‘Living on the edge.’ For Coast Latino immigrants, pandemic has heightened uncertainty

By Isabelle Taft, The Sun Herald, Tribune Content Agency

In the three years since Mrs. Garcia— fled Guatemala, she had built a good life for herself in Biloxi. She found work as a housekeeper at a hotel. She and her baby daughter lived near her sister, whose school-age daughter was doing well in her classes.

The Coast was “a safe place, a nice place,” where people were respectful and Garcia felt safe, far away from the abusive husband she had escaped. When the pandemic began in March, however, life became unpredictable. Garcia was laid off from her job, and agonized at the thought of getting sick. Back in Guatemala, her family was still relying on money she had sent home. There was no safety net.

“We don’t have the ability to say anything about it,” she said, speaking with an interpreter. “We simply live life, try to continue our life like it is, the best we can, with the help we can get.”

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For undocumented immigrants on the Coast like Garcia, the pandemic brought financial catastrophe and the terror of illness, with none of the support available to American citizens: undocumented immigrants are not eligible for unemployment and could not receive stimulus checks. For many, simply seeking health care could seem dangerous — either financially untenable with no health insurance, or too likely to attract the attention of immigration authorities. To survive, people relied on each other, and on a network of nonprofits and religious groups that provide services to Spanish-speaking immigrants on the Coast.

One such organization is Magnolia Medical Foundation, a nonprofit that works to address health disparities in Mississippi. At the Biloxi office, Mireya Alexander helps connect Latino immigrants to health care, broadly defined.

She makes doctors appointments, often tags along to interpret, and holds classes on diabetes prevention. During the pandemic, she also has coordinated food assistance and served as a conduit for information about the coronavirus and Mississippi policies and resources.

“It’s wonderful to be in this country, as they tell you. But on the other hand, it is not as easy to live in the country when you do not have the language,” Alexander said. In interviews, providers like Alexander said the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges facing the Coast’s Latino immigrants, and raised the stakes of long-standing issues like the language barrier, health care access and financial uncertainty. “When people are living on the edge already, it’s particularly devastating to have something else hit them,” said Mary Townsend, executive director of El Pueblo, a nonprofit that serves immigrants on the Coast.

For Garcia, life in 2021 is somewhat back to normal. She is working again, now cleaning offices instead of hotels. She is still afraid of getting sick. And she remembers that period in the late spring when she did not know how she would pay her bills, and there was no one coming to help.

“We work,” she said. “We pay taxes for the work we do. And then it was very heartbreaking for me to see that everybody else got help but us.”

Business up, then down The beginning of the pandemic was a time of panic, which turned out to be good for business at La Norteña, a Latin American restaurant and grocery store in Biloxi. The shop opened in 2007, when members of the Sandate family moved from Arlington, Texas, because they heard there were good business opportunities in Biloxi. Before the pandemic, customers from Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras visited the shop’s money transfer counter to send $40,000 to $50,000 back home, every single weekend.

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In mid-March, as the American economy shut down, jobs in the hospitality and restaurant industry disappeared, and a mysterious disease became an invisible threat, La Norteña’s customers agonized. And they bought a lot of groceries.

“Especially mothers, they were scared, coming to my store crying,” said Rosalinda Sandate, who runs the grocery store. “They’d say, ‘Masa: if you find that product give me three bags.’ My sales went up because people were scared.”

After that first wave of buying, business declined to almost nothing. Now, it’s back up again, Sandate said, but many customers are still out of work, or afraid to go back to their jobs. Coast jobs draw immigrants Job opportunities have long drawn immigrants to the Coast. Hispanic immigration to coastal Mississippi began to grow in the 1990s, when Mexicans arrived for jobs in casino construction or the forestry industry.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, people arrived from Latin America and other states to help rebuild the devastated Coast. Though many people moved on when the wave of construction work dried up, many others stayed, and the Latino community continued to grow after Katrina. The number of Latino people living in the southern six counties of Mississippi grew from about 8,000 people in 2000 to at least 26,000 in 2019, according to census records.

Mississippi was one of just six states where the Hispanic population increased by more than the overall state population from 2010 to 2019. As of 2018, the most common countries of origin for immigrants in Mississippi are Mexico (23%) and Guatemala (10%). The most common industry for those workers is accommodation and food service: two areas of the economy that have been particularly affected by the pandemic.

When Garcia lost her hotel housekeeping job, she and her sister started making and selling tamales. They also relied on food provided through Alexander’s organization. With children out of school, there were more people to feed during the day. The cabbage, potatoes and onions could be stretched to make many meals.

“That save us the money to address other needs, and that’s what’s important,” Garcia said.

With so many people out of work and unable to access government assistance, the social services and networks of community support on which people rely to make their way in a new country came under severe strain. The economic crunch lead to migration. Allison Hanson, director of language access programs at El Pueblo, said many clients moved in with relatives to save money on rent. Others moved to other states. Some, unable to work, returned to their home countries. More people may have chosen to do that, but had no money to pay for the trip.

In October, Garcia returned to work. She feels more comfortable cleaning offices than hotels.

“The truth is I have to go to work,” she said. “The day-to-day bills can’t wait. We have to pay them… and I thank God that I could find a job that is less risky.”

