Central American-US migration in times of COVID-19
he pandemic seems to have substantially shrunk
Central American migration to the United States,
truncating or deferring family reunification projects.
The figures reflect both panic about the virus and the fact
that policies limiting mobility in their home countries
are doing more to deter migration than the US measures.
The stories of four Central Americans already in the US,
two in Virginia and two in Los Angeles, provide a real
sense of how immigrants are coping with the
pandemic in those very different states.
José Luis Rocha
The coronavirus pandemic has turned the planet up-side down and disrupted all our lives. The globalizing of social and economic dynamics screeched to a paralyzing halt. Airlines suspended flights, tourism collapsed and imported products are increasingly less available. Capitalism isn’t in a coma, as some wanted and proclaimed, but it is wobbling and at times barely dragging itself along.
Migrant flows aren’t escaping the sludging of global dynamics. How are the plans of Central Americans searching for the “American dream” being affected? And how has life changed for migrants already living in the United States? To get a glimpse of these realities I talked with two Salvadorans, one Guatemalan and one Honduran, all of whom I’ve known for years. Two of them live in Virginia and the other two in Los Angeles. Two have now regularized their migration status, while two haven’t. Their stories in times of the pandemic offer viewpoints surely shared with many other migrants.
Are more or fewer migrating now?
What has happened to the scale of Central American migration since the coronavirus was recognized as a pandemic? We know about caravans of migrants from the isthmus still headed for the North even during the pandemic, but those people are only a tiny proportion of the total who undertook the same journey prior to it.
Since the means for measuring unauthorized Central American migratory flows are quite unreliable, given how massive and spread out the movement is, it’s useful to turn to indirect calculations. One also questionable but telling indicator is the number of migrants detained by the authorities in Mexico, where the “migra” recorded a notable drop in overall migrant detentions in the first half of 2020: 64% fewer than in the same period of 2019. That percentage is almost the same for Central Americans, who make up 84% of the total. Central Americans accounted for 91,082 detentions between January and June 2019, but just 34,128 for the same months of this year.
The breakdown by country was different, however, with migration dropping by 70% among Nicaraguans and 57% among Guatemalans, just to mention the two extremes.
Based on these figures we can hypothesize that the migratory flow of Central Americans fell to a third of its normal level. An interesting fact that backs up this supposition is that the drop was gradual, month after month during the period. In January, before the pandemic, 12,447 Central Americans were detained in Mexico, but the figures then dropped to just over 7,000 in February and March, 2,533 in April and only 1,874 in May. There was a slight increase in June, to, 2,033, perhaps due to a certain relaxing of the panic the pandemic has generated. It remains to be seen if this reversal will continue.
The gringo “migra” figures
We can also compare the figures of Mexico’s migration authorities with those of their US counterparts. According to Customs and Border Protection, total detentions at the southern US border between January and July of this year fell to only 33% of the same period of 2019: from 678,212 to221,663.
Comparing these apprehensions with those of 2019 and previous years, we can see a gradual drop on this border. In 2019, both migrations and apprehensions increased between the easing of the winter cold and the full-bore arrival of the summer desert sun: 58,317 detentions in January, 76,545 in February, 103,731 in March, 109,415 in April and 144,416 in May. The numbers started dropping again in June, as the climatic conditions grew more adverse for crossing the desert.
Things were very different this year: immigrant detentions totaled 36,581 in January and dropped to 23,197 by May, with an upsurge to 32,935 in June and 40,746 in July. Detentions of people traveling as family units dropped from 5,161 to 716 between January and April, while those of unaccompanied minors fell from 2,680 to 712 in the same period. But even though the numbers rose again in the following three months, there were still 20 times fewer detentions of family units in July of this year than in the same month of 2019.
Perhaps the figures of people who turned up at migration offices with the firm determination to request asylum legally are more representative of the migratory flow then hose who are filtered by either the efficacy or corruptibility of border patrollers. The number refugee seekers traveling in family units plummeted from 3,037 in January to only 61 in July, while the number traveling as unaccompanied minors fell from 396 to 87 in the same period. For some unknown reason April was the month with the fewest petitioners in both years: 385 in 2019 and only 29 in 2020.
