Kristin E. Yarris, University of Oregon*
Karla Schmidt-Murillo, Centro Latino Americano
(*corresponding author - firstname.lastname@example.org)
As one of us (Yarris) was planning on presenting a paper at this year’s SfAA meetings related to accompaniment work with immigrant community members to ICE check-ins and immigration court appearances, the cancellation of the meetings has given us the chance to reflect on how immigrant rights organizations in Oregon are responding to the public health crisis surrounding coronavirus. Both of us are involved with these organizations, Schmidt-Murillo as a program manager assisting with immigration legal services for a community-based, Latinx-serving, non-profit organization, and Yarris as a volunteer with this same organization. For the last two years, we have both been involved with an innovative legal advocacy program called Equity Corps in Oregon, which seeks to provide free legal representation to all immigrants in Oregon facing removal (https://innovationlawlab.org/programs/equity-corps-of-oregon/). This population includes immigrants with longstanding ties to Oregon communities, and relative newcomers, such as asylum seekers, who are technically “deportable” until their asylum petitions are ruled upon in immigration court. Both of us have also been allied to local efforts to utilize our city, County, and state’s sanctuary provisions to uphold “disentanglement” of local and state law enforcement with federal immigration enforcement activities. Additionally, the organization Schmidt-Murillo works for is one of long standing and connection to the local Latinx community and to statewide Latinx-serving organizations.
It is through these various roles that we both participated in a hastily-organized Zoom meeting of Latinx community organizations and service providers in Lane County, Oregon (where we live and work) on March 18, 2020. The meeting had been organized by CAUSA, Oregon’s statewide immigrant rights organization, and the aim was twofold: first, to determine what needs immigrant and Latinx communities in the County were experiencing in relation to the coronavirus and related social and economic impacts, and second, to develop a consensus platform of legislative demands that CAUSA would present to local and state legislators. During the meeting, educational service providers voiced concerns related to equity and access now that all Oregon K-12 schooling would be remotely-delivered. Other concerns expressed had to do with food and housing insecurity, and the lack of accurate information about coronavirus and COVID-19 available and accessible to immigrant communities and non-English speaking communities early in the outbreak. Further, service providers noted the toll that the Federal government’s public charge ruling had taken on local communities, deterring them from seeking out much-needed healthcare before and during the current public health emergency.
We share those concerns, noting from families with whom we work that there is a lack of clear public health information reaching immigrant communities in Oregon (https://www.opb.org/news/article/immigrant-communities-oregon-coronavirus-social-media-news/). Communities instead are using social media, especially Facebook Live, WhatsApp, and WeChat, to share information, which is not always accurate information. In our local County, the Public Health Department had made a resource page available in Spanish on their website, but service providers noted that, when non-English speakers called into the coronavirus hotline number that the Health Department had set up, often they were told to call back or that no one was available to answer them in Spanish. Given persistent budget cuts to state and local public health departments (http://thenationshealth.aphapublications.org/content/50/2/1.2?rss=1), the lack of resources available to make accurate health information available and accessible in languages other than English was not surprising, but still, in the context of the current public health emergency, the consequences are potentially devastating.
Of course, immigrant communities in Oregon and throughout the country persistently face multiple barriers to healthcare access, beyond the current pandemic. One step our state has taken to lessen those barriers is the development of the Citizen/Alien Waived Emergency Medical Care (CAWEM). An extension of the Oregon Health Plan, established in 2014, CAWEM provides coverage for non-citizen Oregon adults for emergency medical services and coverage for pregnancy, labor, and delivery services (http://www.dhs.state.or.us/spd/tools/program/cawem.htm). In a webinar on March 25th, officials with the Oregon Health Authority explained that undocumented community members should seek healthcare as they did prior to the current crisis. In theory, because COVID-19 represents a life-threatening health emergency, COVID-related testing and treatment should be covered under CAWEM (since CAWEM only covers emergencies, COVID-related care can only be accessed through emergency rooms). Of course we know that many undocumented community members will not seek formal medical care, but will attempt to manage their symptoms at home, some out of fear and intimidation related to the public charge rules. Other community members face barriers of distance that keep them from seeking care at emergency rooms. Those who do make their way to an ER and who are tested and confirmed to have coronavirus will have their medical care costs covered under CAWEM. However, for those who seek emergency room care but are determined to not have coronavirus, it is possible that the costs of their medical care will be billed to them (community organizations have tried to obtain assurance from the Oregon Health Authority that CAWEM will cover all coronavirus-related services, even for those who test negative for the virus, but there is still uncertainty about how this will play out).
One particular community of concern in Oregon during this public health crisis is the indigenous, Mam-speaking community from Guatemala, who live in the southern part of our County. Language barriers and cultural accessibility of public health information are particularly acute for this community, who very much live on the social and economic margins (most are employed as seasonal agricultural workers, and many are precariously-statused, either as asylum seekers waiting determination on their cases, or as undocumented labor migrants). Getting accurate health information to this community is very challenging, and it is unclear which channels of social media or information-sharing the community accesses. Most likely is that information is shared in the community via word of mouth, given a high level of mistrust of outsiders. This dynamic makes it very difficult to address the needs of the Mam-speaking community during the current public health crisis, and this is something community-based organizations continue to address. That said, one hopeful sign is that Oregon service providers were able to share resources in Mam put together by academic and non-profit organizations around the U.S. and shared and distributed by Alianza Americas (https://www.alianzaamericas.org/about/).
