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Know the West

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.