Will it become a trend?
Despite their very different institutional resources and cultures, the Mexican and US migras both saw detentions significantly but gradually drop by roughly two thirds then pick up a bit again in mid-year. Moreover, this year none of their numbers came anywhere near those of last year.
It appears the pandemic is to blame for these substan¬tia¬lly reduced migrations, but it is unlikely that it is the start of a new trend, particularly given the increasing numbers in the most recent months analyzed. The drop in numbers resulting from the pandemic surely hide truncated or deferred family reunification projects and other tragedies. They probably also mask the fact that panic over the pandemic and government policies restricting mobility in the countries of the isthmus had more effect than all the US policies, both dissuasive and draconian, aimed at halting migration.
More dead and more unemployed
Migrants already settled in the United States have been involved in other dramas. They have received equality of treatment in a kind of state of exception because the restric¬tive measures have been the same for everyone. In a country where all are deprived of some basic rights, it seems that no one is segregated, but when those who are unequal receive the same treatment as everyone else, the impact is not equal.
According to May figures, Latinos in the United States had the second highest COVID-19-related death rates: 259 per 100,000 inhabitants, only slightly below the 265 per 100,000 of African Americans. Latinos represent 2% of the US population, but have suffered 34% of deaths attributed to the virus.
The effects have also been economic: 40% of Latinos versus 27% of the total population saw a drop in their salaries. And 29% lost their jobs compared to 20% for the general population.
In a national survey, the Pew Research Center found that in the midst of a severe economic downturn, Latinos have been more affected than any other ethnic group. The unemployment rate this June was 14.4% overall, but 18.5% among Latinos. That gap has been a constant. The last great recession (2008-2009) left an unemployment rate of 10.6% for the general population but 14% for Latinos.
Is the “American dream” now
a less attractive destination?
A breakdown of the current average Latino unemployment, which has reached a historic peak, shows that men have been hardest hit, with an unemployment rate of 20.5%.
In previous investigations, I had already noted that men’s jobs are less stable than women’s in the United States, either because they are informal or because their contracts depend on the season or on mobility. But many women also have occupations in branches of the economy that have been hit hard. Those working at daycare centers in state institutions may have been able to hold on to their jobs, but the same can’t be said for waitresses, cooks and cleaning women.
Although more investigation is needed, the pandemic and the way it has affected the US economy seems to have made this country a less attractive destination for migrants. And if the pandemic weren’t enough, the scant solidarity in the US value system, which penalizes idleness and lauds those who manage to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, may be convincing Latinos they’re better off enjoying the proverbial and inexhaustible solidarity of their extended families than venturing so far afield right now.
Migration may thus have shrunk not only because of policies that reduced mobility and the fear of possible contagion during the long trip that exposes people to multiple contacts with others they don’t know. It also may seem exceptionally unattractive in times of generalized debacle to trade a lousy situation in one’s own homeland for very probable unemployment in a foreign land, particularly when they know there is no pity for the disadvantaged there.
“I haven’t lacked work”
The situation of some migrants is far from what the Pew Research Center’s figures suggest. One example is the case of Reynel Claros, an undocumented Honduran who has been living in Virginia for nearly two decades.
Reynel has his own landscaping company and a clientele consolidated over many years of impeccable service. His opinion of the pandemic contrasts with the prevailing feeling of rampant panic. “We haven’t lacked work,” he explains. “Landscaping and construction never stop. Restaurants and hotels are the businesses that have closed.
“If I land a new client, I have to take the COVID test again, because results are only valid for a week. Tests are free if the government does them, but it takes them seven days to issue the results and sometimes clients don’t want to wait. Private tests cost like $160, but they give you the results the same day.”
His lack of apprehension strikes me as unusual, so I ask about the impact on his personal life. “As I participate a lot in church groups, first with youths and now with other married couples,” he responds, “it’s the closing of the churches that has affected me most. They were closed for several months and are now open again, but with a lot of care, with masks and social distancing.”
