April 20, 2020: Dispatches from New York and Other Front-Line Communities

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

April 20, 2020: Dispatches from New York and Other Front-Line Communities

New York State experienced an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases (to 242,786) over the last week, but a drop in hospitalizations. On April 19, it also experienced its lowest number of deaths (478) in seven weeks, although still an extraordinarily high number.  Overall, 14,347 persons have died in New York from COVID-19.  On April 20 (12:30 p.m.), New York City reported 132,467 COVID-19 cases, with 34,729 persons hospitalized.  To date, the City has suffered 9,101 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, and an additional 4,582 “probable” deaths from the virus.  The City provides extensive data on COVID-19 cases, including by borough, age, sex, and zip code.

New York City has consistently treated immigrants of all statuses as full residents, entitled to City services and benefits.  To that end, the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) has publicly affirmed that: “Many city services are available to all New Yorkers,” no matter their immigration status or income. MOIA has also created a list of resources for immigrant communities during the pandemic, which covers diverse needs such as health care, food assistance, public safety, and support to small businesses.

The Benefits and Limits of Remote Consultation and Representation

Thomas Shea is a Senior Staff Attorney with CUNY Citizenship Now!, an agency that “provides free, high quality, and confidential immigration law services to help individuals and families on their path to U.S. citizenship.”  In normal times, CUNY Citizenship Now! operates from six full-time centers and 30 part-time locations.  Tom also serves as the Editor of CMS’s weekly Migration Update.

He explains that his agency’s immigration office – which will not provide in-person services until at least May 15 – now provides legal consultations by phone. It assists people with simpler form completion, such as Form I-90 (application to renew an expiring ten-year green card or replace a lost ten-year green card); Form N 400 (application for naturalization), and renewal applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  Its services now depend on the capacity of the “participants” in its services to print forms and supporting documents at home. If immigrants do not have that capacity, they need to wait until the agency reopens its in-person services. Because of the complexity of certain applications – e.g., adjustment of status and consular processing – the immigration office does not provide form assistance remotely.

Before suspending in-person services, many people expected their applications to be completed from scratch in just one meeting. Now participants, for the most part, understand that their cases will proceed more slowly.  Many immigrants now need assistance with computer and printing issues at home. Non-English speakers often rely on English-speaking family members for help them in assembling the final packet for US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Some participants might have to wait to proceed with their cases because they need to obtain supporting documents, such as a Certificate of Disposition (a court document which explains what happened in a criminal case), or the documents needed to overcome the public charge rule, which they cannot access during the closures.

Remote legal consultations can, in some circumstances, lead to the provision of legal services for more straightforward applications. Generally, consultations take the form of conversations that help to put the participant at ease and answer their questions. If the legal consultation proceeds to legal services, the office may have multiple conversations over the phone to gather information and determine eligibility for an immigration benefit, but with the recognition that the application packet can be finalized only when the office resumes its in-person services. It has proven possible during this difficult time to provide immigration legal advice (confidentially and effectively) over the telephone and to gather (via phone and email) information for completing application packets. However, this process is more time-consuming than an in-person meeting.  Moreover, some immigrants do not feel comfortable sharing their confidential/private information remotely with a stranger. In those situations, they prefer to wait to meet in person – whenever that might be  – before continuing with their cases.

Immigrants and Health Care

Last week, CMS reached out to a nurse and an emergency room doctor living in the Washington, DC area, with a few questions on immigrants and the pandemic. COVID-19 deaths in Washington, DC, Maryland and Virginia more than doubled over the last week – to nearly 1,000.  The virus has infected African American at disproportionately high rates, with Prince George’s County in Maryland a designated “hot-spot.”  Elected leaders in all three jurisdiction – Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia – have underscored racial disparities in infection rates and deaths.

The two health professionals worried about immigrants not coming forward during this crisis for fear of losing the possibility of status. They spoke of the danger “to all” when immigrants were not screened or tested, and lacked access to the health care system until they were in critical condition and arrived at an emergency room.

“With greater availability of test kits for the virus,” one said, “the standard will be for all those with symptoms to be tested in order to identify those people needing to be quarantined properly and for the appropriate amount of time.”  He continued:

If symptomatic people are not tested … due to fear of risking their immigration cases, they will not effectively quarantine themselves, which will result in passing on the coronavirus to many others, which significantly raises the health risk of the entire community. Widespread screening of everyone including immigrants is the only way all communities will be able to limit the spread and allow businesses to reopen. Any segment of the population left out of widespread testing once available ensures the continued spread of the coronavirus in the community.

They also highlighted the role of the “many immigrants we depend on as caregivers.” One of their elderly mothers, for example, had been receiving “24/7” care in her retirement community. No one but staff can enter her retirement home, and its “mostly immigrant staff” – its “food service, maintenance, health aids” – are on “the front lines and cannot work from home.”  Many of these aids are hourly employees and likely lack health insurance themselves.

When asked about the risks posed by immigrant detention centers and prisons, one replied:

Any environment such as a detention center that places people in close quarters without social distancing results in the spread of the coronavirus, which will cause a significant percentage of them to become seriously ill, with some dying.  Further, any segment of the population including those in detention centers that does not maintain social distancing places the entire community beyond the detainees themselves at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The pandemic exploits and exacerbates conditions of social inequality and exclusion, and only a fully inclusive response to it can stem its spread and mitigate its ultimate impact.