Layers of Burden, the Struggle of Immigrant Workers

By Mary Croy

While human rights abuses rage on the border, immigrants in Dane County and Wisconsin face a set of their own challenges.

“Financial stress, worries about getting relatives sick, childcare, and how they are going to teach their children, there are layers and layers of stress and worry,” said Bianca Tomasini, organizer for the Madison chapter of Voces de la Frontera, a grassroots immigration rights organization based in Milwaukee.

Immigrants here in Dane County are often low-wage workers and essential workers, and particularly for those in the undocumented community, COVID-19 has increased fear and financial distress. For example, in struggling households, having hours cut from 60 per week to 40 is a cause of crisis, as there is not enough income to pay the bills.

Tomasini described the fears of workers that Voces serves. “Workers are afraid to speak up. They are in workplaces that are not safe.” Voces is helping workers in 11 companies where employees are still being made to work without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), in addition to a host of other abuses, such as absence of sick leave, an inability to practice social distancing, and lack of transparency as to whether co-workers have come down with the virus. In one case, a person who complained about conditions was fired. Voces started a lawsuit, and the worker got their job back.

Voces has contacted OSHA, but the federal agency is not doing inspections at this time. They also have contacted the state department of health and other agencies to try to enforce protections for vulnerable workers.

Voces has been able to win concessions in some of the companies, but there “are at least two companies that barely give minimum PPE, and there is no social distancing and no sick leave.”

Lack of transparency and information from employers is another cause of fear for immigrant workers.

“Many live in multigenerational families and would like to know when someone has COVID,” Tomasini said.

They live in homes where there may be elderly parents or grandparents who are especially vulnerable to the virus. Yet many companies do not share information about workplace COVID-19 cases with their employees, adding to the stress on workers and their families.

While undocumented workers pay into the system, they are not eligible for the benefits of other workers.

“Even though they pay taxes, and they make sure they pay taxes, they cannot collect unemployment,” Tomasini said, describing additional financial distress of the undocumented community. They received no stimulus check. They are very concerned about paying bills and it is not always clear if testing is available.

Voces has been informing immigrants that testing for COVID-19 is available at the Alliant Energy Center for no cost, as well as through other clinics.

Adding to the burdens of this vulnerable community are concerns about childcare and education now that kids are home from school, especially since many in the immigrant community are essential workers and are away from home for long periods of time. “It is an awful time for everybody,” said Tomasini, “but particularly for a community that cannot access everything.”

When people are sick, immigrant families reach a different level of stress, she added, and the expensive nature of healthcare is making their situation more troubling, on top of the concern that in attempting to access healthcare they will be asked about their status.

Immigrants in the process of getting Green Cards have another fear looming. “People have lots of questions, although COVID services are not supposed to be counted against them,” Tomasini said, describing the “public charge” provisions put forward by the Trump administration. People still fear going to the doctor.

No ICE raids have been carried out in Madison since the stay at home order was announced, according to Tomasini, and there have been few deportations in Dane County. “Milwaukee has had some dubious deportations,” she noted.

Yet ICE has not stopped all activity. Some people who were in detention centers have been moved far away, so it is difficult to find them or for the detainees to get legal help. Although detention centers in Wisconsin are not as bad as those in states on the U.S.-Mexico border, individuals who remain in detention in Wisconsin are very depressed. Here in Dane County, Centro Hispano has been a good resource for assisting immigrants by directing them to clinics and helping them find financial resources. In other parts of Wisconsin, Tomasini describes assistance as “piecemeal.” The services available in Dane County are not available in other parts of the state, and Voces organizers are scrambling to get people needed help. The Sheriffs in Sheboygan and Waukesha counties have pledged to work with ICE, adding to more fear for workers in those areas of Wisconsin. “It is remarkable what Voces has done to stand up to companies and improve conditions,” Tomasini said. “But the battle is not won yet, for sure.”


Meanwhile, to the south, there are nightmarish conditions for people fleeing from violence and life-threatening poverty and oppression in Latin America. Immigrants in Northern Mexico have been turned away from seeking asylum in the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Asylum hearings have been subject to long delays. Around 60,000 immigrants are waiting in Mexico, 6,500 of whom hae already been forced to wait over six months.

For example, refugees in Ciudad Juarez are living in a warehouse. There is no social distancing. And these may be the “lucky” ones. Many other people awaiting asylum hearings are forced to stay in squalid tent campus near the border. There, they are not only very vulnerable to COVID-19, but are victims of rape, assault and other crimes. In a camp in Matamoros, Mexico, 2,500 people are sharing a few dozen toilets in a packed tent city.

This is the place where Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter, Angie Valeria, drowned trying to get into the U.S. There are not enough hospital beds in Matamoros if there is an outbreak in the camp, and the U.S. automatically denies admission to refugees who are sick.

In addition, 37,000 people are held in immigration jails throughout the country. Many spend their days in large rooms filled with long concrete benches or bunk beds. Others are in poorly ventilated two-person cells. The detainees often do not even have soap. Sinks or showers are often inaccessible. As of 2019, there were over 4,500 complaints of sexual abuse at the border dating back to 2014. Because ICE and Border Patrol are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, the agencies can shield information about personnel from the public, making for a lack of accountability.

Rage against immigrants is nothing new. Xenophobia and nationalism have been exploited to divide the working class since the 19th century. The Trump Administration has manipulated this issue, demonizing immigrants, who are the victims of the very crimes that the President accuses them of committing.

American imperialism also has caused desperate people to flee Central American countries in fear for their lives. The U.S.-backed coup in Honduras in 2009 led to intolerable conditions for the working class in that country.

Socialists must support refugees and speak out against the racism and imperialism of the U.S. government. ICE is an unnecessary agency, which only came into existence after 9/11 and serves as a tool of terror on immigrant communities throughout the U.S.

But we can make a difference here in Wisconsin. Voces de la Frontera is an immigrant rights group that has been on the frontlines of political action. They have a branch here in Madison, which meets monthly and coordinates activities, grassroots organizing, and protests to support immigrants and refugees. There are many campaigns, such as restoring driver’s licenses to all, without regard to immigration status. This is an overlooked issue that is vital to our undocumented worker community. Now more than ever is a time for solidarity!


How you can help

Voces de la Frontera is a dynamic, grassroots organization that helps immigrants and their families, including those who are undocumented. They are on the frontlines of fighting for our most vulnerable workers. There are several ways you can help.

You can become a member

The most pressing need is financial aid. Immigrants are facing pressures paying bills, rent, food, healthcare, childcare, and other expenses. Voces has started a direct aid fund which helps undocumented families throughout Wisconsin. More information about providing financial aid is available here.

In Dane County, Centro Hispano is a hub of assistance for Latinx families, including immigrants and undocumented workers.

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