I ask him if he knows anyone sick with COVID-19 or anyone who has died. “No one in my family. And deaths… I don’t know any. Some colleagues have had symptoms but they were young so it didn’t come to anything and they got better. The serious thing is when the virus moves to the lungs. If you attack it in time, there’s no problem; it’s just li¬¬ke the flu.”
The virus didn’t stop us one day;
there are always emergencies”
Carlos Portillo is a Salvadoran who has also lived in Virginia a long time. He met his future wife there. She’s the daughter of undocumented Salvadorans like himself, but she’s a US citizen because she was born on US soil.
Carlos got his residency a few years ago, allowing him to promote his business more. In partnership with another Salvadoran, he remodels and repairs interiors. They now have 15 employees of various nationalities. His triple function as owner, manager and worker has been quite demanding.
“I leave at six in the morning and get home at about six or seven at night. Then I have to spend a couple more hours organizing things for the next day. I’m not through until about nine.” Carlos hasn’t been affected by unemployment either: “This virus thing, thank God, hasn’t stopped our work at all. I haven’t missed a day of work. I only stay at home with the family on weekends.”
The management of Carlos’ business has gotten complicated, though: “They canceled some jobs we had planned because we had to go into inhabited apartments. Anything like that was shut down so there was a limited shortage of work, but we’ve always had jobs. There are always emergencies. A roof starts leaking, so you have to go in because it’s an emergency. Thank God we had expanded to include roof repairs, so we always have work.
“There was an uncomfortable moment when they said they didn’t want people in the street, which got us a little worried. So, we wrote a letter saying the work we were going to do was an emergency and was being requested by one of the companies we work with, Avalon Equity, and that generated a little more confidence in people.”
“They require a lot of security:
masks, gloves, shoe coverings...”
“The complicated thing,” explains Carlos, “was the requirements for being contracted. We always work for larger companies and they have a lot of requirements: we need to cover all the security measures. Avalon, the largest company we work with, is the most demanding. With the pandemic, if we’re going to go inside on a job, we have to put covers on our shoes, wear a mask and gloves and wash our hands a lot.
“This is the policy the company has issued, although in practice even they forget it. But we require our employees to keep their masks on no matter what, because Avalon’s supervisors could fire us for any little thing, like some negligent kid who doesn’t use his mask. If some influential supervisor sees it, he’ll tell the company not to give us a job, and that means we’re all out.
“They ask for COVID tests and even scan something on their cell phone to record who entered the apartments, a whole process… That’s why we bosses have to get a little strict with the boys. If someone shows up sick with anything, we ask him to come back with a negative test to stay on the job. If we don’t do it that way, it’s us who end up with the most serious problem. If something comes up, we show the contractors the negative test. Some workers get pissed when they’re asked for tests, but we have to ask for them.”
In the pandemic’s peak period, one of his workers lost his older sister and his father within days of each other. Carlos accompanied his worker during those moments, which were even more terrible because he couldn’t say goodbye to them. As Carlos is a strong believer, like Reynel he refers to the closure of the church services as one of the worst measures adopted to halt the advance of the pandemic. “By custom, tradition or desire, one goes to Mass on Sunday,” he lamented. “For months I couldn’t even confess.”
“I went two months
without a penny”
William Pérez lives on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles—one of those cities that never sleep. He’s a tireless promotor of the Dolores Huerta community garden in the Pico-Union area, whose members are Mayan youths, predominately of the Quiché people of San An¬tonio Sija, a Guatemalan village in San Francisco el Alto.
In the gymnasium where he works, William had a very different experience than Carlos and Reynel. “The gyms were the first places to close,” he explains. “The one where I work closed on March 15, and my last day was March 12. I went two months with no income, not a penny. And I had a contract. The owner was badly hit as well. It’s in a rich people’s area and there were some 10 gymnasiums around ours. Eight have now closed permanently. They went bankrupt. I’d recently been paid $900 to paint the gym for one of those owners. The poor girl did it for nothing. She had to close it for three months and didn’t have more money for the rent. I don’t know how my boss managed to survive. It’s just barely reo¬pe¬ning now. But the latest news is that it’s going to have to clo¬se again.
