards, but misinformation is stopping people from getting care, Alvarez said.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently encouraged tried to allay fears, telling anyone, including undocumented immigrants, to seek medical help if they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. 

ICE officials said it wouldn’t penalize green-card applicants for getting treatment or testing for COVID-19. 

A woman and child are escorted to a van by detention facility guards inside the Artesia Family Residential Center, a federal detention facility for undocumented immigrant mothers and children in Artesia, N.M, Sept. 10, 2014.

ICE has said it will not carry out enforcement actions at or near health care facilities, and said individuals should not avoid seeking medical care.

Detroit ICE said it has temporarily adjusted enforcement posture so its highest priority is to promote life-saving actions and public safety activities. 

“I want to emphasize that immigrants, regardless of their immigration status, can access medical treatment through federally qualified health centers," said Alvarez of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. "Immigrants should not be afraid to seek medical services for them or their children during this crisis."

Dueweke-Perez said based on his and others' experiences, undocumented families wouldn't trust hospitals that require them to leave their families at the door, as is the case for COVID-19 patients who are admitted.

Offering anonymity and help from familiar community members is vital because families "can't take that risk even when they need it most," he said.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.