In southwestern Colorado, immigrants face a dual crisis

A global pandemic, and no social safety net leave immigrant and mixed-status families fending for themselves.

 

In recent months — in the midst of the nation’s worst economic crisis since 1929 — the Trump administration restricted immigrants’ access to public assistance, including the coronavirus relief package. As a result, immigrants and their families are living through a global pandemic with limited access to basic necessities. 

15.4 million people were excluded   from the federal government's first rescue package.

Despite the fact that undocumented immigrants and their families often pay taxes, 15.4 million people were excluded from the federal government's first rescue package. In Colorado, this decision affected some 236,000 families, including 95,000 U.S. citizens who were denied checks because of their relationship with undocumented immigrants, whether as children, spouses or other close relatives. 

As a volunteer for Compañeros: The Four Corners Immigrant Resource Center, a nonprofit in Durango, Colorado, I see the economic toll these policies take on immigrants and their families every day. The majority of these families, many of whom are Latino, are ineligible to receive any public assistance because of the government’s “public charge rule.”

Although such rules are longstanding, the most recent versions restrict the path to legal status for immigrants who have used basic public assistance programs, including the food stamp program, or SNAP, Medicaid and unemployment — crucial safety nets, especially during a pandemic. The people I’ve met, most of whom had been employed in restaurants, hotels and other areas of our community’s service sector, suddenly found themselves without jobs. And they still have no idea whether or not they’ll have work waiting for them on the other side of this crisis. 

Brenda, Luis' wife, and Beatriz Garcia, the program manager of Compañeros make a food delivery. The organization has been redirecting their funding to assist families hit hard by job loss due to COVID-19.
Ben Waddell/High Country News

I've witnessed the devastating impact this has had on migrants and their U.S. citizen children and spouses, simply because they are not eligible for these government programs. Take Luis, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who has lived in La Plata County, Colorado, for several years. In early May, I dropped off a box of food at his home. I’d first met him several months earlier and gotten to know his wife and young daughter. Back then, in February, they were awaiting the birth of their second child; Luis had steady employment, and his family was considering moving into a better apartment. Since then, life has taken an unexpectedly dark turn. Luis’ work hours have been drastically cut and, despite paying taxes for years under an individual taxpayer identification number, his family is ineligible for public assistance, including unemployment and coronavirus assistance money. Luis, who could no longer make rent payments, had to move his family into an abandoned trailer with broken windows and no appliances. He’s managed to keep a surprisingly positive outlook, but admits that every day is a struggle. “I don’t know what we’ll do if I lose the rest of my hours,” he told me on a rainy Sunday afternoon as I helped him hang a new window in what is now his home.

Luis and his family are not alone: Latino families throughout the U.S. are being forced into subhuman living conditions. Across the board, minorities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In New York City, for example, the first epicenter of the virus in the U.S., COVID-19 is killing people of color at much higher rates than white people. COVID-19’s mortality rate within Black and Latino communities in New York City is 84 people per every 100,000 residents, compared to 35 per 100,000 for the general population. Last month, the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 infection rate surpassed those of both New York and New Jersey, previously the U.S. epicenters. 

In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 brought the United States economy to a halt and in the process disrupted millions of lives. In just over two months, unemployment rates have gone from a near-historic low of 3.6% to a modern high of 14.7%. The Latino community has been particularly hard-hit, registering an unemployment rate of 19% — the highest in the nation — even as it’s excluded from public safety nets. Latino immigrants and their families now represent one of the most vulnerable communities in the country. 

These numbers give some context to the silent humanitarian crisis we are dealing with here in Durango, Colorado. At the same time, they shed light on the Trump administration’s systematic efforts to force immigrants out of the United States by restricting their access to basic necessities.  

In order to change this, concerned citizens will have to elect officials with stronger moral compasses. Our local and federal governments need to work harder to provide equity for brown and Black communities across the West and the country, so that people like Luis and his family can weather this economic and public health crisis. If a more progressive world awaits us on the other side of this crisis, we must demand change now.

Benjamin Waddell is a writer and an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College based in Durango, Colorado. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Wild Rockies Field Institute is seeking a visionary Executive Director to lead the organization in Missoula, Montana. Individuals with a proven track record in...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • ARIZONA PROGRAM MANAGER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks an Arizona Program Manager. The Arizona Program Manager works...
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...