Editor's note: To protect our source’s identity, The Alligator has decided to omit the full name of the undocumented immigrant in this story. Instead, she is addressed as “M.J.”
M.J. said she fears deportation every day – she has for the last 18 years. What she didn’t expect was the sudden threat of COVID-19 or the financial instability it would bring.
The fear she feels now is new. She works every day behind the front desk of a hotel and exposes herself to countless people who could have the virus. Then, she returns home to her 10-year-old son.
The last thing she wants is to give him the virus, she said. But without access to federal aid, it’s a risk she has to take.
"We cannot afford to stay home,” M.J. said.
M.J. is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras. She came to the U.S. 18 years ago to send money back to her mother and sister. First arriving in South Carolina, M.J. usually worked 17-hour days with jobs ranging from making mattresses in a factory to cleaning rooms in a hotel.
“As Hispanics, we came to work like crazy,” M.J. said. “We are the ones behind hotels and restaurants, working the long shifts.”
M.J. moved to Gainesville nine years ago with her former partner when he accepted a job opportunity in construction. She now lives in an apartment with her son, who is a U.S. citizen.
During the pandemic, M.J. lost weekly hours working at the hotel but said things are slowly going back to normal as the state lifts restrictions. However, she is still worried about being exposed to the virus at work.
M.J. is one of many with similar stories in Gainesville. According to the 2016 report from the U.S. Census Bureau, around 8,650 residents in the community are non-U.S. citizens. Of those residents, the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County said about 5,000 are undocumented.
Undocumented workers like M.J. are excluded from the $2 trillion federal coronavirus relief package passed on March 25 as they need a social security number to receive a stimulus check. M.J. also didn't receive the $500 bonus given for dependent children under 17, for her son.
“They very specifically excluded people related to undocumented immigrants from receiving that check,” said Anastacia Greene, an immigration clinical fellow at UF Levin College of Law.
Immigrants can register for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to pay taxes, but this number does not qualify them for a stimulus check.
Headquartered in California, The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund is one of many organizations suing the federal government for not giving aid to U.S. citizens in mixed-status families.
The fund argues that the coronavirus relief package is unconstitutional and discriminatory toward mixed-status families because it denies people their Fifth Amendment right to equal protection and due process.
“You do have constitutional rights, even if you’re undocumented, but a U.S. citizen is going to almost always have better results,” Greene said.
Undocumented immigrants worry about unemployment as they do not qualify for government benefits, Greene said. This fear has heightened amid the pandemic. Documented immigrants worry about unemployment as well, she added
“People who have a visa are just the same,” Greene said. “Well, ‘What happens when my visa expires, and I can’t get another job?’ Or ‘If I complain and they fire me, then I lose my visa.’”
More than five nonprofit organizations in the Gainesville community are working to bring these immigrants aid. Mary Elizabeth Ibarrola, the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) of Alachua County director of immigration concerns, said the organization is working with the Alachua County Labor Coalition, an organization calling for economic justice, to speak with families about their employment status. They are also asking workers if they are protected in the workplace and have masks.
The HRC is also speaking with families in partnership with Dream Defenders, a nonprofit organization that helps minorities, to ensure children have adequate resources for online education. Working Food, a non-profit organization with a food relief response plan, is also partnering with the coalition to deliver food and make sure families are adequately fed.
One of their biggest projects, Ibarrola said, is giving financial aid to 50 families in Gainesville.
“The stimulus relief situation is a big frustration, and we would ideally like for every undocumented person to receive those same kinds of funds that citizens and residents are receiving,” Ibarrola said.
The HRC has raised more than $20,000 in private donations through its website and PayPal. The coalition also submitted a $30,000 proposal to the City of Gainesville government.
Lee Feldman, the Gainesville City Manager, said he is working with local nonprofits to try to meet the needs of undocumented immigrants in the community. Federal and state restrictions do not allow the local government to give direct aid, he said
The amount the coalition will receive has not yet been finalized, Feldman said. Once decided, the money will be taken from Gainesville City general funds and go to the Community Foundation of North Central Florida, who will then distribute the money to the HRC.
With this money, Ibarrola plans to give each family a $1,000 check and said she hopes to begin distributing the money to families as soon as possible. However, she is worried the pandemic will have lasting effects on undocumented families.
“Even when the restrictions are lifted, we’re going to see that the industries where most undocumented people work have already been irreparably disrupted,” Ibarrola said.
Restaurants in Gainesville, like Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria, have lost revenue due to the pandemic. With indoor seating limited to 25 percent capacity, Ibarrola said people will still face unemployment and lower working hours.
The HRC and Feldman said they will continue collaborating with organizations in Gainesville to support these families. M.J. said she is not alone in Gainesville.
“Thank God there is a lot of support here,” she said.