“They told me to stay at home, don’t go out, and when I can no longer breathe, call 9-1-1 for them to pick me up,” Cano said.
The collapse of the U.S. economy brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the extreme vulnerabilities of millions of undocumented workers like Cano, who are disproportionately employed in industries undergoing mass layoffs as well as high-risk jobs that keep society running while many Americans self-isolate at home.
Many of the undocumented, working in construction, restaurants and other service sectors, have already lost their jobs. Others, in industries like agriculture and health care that have been declared essential, work in jobs that typically require close quarters or interacting with the public, putting them at higher risk of getting sick.
Unlike many American workers, undocumented immigrants can’t count on the social safety net if they lose their jobs or get sick. Most do not have health insurance or access to paid sick leave — putting them and the people they encounter at risk. Most aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance or the cash payments included in the $2 trillion relief package Congress passed last month — even if they pay taxes or their children are U.S. citizens.
“The government has announced it was going to support people affected by the coronavirus but that’s for Americans — not for people like us who are undocumented,” said Cano, who applied for asylum in November. “My fear is if I seek help, this country will see me as just trying to take advantage of the system.”
Cano said she had been a police officer living a middle-class life in Guatemala when a gang tried to kidnap her teenage daughter, and she fled with her two eldest to New York.
She was just five days into a three-month job at the Seaport transforming what had been a temporary winterscape into a summer oasis when the contractor pulled her crew aside on March 20 and told them not to return.
Soon after Cano got sick, her daughter developed a fever, too. So did her boyfriend. Unable to seek care, Cano spent five days in bed and remains quarantined in her Brooklyn home.
Construction had been a step up for Cano. When she first came to the U.S. more than a year ago, she patched together a living at a Salvadoran restaurant, earning $50 for 13 hours of overnight work cleaning and preparing pupusas for delivery. When the till came up short, she said, the cashier would dock the difference from Cano’s earnings. One night, she made so little that she had to borrow the $2.75 bus fare home.
Last June, she became a day laborer in construction — doing demolition work, painting and the finishing touches. She made $150 per nine-hour shift — enough to support her 17- and 16-year-old and still send money back to the 11- and 7-year-old she left behind with her mother.
Now, she is broke — with no savings and no income. She felt heartsick during a recent phone call home, telling her mother that no money would be coming this month.
The Brooklyn community job center where Cano and other day laborers used to gather each morning is deserted, like similar centers around the country. New contracts, now fielded over the phone, have dropped from about 20 a week before the coronavirus crisis to around five, said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, which runs the center.
“I’m trying to figure out how to find another job, but I’m not healthy — and there are no jobs," Cano said. "At this point, I’m looking for anything just to support my kids.”
Once she recovers, Cano plans to sell homemade tamales for $3 each — the way she supported her family over the winter when construction work was slow. She hopes it will be enough to cover their groceries.
“I cannot go back to Guatemala,” Cano said. “I’d be sentencing my kids to death.”
The 7 million immigrants without authorization to work in the United States make up just over 4 percent of the country’s labor force, but account for at least 12 percent of workers in construction, 10 percent in hotels, and 8 percent in restaurant and food service — among the hardest hit sectors in the pandemic, according to an analysis of 2018 Census data by New American Economy. The analysis shows that undocumented immigrants also make up 14 percent of agricultural workers and 7 percent of home health aides, two industries considered critical to the health of the U.S. economy and its citizens during the coronavirus crisis.
Researchers and industry groups say undocumented laborers are significantly undercounted and comprise more than half of the workforce in some occupations, such as farmworkers.
“A lot of undocumented immigrants will be hit first — and worst — by this recession,” said Orson Aguilar, director of economic policy at UnidosUS.
In the absence of a federal safety net, advocates from California to New York are pushing cities and states to provide economic relief to workers regardless of immigration status. Some have begun cobbling together funds to help undocumented workers pay rent and buy food.
Even workers who thought they had stability are discovering that no job is secure in the coronavirus-induced recession.
Juan, a 36-year-old head cook at a diner in Berkeley, Calif., saw his hours cut in half — to just five hours a day, for takeout and delivery only — once the governor ordered the state to shelter in place.
He donned a mask and gloves when he left for work and sanitized all equipment at the restaurant before touching it, fearful that he’d carry the virus home to his 9-year-old daughter, who has asthma.
Then last Friday, he learned that the restaurant was shutting its doors, even for takeout.
“I’m in shock,” said Juan, who asked that only his first name be used because of his immigration status. “I was kind of afraid to go to work, but now I don’t know what to do.”
Others say their undocumented status prevents them from demanding protective equipment as they continue to go about their jobs.
The 36-year-old farmworker, who came to the U.S. from Monterrey, Mexico, when she was 15, brings her own liquid soap from home and uses drinking water to wash her hands during breaks.
She works alongside migrant workers who live in crowded quarters at a labor camp and who she fears wear the same dirty clothes all week because they don’t have laundry facilities on site.
The county health department has instructed the farmworkers to work six feet apart — an edict she says is impossible to follow when they unload plants from the trailers to bring into the nurseries. For one week, her employer took workers’ temperatures. But no longer.
The mother of four follows a strict routine when she returns from work — removing her shoes outside, washing her clothes daily, and not allowing her children to hug her until she’s taken a shower “because I’m not sure if I have the virus or not.”
The backdrop for many of the undocumented is the fear of deportation — despite a recent commitment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to halt most enforcement during the coronavirus outbreak, especially near health-care facilities.
“That provides little comfort,” said Anu Joshi, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition. "ICE field offices have a lot of leeway in moments of crisis to implement their own prioritization rules.”
Others worry about jeopardizing their chances to gain permanent status in the U.S. The administration implemented a rule in February that would make it more difficult for low-income immigrants, including those who entered the country legally, to become permanent residents if they have received public benefits, including health coverage for the poor such as Medicaid. But it recently made an exception for those seeking medical attention for the coronavirus.
The most terrifying part of Lydia Nakiberu’s day has become her two-hour commute — on two trains and a bus — to her job as a home health aide outside Boston.
She shoves her hands in her pockets so as not to touch anything, wears a mask, scrubs her hands every chance she gets — but worries about spreading the virus to the 86-year-old man she cares for. Or to her family.
“They tell us, ‘When you get sick, you have to go to the hospital,’ but all the undocumented domestic workers I know are so scared that ICE might get their information and come for them,” said Lydia, 41, who does not have health insurance.
Both Lydia and her husband, Jerry, are undocumented immigrants from Uganda who have raised their children — ages 13, 12 and 8 — in the United States. Jerry spent three months in an immigration detention center in 2012 after losing an asylum case and missed the birth of his youngest son.
At the nursing home where Jerry works as a nurse, masks are rationed, with caregivers allotted just one for the entire day. They have gloves, but no protective gowns. He thinks the government should be doing more to help workers on health care’s front line — even if they are not authorized to work.
“They need us more than ever before,” said Jerry, 54.
Perhaps when this is all over, he said, the American public will recognize how undocumented immigrants risked their lives to help during a time of crisis. In another burst of optimism, he said he hopes that the government would grant legal status to parents of U.S. citizens and other immigrants who have long paid taxes.
But until then, Lydia said: “We are scared about the virus. We are scared about ICE. We are scared about almost everything right now.”