“I’m watching all this instability. There are government mandates here in Los Angeles and when they say you’re going to close it means you close. There’s no security for the gym. The government is now saying the beaches ae going to be closed this weekend; it’s also closing bars and restaurants, and pretty soon they’ll close the gyms again. And these aren’t orders for the city, they’re for all of California.”
Mixed policy messages
produce widespread instability
The instability Carlos was talking about refers to what some consider sudden shifts by the mayor, largely resulting from the superimposing of policies by different levels of government, as happened in New York City between the mayor and the governor. The greatest friction in Los Angeles was between Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Police, which rejected the intermittent lockdowns proclaimed by the mayor as he got oscillating information about the impact of the virus.
A backdrop to this tension was Garcetti’s budget cut for the Police Dept. and his accusation that they were “killers,” both in the context of the massive nationwide Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25.
“I ate up all my savings,
then began to paint houses”
Months of unemployment left William without a cent: “I ate up all my savings.” But his morale remained strong because his family buoyed him up and he tried to be useful around the house: “It’s awful not to be working so I discovered I was good in the kitchen and started cooking. I cooked Thai food, Mexican food, all kinds of things.”
He didn’t sink economically because he went back to his former trade: house painting. But the danger continued, and he could see the ravages around him: “It’s terrible. People are dying and there are very few preventive measures. All they’re saying here is wash your hands, wear a mask and stay six feet from other people. But the busses, the theater… all that’s still functioning. Focal points of contagion, brother. I don’t use the busses, even Uber. I’ve been driving my niece’s car. She has the privilege of working from home. I fixed up her room and she’s giving therapy from there. She doesn’t use her car because she doesn’t go out, so I don’t have to use public transport services, which are all focal points of contamination.”
“The indigenous community
isn’t aware of the problem”
The drama wasn’t and isn’t at all unfounded. By Tuesday August 18, Los Angeles county had recorded 222,236 cases and 5,254 deaths, accounting for 47% of total COVID-19 fatalities in the state of California with only 25% of its population. Contagion had peaked in July, with, 7,877 new cases on July 6 alone.
I had spoken with William only a week earlier and he told me: “It’s a problem that the measures are so insufficient. And the Guatemalan community here, particularly the indigenous people, aren’t aware of all this. On Sixth and Burlleigh Drive, there’s always a ton of food sellers. It’s al¬ways the same. And MacArthur Park is just as crowded. Once a police captain said to me: ‘Mr. William, please put a stop to this.’ I tried to explain: ‘The thing is the people need this.’ So then he showed me a report: seven 22-year-olds showed up at the Good Samaritan Hospital and according to his report they had all played a game at MacArthur Park and got infected there. And they all went to the same hospital. All of them were Guatemalan. This is terrible. This stuff is real.
“I’m skeptical about a lot of things,” Carlos insisted, “but I also use logic. If there’s wind, it’s going to move the trees, and I’m going to feel it even if I can’t see it. Look what happened with Chispudo, who works in a top-grade Japanese restaurant. One day he complained to me: ‘Brother, I’m feeling this and this,’ and they say these are COVIID symptoms. So I said to him: ‘You just look all swollen. I hope you’re in quarantine for 14 days.’ But he replied: ‘No brother, I’m working.’
“Well, I chewed him out in good Salvadoran style: ‘You’re working in a restaurant with COVID symptoms!!’ He wasn’t aware of the harm. But he got the message when I verbally lit into him. He called his boss, who was very concerned, then sent him home on paid leave. Later he sent him to take the test, and thank God it was negative. He only had symptoms. This thing is curious because that same week his uncle tested positive. And the two of them share a room with two others. But obviously the damage is real; it’s not just psychological.”
“This changed everyone’s life”
“I’ve been closely following the news from China,” Carlos continued. “One night in February I was having dinner with 10 Guatemalan guys and I said to them: ‘Hey, you know what? If you have any money, hang on to it, because I think they’re going to shut things down.’ But they just said: ‘Hey, brother, you’re exaggerating.’ Víctor said this coronavirus thing is a hoax. I told him he was wrong, but he said: ‘I’m sure it’s not going to get me because I’m programming, and besides I wash down.’ That ended the discussion.
