Mari portrait

An undocumented immigrant living in Athens, Georgia, poses for a portrait in her home on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.  (Photo/Taylor Gerlach)

Mariela, the head of her household of six, was fired from her job at a local Athens restaurant on March 20 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Although she has lived in Athens for 20 years, Mariela was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and is not eligible for unemployment benefits, food stamps or government-granted stimulus payments.

With no access to health care due to her legal status, Mariela remains isolated in her home out of fear of going outside, getting sick and having limited access to healthcare.

“It’s scary. If I get sick, who’s gonna take care of me? Just because my mother gave birth to me somewhere outside of the U.S., I don’t have access to common resources,” Mariela said.

Editor’s note: Mariela and Benito’s last names have been omitted to maintain their privacy and protect them from repercussions due to their legal status.

Both Mariela and Benito were born in Mexico and are undocumented immigrants. Both have applied for U.S. citizenship and are waiting to be interviewed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Without citizenship or a work permit, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for unemployment benefits. They also are not eligible for health care benefits, such as Medicaid, because they do not obtain legal residency, a Social Security card, citizenship or a “qualified alien status.” Qualified alien status means the person was deemed a lawfully admitted permanent resident (LPR) under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

In addition, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — a federal program that assists low-income families with nutrional needs — unless they are refugees, lawful permanent residents or victims of trafficking, among other exceptions.

“If my government doesn’t acknowledge my community or offer help, who will?” Mariela said.

Since being fired, Mariela has attempted to find jobs that would allow her to work remotely to no avail. Her next-door neighbor makes monthly trips to the grocery store for her, and Mariela pays the neighbor with cash once the groceries are dropped off.

With no incoming paycheck in sight, Mariela is unsure of how long she can afford food — much less rent. She said she’s resorted to rationing food and prioritizing bills over food, medicine and other necessities.

Mariela said many immigrants are scared to go outside and don’t know where to be tested for COVID-19 if needed.

“I’m terrified that because I’m undocumented and I don’t have health care that I’ll just be an uncounted case,” Mariela said. “I’m scared of the virus killing me and it going unnoticed.”

As a factory worker, Benito, who has lived in Athens for 15 years, was laid off without unemployment benefits. He is now without income and is unsure of how much longer he can sustain his family’s needs.

Benito said life as an immigrant was already difficult but full of promises. Now he said he’s unsure of whether his family will have a roof over their head past this summer.

Benito said in the case of an emergency or a sickness, most immigrants don’t have access to a car, an insurance card, identification or a doctor to call.

“We don’t have options. We work and pay taxes like other people born in America, but I’ve been here 18 years, and I can’t get a doctor’s appointment covered,” Benito said.

For Benito, the nearest grocery store is 5 miles away. Without the ability to obtain a driver’s license, he walks 5 miles every week to purchase groceries for his family of five. Benito said he opts out of using public transportation as a precaution against the virus.

“After the outbreak, we were scared to take the bus, a taxi or Uber because of the virus. But I knew my family needed food so now I walk, rain or shine, to the store,” Benito said.

Since he is the only family member who leaves the house, Benito sleeps and self-isolates in the guest room as a precaution. He wears gloves and a mask on his trips to Kroger. Once he returns home, Benito places the groceries on the front porch for his family to retrieve and enters into the guest room through a side door.

Benito said minimum contact with his family is necessary because putting his children at risk without access to a primary doctor or a car could be “deadly and irresponsible.”

However, it’s been a week since Benito’s last walk to the grocery store after the Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition delivered enough groceries to last an entire month, he said.

Regularly, the AIRC offers free transportation to undocumented immigrants to work, school and other places with the Neighborly Drive Pool. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the drive pool has added the option to deliver donated food to families in need.

Formed in 2011, AIRC is a collection of Athens-based organizations focused on highlighting needed resources and justice for immigrant families.

The CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) fundraiser is another initiative created to help undocumented families in need due to the pandemic. The fundraiser was created by JoBeth Allen, a member of the Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition as well as Support for Immigrant Families in Crisis (SIFIC), both AIRC member organizations. 

“After the pandemic [began], the Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition met, and we realized these communities would not receive unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, health care and other resources to survive,” Allen said. “So that’s when we created the CARES fundraiser to support SIFIC.”

The CARES fundraiser is asking Athens residents to donate part of their stimulus checks to cover food, utilities and rent for undocumented families in need. Lesley Irizarry-Hougan, an immigration lawyer based in Seattle, said the fundraiser involving the stimulus paychecks is based solely on donations and therefore doesn’t face any legal issues.

Allen said the original goal was to allocate $50,000 total to the undocumented community. As of April 20, $16,000 has been distributed to 32 families, Allen said. Depending on the size, families have received approximately $400-800 each, intended to cover bill payments, Allen said. Families must apply to receive donations in order to verify their needs, Allen said.

Benito’s family of five received $800 to cover rent. He said this covered 50% of his bills for one month. Mariali applied to receive a donation from the fundraiser and hopes to use it to pay her rent and utility bills. She said she is behind on payments.

Allen said the greatest need in the undocumented community is funding to cover rent bills. Many of the families she’s met are service workers, small business owners or self-employed and now find themselves without an income. Allen said the families have to choose whether to cover rent and keep a roof over their heads or buy groceries.

Maria Gonzalez, SIFIC volunteer, said she felt it was important to help undocumented families amid the COVID-19 crisis. She said U.S. citizens receive assistance from the government or their employers and undocumented families don’t have many people to turn to. She said most of the families she has encountered said they never knew there was someone out there who would help.

“Most importantly, these families want to be heard, seen and valued,” Gonzalez said.

While Benito is grateful for AIRC’s assistance, he is fearful that as the virus spreads, his family’s needs will grow. Mariela said she fears that once the pandemic ends, it’ll be too late.

“People are getting help from the government to help them to survive. Unfortunately, undocumented people like me don’t get this help, and even after the virus is gone, I’m not sure if our finances, our homes and our health will survive,” Mariela said.

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