Health anxieties for undocumented immigrants For undocumented immigrants living on the Coast, the cost of getting sick can be particularly high. Alexander said she talks with many people who are afraid to seek health care.

“Part of their fear is being caught by the police, being caught by somebody that is going to say they are not citizens, or legal people here, and the other part of the fear is no health insurance,” she said.

Anxiety in the immigrant community in Mississippi has been especially high since August 2019, when ICE conducted the biggest workplace immigration raid in a single state in American history. At seven poultry plants around the state, ICE arrested 680 people, mostly Latino immigrants. Madeline Casey, a community organizer with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), said the ICE raids shaped Latino Mississippians’ experiences of the pandemic.

“I would start with the ICE raids last year because I think that created a mistrust and fear,” she said. “So when the pandemic struck, they’re still afraid to access medical attention.”

Finding doctors and nurses who speak Spanish can also be challenging, advocates said. At Coastal Family Health Center in Biloxi, where patients pay for services on a sliding scale, about 60% of patients are Hispanic, said Medical Director Dr. Wendy Williams. Many patients work jobs where staying home for 10 to 14 days is not an option.

“Getting a COVID diagnosis is really hard because they can’t miss work,” Williams said. “Convincing them, and the families, of the importance of quarantine and then isolation is difficult, just because of the language barrier, but also there’s so many other barriers that are out there.”

Coastal Family employs Spanish-speaking nurses and interpreters. When a Coastal Family patient receives a COVID-19 diagnosis, they get check-up calls every few days. For Spanish-speaking patients, the clinic will provide an interpreter on the line during those calls. According to state health department records, 10 Hispanic people have died of COVID-19 in the state’s lower six counties, including five in Harrison County and three in Jackson County.

“At first, I did not believe in the pandemic,” Rosalinda Sandate said. “I thought it was something political. But when I see a customer pass away, and then another, I was like, ‘This is real.'” The Sandate sisters remember one customer: a man from Mexico, working a construction job. In June or July, Yaresi Sandate recalls, he got sick with COVID-19 and died. He had no family on the Coast. “He used to come here, cash his checks and go home,” Yaresi Sandate said.

His friends from work raised money to pay for his cremation and send his remains home to his family. They put a little jar on the counter at La Norteña for donations. The sisters can’t recall his name, and they think his friends may have moved on, to jobs elsewhere. Sharing COVID information in Hispanic communities During the pandemic, organizations have also found that one critical resource they can provide, beyond money, food and health care, is information.

At Program Believe, a nonprofit that offers English and citizenship classes for Latino immigrants in Biloxi, Xenia Wickline hosted a series of “Red Tent Talks” to share facts about the coronavirus and issues that have arisen during the pandemic. With Spanish-speaking presenters or simultaneous interpretation, the events covered mental health challenges like depression and anxiety in adults and children, and how the pandemic has affected immigration processes.

Another session broached a sensitive topic: how to plan for funeral arrangements in case someone in your family dies.

“This is something very important that nobody wants to talk about,” she said. “But with all this happening, it’s important.” The talk was a success, Wickline said, in part because it was straightforward, and not “too terrifying.”

Rocio Duenas, the Infinity Funeral Home employee who made the presentation, said she wanted to help in part because she is an immigrant herself, originally from Peru. “One of those things is you don’t think much ahead because you’re just trying to survive,” she said. “You don’t have health insurance most of the time, life insurance, almost never.”

Though people like Alexander have seen community needs close-up since the pandemic began, there’s little hard data about how it has affected Latino people in Mississippi. In the last few months, Alexander has worked on a project funded by the National Institutes of Health that she hopes will yield more “scientific” information.

She helped organize focus groups of Hispanic Mississippians to discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has affected their lives. Researchers are currently analyzing and compiling the information, which will help inform outreach to the Hispanic community.

“What we’re looking for is to find the fears, the perceptions and the risk behaviors that people can have over the coronavirus,” she said. Addressing vaccine access inequity That information may be particularly useful when it comes to ensuring Latino Mississippians have access to the coronavirus vaccine.

So far, Latinos have received only 1% of all vaccine doses in the state, though they comprise 3% of the state population. The health department has held Spanish-language town halls to share information about the vaccine and answer questions.

The department is also aware of what Selma Alford, a member of the department’s Health Equity Response Team, called “fear” in the Hispanic community. She said the department is aiming to ensure COVID-19 vaccine and testing sites are accessible and welcoming as possible.

“We want them to see us as, we’re here to help, not hurt you,” said Alford, who speaks Spanish and moderated the Spanish-language discussions.

In part to ensure undocumented immigrants in Mississippi still have access to the vaccine, the state does not require an ID or Social Security number to make a vaccine appointment.

That approach stands in contrast to the posture of leaders in other red states. In Florida, proof of state residency is required to get a vaccine. Nebraska’s governor made national headlines when he said that undocumented workers in the state’s meatpacking plant would not be eligible for the vaccine, before backtracking to say they would be able to get it, but at the back of the line.

But mistrust is hard to overcome. Mayra Ramshur, a victim advocate coordinator at El Pueblo, recalled a recent free COVID-19 testing event at the Seabee base. “When they saw the uniforms, they weren’t interested,” she said, because the military uniforms evoke ICE. They turned around without getting tested.

*The Sun Herald is identifying Garcia only by her surname at her request because she does not have legal status in the U.S. and fears retribution.

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