“On March 5 they began to see we were all getting shut down, but Víctor continued working in construction. He didn’t stop working and got contaminated there. And when that happened, he told me: ‘Brother, I can’t walk; it hurts here, it hurts there…’ When he could he went and took the test and it came back positive. He got better in 22 days, following the protocol. I went to visit him, taking real care to protect myself. He’s okay now, but man, this thing came to change everyone’s life.
“Miguel was another. He works in a high-end Mexican restaurant. A careless worker there had the virus and didn’t tell anyone. He passed out in the kitchen and Miguel gave him first aid without knowing what he had. It turns out that when he went to the hospital, he’d been sick with COVID for I don’t know how many days. Since nobody knew, he’d passed it on to many others. And he was the chef. Imagine how terrible: the cook was positive and continued going to work. Imagine all the food he handled.
“Miguel, who’s 27 years old, also tested positive, and he’s sure that’s where he got it. Just today he sent me a message to tell me the chef is on his deathbed. I tell the guys: ‘Don’t go to eating places. Try to cook your eggs more.’ It’s really risky right now, which is why the authorities are fighting to set a $500 fine for people who don’t wear a mask.”
“14 weeks as a volunteer”
The life of these friends hasn’t only changed for the worst. William invested his free time from unemployment in philanthropic work.
“For 14 weeks,” he told me proudly,” we were giving away fruits and vegetables. José Miguel Ruiz founded something he calls Cultiva LA. And people, including the University of Southern California, donated money so he could help the community. As volunteers we helped there 14 weeks, until the city told us: ‘This work you’re going is good, but it’s too high risk. So no more, because there’s a terrible focal point of infection here.’”
Cultiva Los Angeles was created by José Miguel, a Mexi¬can-born US citizen, to transform the center city with agri¬cul¬ture and edibles, organic crops and small open-air markets, ba¬nking on improving diets, providing local employment and empowering the community. At the time, 32 growers were supplying 1,850 consumers. During the pandemic, William and many others distributed vegetables to a battered Latino population, in an area of the city where many first-generation migrants live.
“Those in Guatemala
are much worse off”
Eleuterio Hernández is a highly skilled tailor who works for an exclusive shop in Beverly Hills called Battistoni, a company that only has two other stores in the world; located in Rome and London.
This Guatemalan appreciates his situation compared to those back home who didn’t migrate. “I work in a very elegant store that’s a small company compared to others. I’m grateful because even though I don’t have legal documents from this country, they’ve let me work here with them: they’ve even offered me help legalizing my status. But for the moment that’s not possible because there’s no law to protect me. Nonetheless, they’ve done everything possible to help. They’ve paid my expenses. So far I’ve only lost 2% of my customary salary.
“I think those of us who came to the United States have it better than those back in their own countries who don’t have any help,” he tells me. “Nobody is dying of hunger here. And those who have children who are citizens get some help from the school district: $65 per child, although that’s not enough for a month’s rent. What’s worrying right now is that they’ve only extended the moratorium for those owing rent until the end of September.
“It’ll be a difficult time, but not as bad as for Guate¬ma¬lans back home. The villagers in lockdown with no work or job opportunities haven’t received so much as a pound of beans. Many have taken to hanging a flag in their shack as a symbol of hunger. President Alejandro Giammattei considers those who are organizing them to be political adversaries. Here in the United States it’s mainly those who aren’t used to struggling against necessity who are suffering shortages.”
This reminds me of a conference where C. Gould talked about her interpretation of Marx’s social oncology, a conception opposing Aristotle’s identification of freedom with lack of need. That idea had dominated philosophy for centuries and moved to politics with Hobbes and to economics with dam Smith.
Marx broke with that tradition, Gould explained, because his idea of freedom implied not lack of need but the struggle against it. According to Marx, in that struggle human beings satisfy their needs and generate new needs and goals. Thus, work is not slavery but liberation. That’s why Marx wrote that “The overcoming of obstacles is in itself a liberating activity.” Along the same lines, Eleuterio is reminding us that struggling against the current is what guarantees survival.
