California’s most vulnerable immigrants have faced unprecedented challenges this year, and some knew if it’s worth it to stay in the United States altogether.
Ten months of a pandemic that made immigrants overly ill and devastated some of the industries that rely on immigrant labor, combined with years of anti-immigrant policies by the Trump administration, exacerbated insecurity for undocumented people and immigrants who works with low wages in California.
For immigrants at the bottom of the economic ladder, it has never been so easy in the U.S., said Luz Gallegos, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group Training Occupational Development Educating Communities Legal Center (Todec).
“But California has also always been a place where my family – my parents and grandparents – believed they could build a better life,” Gallegos said. He was born into a family of immigrant activists and organizers. “It’s always been a place with potential.”
Until this year.
“There was so much fear and trauma – just low trauma,” she said.
Workers at mega-farms and massive warehouses across the Inland Empire and Central Valley in California – many of whom are still struggling through the worst parts of the pandemic, despite coronavirus outbreaks at many facilities – visited Gallegos for advice on what to do when they get sick.
One family she spoke to recently asked her if there was a community clinic where they could treat Covid instead of the provincial hospital. As green card applicants, they were concerned that if they sought government health care, their permanent right of residence could be denied because of the Trump administration’s so-called “public indictment” rule, which allowed the government to deny immigrants who rely on public benefits residency. Gallegos said she tried to explain that they would not disqualify going to a county hospital – and a federal court recently blocked the rule to implement it. “I told them you had to think about your health first. You will no longer use a green card if you are not alive, ”Gallegos said.
But they could not endure the uncertainty. The grandmother, mother and two young children therefore moved across the southern border. The children, both U.S. citizens, can still cross the border to go to school.
“It’s not even that the country is no longer welcoming, it’s no longer an option,” Gallegos said. “I hear it all the time from people here and from friends and family in other countries.”
Javier Lua Figureo returned to his hometown of Michoacán, Mexico, three years ago, after living and working in California for a dozen years. Since the pandemic hit, several of his friends and family members have followed his lead, he said.
“Things are not perfect in Mexico,” Figureo said in Spanish. But there is at least access to health care and some unemployment benefits for those who need it, he added. “Compared to what it was in the US, the situation for us currently in Mexico is much better.”
Although coronavirus detection data in California do not detect immigration status, studies and surveys have found that the pandemic has taken an excessive toll on the state’s immigrant population. Or, as UC Berkeley researchers put it: “Although the virus is blind to people’s citizenship or visa status, immigrants can be particularly vulnerable to infection, serious illness, financial hardship and hateful discrimination.”
Immigrants are likely to work on the front lines of the pandemic, such as health workers, grocery stores, delivery managers and farmers, where their chances of contracting the virus are particularly high. A third of all doctors are immigrants, and so are the country’s at least half of the farm workers. It is estimated that 75% of California farm workers are undocumented immigrants.
Even before the Trump administration implemented its anti-immigrant policies, and even before the pandemic hit, non-citizens had less access to health care and health insurance, as well as safety net programs such as food stamps and unemployment. In May and June, they did not get the $ 2000 stimulus test that most Americans received with a Social Security number.
A $ 125 million fund to send a one-time cash grant of $ 500 to workers without legal status quickly dried up and was a drop in the bucket. The governor of the state, Gavin Newsom, has laid a bill on a bill that would provide low-income immigrants $ 600 for groceries.
“It feels like discrimination,” said Pedro, 41, who works on a cauliflower farm in Riverside, east of Los Angeles. In March, he lost his job and could not rent. And since California has a surge in coronavirus cases, he said he still does not know what he would do if he or his wife contracted Covid-19 – they have no health insurance, and without legal documents they do not feel safe after the province-free test sites go.
Meanwhile, it unnerves him to see border patrol agents across the city. “I’m afraid to even buy things for my daughters,” he said in Purépecha. The Guardian does not use Pedro’s surname to protect him and his undocumented family members.
There is no extensive data on how many immigrants decided to move back to their homelands.
According to a recent analysis of U.S. census data by UC Merced researchers, the total immigrant population – including naturalized citizens, documented and undocumented immigrants – in the U.S. fell by 2.6% in 2020, the largest percentage in two decades. In California, the immigrant population has fallen by more than 6% from, according to the report, about 10.3 million in 2020 to 9.7 million this year. The report is based on the Census Bureau’s monthly population survey of 60,000 U.S. households. Researchers say they are waiting to see if the trends will continue in a larger survey by the Census Bureau among millions of people, which has not yet been completed.
Travel restrictions from the pandemic and barriers to legal immigration, deportations, as well as dire economic conditions and a lack of access to safety net programs for unemployed migrants, could explain these numbers, demographics told Guardian.
“The only precedent for this kind of decline in the immigrant population was the Great Recession,” said Edward Flores, a professor of sociology at UC Merced, who conducted the analysis. At the height of the recession, in 2009, the immigrant population fell by 1.6% before being readmitted.
Whether the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S. and in California specifically is declining is hard to bother, said Julia Gelatt, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington DC. People without legal status respond less to surveys, especially people who they say are related to the government.
Throughout American history, there have been “periods of inclusion and periods of exclusion,” said Rubén G Rumbaut, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. National crisis and economic recession have sometimes caused xenophobia and hostility towards immigrants. “If there is a perception of threat, it becomes easier for leaders to manipulate the masses into scapegoating foreigners,” he said.
“But the economy in California, even more so, is heavily dependent on immigrant labor,” Rumbaut added. “And once the pandemic is under control, immigrant labor will be essential for economic recovery.” Joe Biden’s incoming administration – as well as lawmakers in California – said he would do well to recognize that.
For Pedro, Biden’s victory in the election brought a sense of relief. For now, “I’m not thinking of going back to Mexico,” he said. His sister – who was away when she could not find work in southern California – regrets it now, he said. There is even more scarce work across the border. There’s still a good reason so many immigrants have come or want to come to California, he said: they come to work.
“I’m here to take care of my family,” he said. And he hopes it will be a little easier to do in the coming year.