Immigrants Forced To Choose Between Food On Table Or Legal Status

Jun 19, 2020

Immigration activists outside the Cheyenne ICE office at a rally in 2017.
Credit Juntos

Ana Castro was born in Mexico City and crossed the border with her mother as a child using a coyote- a person who smuggles immigrants across the U.S. border for a fee.

"We walked for days, and nothing came of it," she said "I remember my mom was eight months pregnant at the time. And now as an adult, I just don't even comprehend how she did that."

Ana is undocumented and a DACA recipient, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She lives with her fiance in Laramie and managed to keep both her jobs during the pandemic. But she couldn't work for five weeks, which created a real financial strain because Ana couldn't file for unemployment.

"We've never had a savings account. We live paycheck to paycheck," she said "There was a moment where our phones were disconnected because we couldn't pay."

Undocumented workers pay milions of dollars in state and local taxes every year in Wyoming. Yet they can't apply for food stamps or unemployment, and the recent Supreme Court decision hasn't changed that. On June 18, it issued a decision that extended DACA. Recipients, like Ana, can renew their permits to work legally and not fear deportation. But that decision is only temporary and doesn't apply to all undocumented workers.

"I still live in fear of what's going to happen. It's really humbling," Ana said "I wasn't documented for so long and I didn't apply for DACA until I was 21. So from six years old up until I was 21, I had been undocumented my entire life."

It's estimated that nearly 4 percent of Wyoming's population are immigrants, with 1 percent being undocumented. Many have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and have had to rely on local nonprofits, like food banks, to get by. But not every county has the same number of resources. Albany County, where Anna lives, is the poorest county in the state, with a poverty rate of 20.4 percent.

"I feel like here on this end of the state, we're just constantly fighting for resources," she said.

Albany County also has the highest food insecurity. Ana said that even reaching out for help from nonprofits can be nerve-racking.

"Will it expose us? Will it put us at risk? Sometimes they ask for a social security number and an address," she said "I understand that there's laws that are supposed to keep us safe, but with the state our country is in, we don't feel safe."

This fear is something felt by immigrants across the state. Antonio Serrano is the advocacy manager for the ACLU of Wyoming and a Latinx activist. He said that many immigrants are terrified to even go to the doctor.

"Because they were scared that if they went, they might get ICE called on them. This is just next level because this is people's lives," he said "And I understand for a lot of immigrant folks who are at risk for deportation, deportation could mean death."

In late March, the ACLU penned an open letter to Gov. Mark Gordon and prison officials asking them to temporarily cease raids during the pandemic. ICE detainees are often held in local jails before moving to larger facilities and Serrano said this is dangerous.

"It's horrible to have a family split apart by ICE, but it's even worse now," he said "The jails are not safe. Then they're moving from jail to jail across the county. They're not helping prevent the spread by doing this."

It remains unclear if raids have ceased, and Gordon said it's a federal matter.

Reily Ward is an immigration lawyer with Trefonas Law in Jackson and said without a valid work visa, immigrants do not qualify for unemployment. And even those with a valid work visa may choose not to apply because of a new federal law- the Public Charge Rule. It can disqualify people from obtaining legal status if they have a history of receiving certain kinds of public aid. Ward said it leaves families with a difficult choice.

"'Do we do everything we can to feed our family in the short run?' versus, 'Do we take steps to ensure that in the long run, we're taking the best action for our potential immigration case?'" she said.

The majority of immigrants in Wyoming work in food service, construction, agriculture, and on oil rigs. Though the exact number that have been let go since the start of the pandemic is unknown, Ward estimated it's likely quite high. Teton County reported the highest unemployment rate in the state for the month of April, and also has a large immigrant community. Ward added that while Teton County has more resources available, this comes with its own problems.

"We have a great nonprofit network in Teton County. Our whole community is very blessed by that. However, I do think that this is absolutely an additional stress on that system," she said.

Ana, the undocumented worker living in Laramie, said the Supreme Court decision gives her hope, but it's likely the Trump administration will try to end the DACA program again.

"I wish people could imagine being left with nothing. And no one to take care of you and provide for you. And being so desperate that you risk your life to find something better," she said.

 

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Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Megan Feighery, at mfeigher@uwyo.edu.