“They saved themselves
by staying home”
Eleuterio also mentioned that there were challenges in Los Angeles that overwhelmed and even blocked the ability to struggle through one’s work. “Many businesses still don’t have permission to operate,” he explained. “They are closed even though one sees movement in the majority of the city. The city isn’t entirely shut down, but there are fewer people out. It’s hard to believe there’s a disease so grave it can do so much damage.
“We have an organization in San Antonio Sija, a place with 2,000 people where I come from and where I grew up. Here we have a foundation that pays for the repatriation to Guatemala of people who die here. We collaborate with $10 for each person who dies. We have collected funds over time and have a good amount of money, so now we don’t send back the body, but cremate it first. This year we’ve already sent back 10 people from my community who have died. Adding the village where my brother is mayor, 30 people have died in a community of 15,000 inhabitants. So it’s true that a lot of people are dying.
“Here in Los Angeles most people from San Antonio who have died are young. People who work and take care of themselves have no problem, but some don’t think about their health. They suffer from diabetes, obesity, and drink too much. These people are more likely to get infected and get really sick, because their defenses are very low. When the virus hits them it’s all over.
“Some went to the hospital and ended up dying there, while others stayed at home and saved themselves. I feel like people who stayed home and treated themselves with home remedies have come out of it better. I can’t guarantee that, but that’s how it seems to me, based on what I’ve been told. I don’t think the medicine is very advanced.”
What do they think
of the health system?
Eleuterio mentioned distrust of the US health system, which is a constant topic among Latinos, referring to its efficacy rather than its costs.
The most frequent criticism among Latinos who get sick is the coldness of the doctors in contrast to those in their coun¬¬tries of origin, who usually spend more time treating their patients. In Eleuterio’s opinion, revindication of tra¬ditional medicine and perhaps even a longing for the family’s ca¬re for a sick relative underlies this view.
Contrary to what some have argued, migrants do not experience a sustained linear acculturation process. When comparing their original surroundings and their current ones, their judgment doesn’t always favor the United States. Eleuterio has a favorable view of the United States in the area of work and politics, but values his roots more in relation to health and illness. Perhaps extreme situations—like this pandemic—suspend or even reverse acculturation processes.
Virginia and Los Angeles seem
like two different countries
Testimonies by four Central American migrants aren’t enough to come to any firm conclusions. The sample is miniscule and not even statistics can help produce any correlation between demographic conditions (population size and density) and the behavior of the coronavirus indicators (infection, mortality and lethality).
Nonetheless, the words of these four men fighting for their dreams help give the rigid figures a human aspect and express some of the problems hidden in the folds of per¬centages. They tell us about a diversity of living expe¬rien¬ces. At times they seemed to be describing two different countries to me. The experience of the pandemic is more imme¬diate and terrifying in Los Angeles because the resi¬dences and work centers there are in the ants’ nest of a county that accounts for a quarter of California’s population but nearly half of that state’s deaths by COVID-19.
LA’s population density shot
up the contagions and deaths
The population density in the city of Los Angeles, particularly the center-city Latino barrios, has heavily influenced the number of infections and shot up the number of deaths. The Westlake and Pico-Union areas, where so many Central Americans are crowded together, William among them, are two of the first district’s most affected neighborhoods. They place second and fourth in population density, with 61,497 and 40,798 inhabitants per square kilometer, respectively. Compare that with the density of Central America’s capitals: 5,590 in Tegucigalpa, 4,722 in Guatemala City, 4,375 in San Salvador and 3,560 in Managua.
When I spoke with William and Eleuterio, the adjacent neighborhoods of Westlake and Pico-Union had respectively accumulated 2,157 and 1,606 cases by August, of which 134 and 85 had resulted in deaths. These are gigantic figures for their population size. The infection rate in Pico-Union is 38 per 1,000 residents. This is much higher than the overall rate for Los Angeles (22), itself much higher than the 15.56 US average. Meanwhile, Westlake has nearly double the national average lethality rate (62 compared to 32 per 1,000 infections, and Pico-Union is not far behind with 53.