Another area of concern for immigrant communities in Oregon, and throughout the U.S., during the current health crisis relates to immigrants’ required check-ins at local field offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the time of the March 18 conference mentioned earlier, it was unclear whether ICE would continue to require in-person check-ins at the Eugene field office. Immigrants check-ing in at this ICE office always face deplorable conditions—including: inadequate waiting areas, insufficient translational services, and long lines in crowded and enclosed hallways—these conditions now also pose a clear risk of furthering coronavirus transmission. To arrive at the local ICE field office, immigrants in our surrounding counties face the challenge of transportation access, since many take public transportation or travel long distances from outlying areas, further exposing them to coronavirus risk and running against Oregon’s stay at home orders.
Therefore, immigrant service providers and advocates pushed for ICE offices and immigration courts to close completely during this public health crisis. On March 14, Centro Latino Americano signed on to an open letter to Portland’s Immigration Court and to Oregon’s ICE offices. The letter articulated four demands: first, that all ICE enforcement activities cease, second, releasing all those detained at the NW Immigration Detention Center in Tacoma, third, closure of the Portland Immigration Court, with an extension of all case deadlines without penalty, and fourth, Department of Homeland Security (which oversees ICE) and immigration court (which is overseen by the Department of Justice) should develop transparent plans to protect public health in coordination with state health authorities (https://innovationlawlab.org/media/Open-Letter-to-Immigration-Authorities-in-Oregon-FINAL-45.pdf?emci=b46ff6c5-aa6f-ea11-a94c-00155d03b1e8&emdi=6e8731f6-b16f-ea11-a94c-00155d03b1e8&ceid=928658). The letter framed the closing of immigrant detention and the cessation of ICE enforcement activities as not only preventing harm to immigrant communities, but also mitigating the spread of COVID-19 among ICE field officers and other civic authorities. The open letter was coordinated by the Portland-based Innovation Law Lab, the same non-profit legal services provider that spearheaded the Equity Corps program mentioned above, an organization that has become a true leader in immigrant justice initiatives in our state and across the country.
In response to the concerns expressed by advocates in Oregon and across the U.S., ICE issued a directive on March 18th stating that they would no longer pursue immigrants in what were formerly deemed “sensitive locations” (particularly: schools and hospitals). Of course, enforcement of federal immigration laws in and around hospitals and schools is always an unnecessary deterrent for communities accessing needed services to which they have a right to access. The obscenity of threatening immigrants with detention and deportation during a global pandemic only lays bare why immigrant enforcement should never target healthcare or other providers of essential services. Despite the March 18th ICE statement, as with so many inconsistent rulings of the current Federal Administration, members of the President’s cabinet have retreated from the ICE director’s decision and instead stated that they are not committing to protect “sensitive locations .” Of course, this sort of miscommunication only breeds more uncertainty and fear in immigrant communities, which may be precisely the purpose.
As volunteers and advocates, there has been a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty in our community related to ICE check-ins. Community organizations sought clarity from our local ICE office early in the outbreak about whether in-person check-ins would still be required, and ICE delayed in providing a clear response. Even after Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown issued a statewide stay at home order on March 23rd, ICE was still requiring in-person check-ins. Volunteers who accompany community members to their ICE check-ins have continuously called the local ICE office and received mixed messages about the requirement of in-person check-ins. During the week of April 6, phone calls to our local ICE field office finally seemed to confirm that in-person check-ins were no longer required, but that immigrants could call the office on their scheduled check-in dates in lieu of in-person check-ins. The great concern in the community is of course whether or not ICE will find migrants to be noncompliant with check-ins in the midst of all of this uncertainty and their cases will be negatively impacted. The community remains fearful about looming threats of ICE detention and removal and this generalized anxiety is shrouding a cloud of uncertainty over our community.
In the face of this vulnerability and uncertainty, immigrant service providers and advocates in Oregon have come together and acted swiftly to demand protections for the community. In addition to the letter demanding the closure of ICE offices and immigrant detention centers, another bold initiative has been the development of an Oregon Worker Relief Fund. The fund is a public-private partnership organized to assist Oregon families who are ineligible for the Federal stimulus package (essentially, all undocumented people and mixed-status families). The aim will be to identify and enroll these families into a statewide program, and provide them with much-needed economic relief using the Fund’s resources. Advocates are currently pressing for the state legislature to enact a bill to support the Fund, arguing that immigrant workers are on the economic frontlines of this pandemic, as restaurant workers, caregivers, farmworkers, grocery workers, and day laborers, working in these industries essential to the economic and social ability of the state to weather the impact of the pandemic, while they themselves remain vulnerable an unprotected. Additionally, it seems as though our Oregon Senators have heard advocates’ demands for increased protection and support of immigrant communities. As we write this piece, we have received word that Senators Wyden and Merkley have co-sponsored a bill, the Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act, to ensure that all communities have access to COVID testing and treatment, and to other services provided in federal relief legislation (https://www.wyden.senate.gov/news/press-releases/wyden-merkley-to-introduce-legislation-helping-immigrant-families-during-covid-19-public-health-crisis-) .
Our aim in this piece has been to briefly share what immigrant-serving organizations and advocates in Oregon are doing in the face of coronavirus to protect (im)migrant communities. We hope that these ideas inspire advocates and engaged anthropologists in other states and communities to continue their work to ensure that (im)migrant communities’ particular needs and vulnerabilities are taken into consideration during this time of public health crisis. It is our view that, as this crisis exposes the particular vulnerabilities of undocumented and (im)migrant communities, just as it makes other weaknesses in our health and social systems undeniably apparent, this is also a moment of opportunity that allows us to reflect on how to build systems of care that can better protect and support all members of society now and in the future.