Thousands Of Undocumented Workers Face The Pandemic Without A Safety Net Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for the unemployment benefits Illinois is offering to workers left jobless by the COVID-19 outbreak.
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Thousands Of Undocumented Workers Face The Pandemic Without A Safety Net

Thousands Of Undocumented Workers Face The Pandemic Without A Safety Net

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a record number of Illinois workers have filed unemployment claims with the office. But an estimated 280,000 undocumented workers in the state are ineligible for those benefits. Seth Perlman/Associated Press hide caption

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Seth Perlman/Associated Press

As the spread of the coronavirus amplified in recent weeks, Eva grew more concerned each day. She agonized about going to her job as a janitor.

And then last week, Eva made the difficult decision to stop working.

"This is worrisome and frustrating because our children depend on us," Eva said in Spanish. "But the fear of leaving the house to work and getting the virus and then passing that on to our children is scary, too."

WBEZ has agreed to use only Eva's first name because of her fears regarding her undocumented status.

Her husband works in construction and was laid off two weeks ago.

Eva has two children, a 16-year-old and a 9-year-old. She said the family doesn't have any money saved because the family lived day-to-day.

As the coronavirus pandemic has rocked the American economy, a record number of people have filed unemployment claims in Illinois and across the country.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security released rules this week outlining which workers qualify for unemployment benefits during the pandemic. The expanded benefits come as a welcome relief for many in Illinois temporarily left without work due to the outbreak.

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But the measure means nothing for tens of thousands of undocumented workers in Illinois — like Eva and her husband — who don't qualify for unemployment benefits. As a result, undocumented workers are left without a safety net, if they lose their jobs or if they decide to stay home to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19.

Eva's family is struggling. They have no savings. They're not paying any bills. Their monthly rent is $1,050, but she doesn't know how they will pay it. She is going to ask her landlord if she can pay for rent later. She hopes the landlord won't evict them.

Other family members can't help her because they're all in the same situation, Eva said. She's praying that she can go back to work soon.

"We don't have any income," said Eva, 34, who came to the U.S. from Mexico 16 years ago. "We don't have money to pay for rent or bills. This is really affecting us."

Like Eva, the pandemic brings undocumented workers face-to-face with the dilemma of choosing between their paycheck and their health.

"This puts them in a very difficult situation: either you have to continue working and expose [yourself] or you try to survive without a steady source of income," said Francesc Ortega, an economics professor at Queens College, a four-year college in the City University of New York system.

Due to their immigration status, their low wages and the nature of their work, undocumented immigrants have diminished prospects to earn a living, to take off work to seek medical attention and to get help as their resources wear thin during the pandemic.

It's unclear exactly how many undocumented workers there are in Illinois. However, borrowing the methodology used by Chicago demographer Rob Paral, a WBEZ analysis of 2018 census microdata shows that as many as 280,000 undocumented immigrants worked in Illinois that year, with the vast majority of them in the Chicago area.

And Ortega said many undocumented immigrants will keep working despite the health concerns posed by COVID-19.

"They are going to be out there working. If they don't have access to health care and protective measures that other workers may have, then that's making them particularly vulnerable," Ortega said. "That's, of course, a risk to them and to everyone else because it may increase contagion."

Undocumented workers make up about 3% of the annual GDP in the private sector. That's close to $5 trillion over a 10-year period, according to Ortega's research entitled, "The Economic Contribution of Unauthorized Workers."

Industries with the highest concentration of undocumented workers are found in agriculture, construction, hospitality and manufacturing, according to the report.

The fight for resources

The pandemic has only worsened conditions for many who've struggled with low wages and poor working conditions, said Leone Jose Bicchieri, executive director of Working Family Solidarity, a nonprofit advocating for low-income families and undocumented immigrants.

"The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the gross inequalities that exist in our society, but COVID-19 did not create them," Bicchieri said.

Organizations are trying to fill in the gap in services to low-wage and undocumented workers.

"We are working with other nonprofit organizations and foundations to channel emergency funds to the most vulnerable and desperate families in the Chicago region," Bicchieri said.

The Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund, an effort of the Chicago Community Trust and United Way of Metro Chicago, has raised more than $10 million in donations.

Earlier this week, the fund announced that an initial round of $3.5 million in grants would be distributed to dozens of area nonprofits. Those groups include several that provide services to immigrant communities in Illinois like Mujeres Latinas en Accion, the Hanna Center, and the Inner City Muslim Action Network, among others.

Immigration advocates note that the pandemic's impact goes beyond undocumented workers themselves. Most of these workers live in "mixed-status" families, where some members of the family are undocumented and others are either citizens or legal permanent residents. Nationally, about 16 million people — including 7 million born in the United States — lived with at least one undocumented family member between 2010 and 2014, according to the American Immigration Council.

The expanded public charge rule

Some immigrants, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients and those with a valid work permit, are eligible to receive unemployment benefits. And they can apply for them without jeopardizing their chances to become a U.S. citizen.

Under the public charge rule, immigrants who have received certain forms of government assistance — or who might receive those benefits in the future, as determined by the federal government — can be deemed a "public charge" and barred from obtaining a green card.

Last August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that the public charge rule would be expanded to include additional forms of public assistance. The rule now includes government assistance like food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid, among others. Opponents fought the move, arguing that it would make it more difficult for some poor immigrants to become legal permanent residents.

But the rule does not include unemployment benefits.

"Immigrants don't need to worry about the way this thing may affect their chances of becoming a legal permanent resident, as unemployment benefits are exempted from the public charge rule," said Militza Pagan, an attorney with the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

However, Ortega said he's concerned that some immigrants will remain too scared of the rule to get the help they need during the pandemic.

"If the administration makes available extra resources, because of the interpretation of the public charge concept, many people may be reluctant to accept those funds," he said.

María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ's Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow heron Twitter at @mizamudio.

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