The lethality may depend in part on the population pyramid, but the direct and harsh experience of the pandemic has also been a product of location: the Los Angeles migrants live and work in the city, unlike the two in Virginia who do so in the suburbs, many miles from the nearest population center.
Carlos and Reynel both live in Prince William county, which has just over 400,000 inhabitants, but they live in an archi¬pelago of residential tracts separated by enormous uninhabited areas. In contrast, Los Angeles County is an un¬relieved urban sprawl of nearly 10 million people in a per¬pe¬tual bustle of intense social life, proper to a megalopolis.
National pandemic-related policies in the US have played an ambivalent role. Given what has been perceived as a lack of proactive leadership from the White House, the state governors have taken up the reins, although those from the opposition Democratic Party have generally been more determined in this respect. County and city officials have done the same, particularly where a greater population density and consequent spread of the virus forced them to act.
This has meant a diversity of policies and very different dates for the declaration and duration of a state of alarm and the adoption of measures. The varying directives and the friction between the different levels of the US political system fueled the population’s uncertainty and very probably undermined the credibility of some pandemic warnings. The heterogeneity of the states, a bureaucratic treasure that often opens doors to the undocumented—for example in the sanctuary cities—has become conflictive, to a certain degree as part of the larger political polarization that has wracked the country for years now, providing a breeding ground for sharp disagreements that only increase perplexity and ill feelings among the population.
The virus equalized everybody
One unknown element we need to look into more—although these four testimonies offer some clues—is whether or not the condition of migrant involves greater risks in a health emergency of this sort. The infection and death figures seen incontestable, but one could infer from the four stories told here that the restrictions and effects are not limited to the migrant population. Undocumented migrants have acquired a strange form of limited citizenship, sharing the same restrictions as the natives, naturalized citizens and authorized residents. The virus equalizes them.
The higher unemployment rate among Latinos is explainable by the type of work immigrants from our countries can get. In some states, waiters and tailors are mainly Latino men while cleaning ladies and childcare workers are mainly Latino women. More statistical support is needed to reach a well-sustained conclusion since they also tend to have low-paid jobs in some services and industries considered essential and thus allowed/required to remain open.
More attention also needs to be paid to the forms of and times involved in the bureaucratic processes: the defaulting of processes is fatal in the types of jobs migrants have. Obtaining COVID test results in a week means losing a job opportunity. It is also possible that by the time negative test results are finally presented, a person could already be in the second week of infection.
It is very likely that looking further into the relationship between the health of migrants—food habits and living conditions also due to their marginalization—and the US health system, keys will be found to the greater morbidity and lethality of the virus among Latinos. Focusing just on health coverage, we can see that Latinos pay taxes, but receive minimum benefits from the US welfare system, to the degree that it still exists.
The year of the pandemic
is also the year of the census
In 2020, the year of the pandemic, the threats against mi¬grants aren’t limited to the virus. Migration policies continue to run through the same channels and are driven by an increasingly xenophobic tendency.
This is census year in the United Sates, which implies a reassigning of the number of seats for each state in the US House of Representatives. The migrants who aren’t coming into the United States right now thus won’t be counted for another ten years.
This is compounded by Donald Trump’s proposal not to count unauthorized migrants as part of the US population, a distinction that is alien to the census and, if approved, would reduce the weight of California, Florida and Texas in that chamber of Congress. As a response to their base, the congressional representatives of these three states have been among those most interested in supporting migration, with some even coming out in favor of undocumented migrants.
In the 2000-2010 inter-census period, the number of Central Americans grew by 137%, more than any other group or nationality, reaching nearly 4 million. Their birth rate, which is much higher than for the native population, influenced that growth, but so did the flow of migration itself, which has been very intense in recent years, advancing at the rhythm of the ferocious dynamics of dispossession, violence, lack of opportunities for social mobility, and political instability that are lashing their countries of origin.
We will soon know how much they grew in this last decade. Numbers matter: they will speak to us of men and women who aspire to a migratory amnesty, which was the main expectation of the four I interviewed and the great hope of nearly 12 million migrants who decided to enter the United States unauthorized.
José Luis Rocha is a research associate of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador.