Latinos and other people of color have been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, accounting for a higher concentration of those testing positive for the ailment.
For undocumented immigrants in Weber County and elsewhere — less secure in their finances, perhaps, and more leery of public entities — it can be even tougher, with less recourse to unemployment benefits and other help if, for instance, they lose their jobs.
Priscilla Martinez, who works with Weber County’s Latino and immigrant communities, says things seem to be easing for immigrants hit hardest by COVID-19’s economic fallout. “It looks like most of them are going back to work,” she said.
At the same time, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall announced a fundraising drive on Wednesday, Raise Up Salt Lake City, meant to help immigrants there weather the downturn. The initiative, in cooperation with the Community Foundation of Utah, aims to raise $1 million in donations to help those impacted by the pandemic who are having a tough time finding assistance “due to personal hardships or immigration status.”
Still, a recent study by Voices for Utah Children, a Salt Lake City-based advocacy group for children, singles out the particular difficulties the undocumented community faces in contending with the varied impacts of COVID-19. The issue is of note in Weber County, with the third-largest concentration of undocumented immigrants in Utah by one measure, trailing just Salt Lake and Utah counties.
“One of the most egregious economic disparities of the coronavirus pandemic is the exclusion of undocumented Utahns from the major state and federal relief efforts,” reads the study, released July 28. Indeed, between unemployment compensation and rebates outlined in the federal CARES Act, the government response to the downturn caused by COVID-19, undocumented immigrants, because of their status, have lost out on $154.4 million in state and federal COVID-19 relief benefits.
Though many government policies exclude undocumented immigrants from eligibility for certain benefits in light of their unlawful status in the country — a red-hot focus of debate nationwide — the Voices for Utah Children study notes that they still pay payroll and other taxes. They paid an estimated $71 million in unemployment insurance premiums, yet can’t tap into the help it’s meant to provide.
“It is important to recognize that excluding tens of thousands of Utahns from this assistance is not only cruel in the current circumstances, it is also bad for Utah’s economy,” reads the report. “That $154.4 million would end up being spent in Utah’s consumer economy, with ripple effects that would reduce unemployment and speed recovery from the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”
Other states, the report noted, have provided assistance to the undocumented community stemming from the pandemic, including California, Colorado and Oregon. Washington announced earlier this month that $40 million would be earmarked to help undocumented workers there who are impacted by COVID-19 but aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits, according to KING, a TV station.
Between 79,000 and 110,000 undocumented immigrants live in Utah, according to stats cited by the study. And though they come from a range of places, Weber County’s immigrant community, including the undocumented segment, comes overwhelmingly from Latin America, according to U.S. Census Bureau stats. Voices for Utah was able to pinpoint 23,517 undocumented immigrants in the state via a review of state income tax data, determining that 1,771 of them resided in Weber County. Salt Lake County accounts for over half of that total, 12,226, while Weber County sits third on the list.
While unemployment benefits may be off limits, there are some areas of potential relief. Rental-assistance programs in Utah meant to keep those adversely impacted by COVID-19 from losing their homes do not use citizenship or immigration status in determining eligibility, according to Christina Davis of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
At any rate, though the situation is easing, the downturn took a toll on the undocumented community, causing many to lose work. Some scrambled, “just trying to find jobs anywhere,” said Martinez, who used to serve on the Ogden Diversity Commission, an advocacy group for the “diverse communities” of the city.
That came on top of jitters caused by higher rates of COVID-19 in the Latino community and among other people of color, here and across the nation. By themselves, Latinos account for 36.6% of all COVID-19 cases in Utah though they represent just 14.2% of the state’s population, according to Utah Department of Health data. The disparity is similar in Weber County.
Indeed, some in the undocumented community, Martinez said, were left with difficult choices at times. “There’s definitely fear of testing and (with a positive result) not being able to work, losing that two weeks of pay (while in quarantine),” she said. “I’ve seen that.”
Ogden officials formed the Multicultural COVID-19 Task Force for Ogden with a focus on aiding the Latino community in contending with the pandemic. Group members have shied from delving into the immigration status of those they help, not wanting to scare off those worried about backlash if they reveal they’re undocumented.
Still, Arlene Anderson, a part of the task force, suspects they are there, and laments their precarious situation. “It’s just a vicious circle for them and I feel so bad,” she said.