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‘It’s So Hard To Get Help:’ An Undocumented Immigrant And A COVID-19 Diagnosis In

Like the person pictured, Esperanza is one of many who had to isolate after a potential or confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19. Her status as an undocumented immigrant meant that some federal pandemic assistance plans weren't available to her and her family.
Like the person pictured, Esperanza is one of many who had to isolate after a potential or confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19. Her status as an undocumented immigrant meant that some federal pandemic assistance plans weren't available to her and her family.

Esperanza spent most of November in her room alone. A frontline worker at a restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado, she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and needed to isolate herself, away from her children and her husband.

She is one of 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Undocumented immigrants have been hit hard by an economic recession, already-precarious job security and the health risks of COVID-19. Living without documentation, and often without health insurance, has contributed to higher death rates among immigrant communities.

For a while, Esperanza thought she might become a grim statistic. She requested we use only her first name for fear of immigration enforcement agencies.

“I didn’t want to sleep because I was afraid that I wasn’t going to wake up because my heart was beating so fast,” Esperanza said. “There were so many bad thoughts that would go through my mind, like ‘I don’t want to be in a hospital,’ ‘I don’t want to be intubated.’”

It was three weeks before she left her quarantine, a small square bedroom in the middle of a tiny house. With a bed, two dressers and a small walkway, the sparse room was her haven and her dungeon.

“It was scary. I think the nighttime was the worst, being locked in there and not being able to talk to anybody, just feeling alone and hopeless and sick,” Esperanza said. “It was a horrible experience.” Family dropped off homemade tea. Friends spent hours listening on the other end of the phone line, “to keep my mind off thinking stupidities,” she said.

Latinos are almost twice as likely to catch COVID-19 and nearly three times as likely to die from it compared to white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Because she can’t afford private health insurance and doesn’t qualify for Medicaid, Esperanza had to go to the local emergency room for testing and treatment. That trip cost an extra $130.

“I’m sure, like me, there’s a lot of people that are going through the same thing where once you’re diagnosed and you don’t have health insurance, it’s hard to get help,” Esperanza said.

Her symptoms started with chills and aches, then came the blazing fever and the difficulty breathing. The pounding headache and fluttering heartbeat. Pain in her legs made the short trip across the hall to the bathroom agony. Four weeks later, walking from the living room to the kitchen still feels like a marathon.

But it was the isolation that gnawed at her soul. She’d hear a quiet good morning from her eight-year-old through the door. She couldn’t do anything about the echoes of sibling bickering which passed through the walls.

“My kids are struggling,” Esperanza said. “It doesn’t just affect the person that gets sick. It affects the whole family.”

Like many mothers during the pandemic, Esperanza became her children’s de facto teacher, coaching them through online classes while striving to understand the material herself. Being sick for weeks meant her youngest daughter didn’t get the help she needed. Esperanza’s husband doesn’t speak much English, and she said he only got as far as second grade in Mexico. She didn’t have computers for her kids and had to borrow them from the school. She turned to online videos to help her 8-year-old learn math the way it was taught in school.

“I know he woke them up. But whether they did their work or not? I have no clue,” Esperanza said. “We already know we don’t have the support as parents that we need to teach them. Imagine when you have someone that cannot even communicate or even knows how to work this new system to try to help them.”

Esperanza’s lack of documentation has meant she’s also struggled with job security during the pandemic. If immigrants don’t have a green card or visa, there’s no legal way to work, which leaves undocumented immigrants particularly vulnerable. Esperanza worked full-time at a restaurant until Colorado shut down dining in the spring. When indoor dining resumed in the summer, she was offered half the hours she worked before.

Her immigration status makes her ineligible for unemployment assistance or the stimulus check sent to many Americans as part of the first round of coronavirus stimulus packages. All five of her children are U.S. citizens, but Esperanza couldn’t claim any of the $500 stimulus payments set aside for children as part of the CARES Act. Being a mixed-status family disqualified everyone.

“I honestly, truly feel that it’s unfair to our kids,” Esperanza said. She came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 13 years old. “I didn’t choose to come here. My parents brought me. Those were my parents’ decisions. And, yes, even though as an adult I chose to stay here, I don’t feel my kids should be punished because of my legal status.”

Colorado’s legislature recently created a $5 million fund for undocumented immigrants as part of the state’s coronavirus relief package. Maggie Gómez, the deputy director for the nonprofit Center for Health Progress, said it’s not enough.

“We need programs that mirror unemployment for folks without documentation that continue to contribute to our economies and have citizen children and deserve to be able to have the same supports as everybody else,” Gómez said. “$5 million is a drop in the bucket.”

Colorado joins a handful of states including Oregon and California that have dedicated resources to undocumented communities. Washington’s governor set aside $40 million in August.

As the pandemic lockdowns spurred historic job losses, nonprofits in Colorado, including Center for Health Progress, created the Left Behind Workers Fund to distribute one-time $1,000 grants to undocumented families in need. After losing her job in April, Esperanza’s family received one of the grants.

“The direct cash assistance has a huge impact,” said Gómez. “Everything from paying your internet bills so your kid can go to school, to renewing your license plates so you can get to work … things like your heating bill, your food, all of the basic things. We know that people require money to live.”

And just as coronavirus cases spiked and restrictions resumed early last month, Esperanza was diagnosed with COVID-19. She told her employer she needed time off. They told her she they didn’t need her anyway Due to quarantine procedures, her husband, who is also undocumented, lost nearly a month of work at the scrap metal plant, though he didn’t lose his job.

Esperanza said he was the first to fall ill, and though he tested negative for COVID-19, she thinks it was a false negative. She tested positive a week later, followed by their son. Their son had a mild case and recovered quickly.

She considers her family lucky since her husband kept his job. And as long as he keeps it through the winter, she thinks they’ll scrape by, living paycheck-to-paycheck. Her husband went back to work the first week of December, at the same time rent was due. His company paid him for some of the time he had to take off but Esperanza isn’t sure how much they’ll get in his next paycheck.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a Christmas. We’ve never been about presents or a lot of presents. My kids have adjusted to what we are able to give them every year. Some years have been better than others, but when you go through something like this, it makes you reflect a lot,” Esperanza said. “Honestly, I appreciate every single thing that I have right now — my home, my kids, my house, whatever food we have.”

But after her three weeks of self-imposed quarantine, Esperanza entered her living room to find a luminous surprise from her daughters. Draped with colorful lights, curved candy canes and family ornaments, a six-foot Christmas tree graced the room’s corner by the couch her husband slept on for weeks.

This reporting is part of 1A’s Across America collaboration with KUNC in Northern Colorado. 1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 WAMU 88.5

Amanda Williams

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