COVID-19 has exposed the precarity many workers and families with low incomes face every day and has exacerbated racial and ethnic disparities in health and economic outcomes. Immigrant families have been disproportionately affected.
Immigrants have faced significant increases in unemployment because of the pandemic, yet many immigrant families are excluded from federal relief efforts. Beyond the challenges all families face as they contend with the economic recession and public health crisis, many immigrants experience chilling effects—or fear of accessing critical health and basic supports they or their children need because they are concerned about risking their immigration status. Federal immigration policies, including the public charge rule that went into effect just before the onset of the pandemic, have increased insecurity and fear in immigrant communities and discouraged families from accepting help from government or private sources.
Many US cities and towns are experiencing the ripple effects of federal immigration policy as these chilling effects collide with the health and economic crisis. In this challenging context, local governments and service providers working to support immigrant communities can provide information and resources to encourage access to the safety net and other supports for immigrant families. To understand recent efforts to support immigrant families and reduce the chilling effects produced by the administration’s expanded public charge rule, we interviewed leaders in government agencies, community-based organizations, and other service providers in Houston and Las Vegas.
Cities have different histories of immigration and varied levels of infrastructure to support immigrants. We chose Houston and Las Vegas because both cities have large, diverse immigrant populations but different policy contexts and infrastructures for serving immigrants. Houston welcomes immigration and has a strong network of immigrant-serving organizations, but Texas state leadership has been unsupportive of immigrant families, while Nevada has a nascent immigrant-serving infrastructure in a state policy context with recent movement toward new supports for immigrants (PDF).
Based on the experiences of immigrant communities, service providers, and government agencies in Houston and Las Vegas, we highlight four strategies that can inform local leaders who aim to support immigrants in COVID-19 crisis response efforts.
- Improve messaging and information about the public charge rule. Many immigrants live in multiple-status families, meaning their members have various immigration, residency, and citizenship statuses, such as US-born and naturalized citizens, green card holders, and people who lack permanent residence. To make informed decisions about public program participation, families need more clarity about who is affected, which benefits the rule affects, and how the rule is being implemented. The need for education has become even more critical during COVID-19, when many families are facing disproportionate hardship but may be afraid to seek help. Effective messaging requires clear information, reliable sources such as government agencies, and trusted messengers in service or advocacy community partners.
- Coordinate strategically across public agencies, community-based organizations, and other entities working with or on behalf of immigrant families. Collaboration in localities requires leadership, an organizing body, and other factors but can take many forms. In Las Vegas, collaboration has been mostly informal, based on personal relationships between staff at different organizations. In contrast, Houston conducts more formal coordination through the Houston Immigration Legal Collaborative, a network of legal and social service organizations. Especially in communities with limited infrastructure to serve immigrants, pooling government and nonprofit organization resources and capacities together under one entity, such as Nevada’s new Office for New Americans, could be an effective way to consolidate efforts.
- Build a robust legal aid network that has the resources and cultural and linguistic capacity to serve immigrants. Although access to information is crucial, the public charge rule and other immigration laws are complex, and stakeholders in both Las Vegas and Houston recognized that as a key challenge. Frontline staff who serve immigrant populations at health care providers, food banks, public benefits agencies, or other sites must understand the rule to provide families with information that is culturally competent and in multiple languages. Without regular training, service providers will continue to face exhaustion from constantly fighting to keep up with rapidly changing immigration policies. One strategy to improve legal referral networks is a “triage” model, whereby immigrants who will not be affected by the revised public charge rule—green card holders, naturalized citizens, or refugees—can receive standard information via light-touch written resources or Q&A sessions, and other immigrants would be advised to consult an attorney for personalized advice.
- Build authentic trust between governments, nonprofit agencies, and immigrants, as this is the bedrock of effective and inclusive support for their communities. Key steps for organizations to build that trust include collecting minimal sensitive information, building linguistic and cultural competency among their staff and leadership, and partnering with trusted organizations for communication and service delivery. Some government agencies and mainstream service organizations in Las Vegas have recognized the need to prove themselves to be safe spaces, where immigrants can come without fear or hesitation for support. In Houston, where there is a more established network of immigrant-serving organizations, even trusted organizations found it difficult to reassure clients about their fears of accepting help. But these trusted relationships are critical, especially as organizations and communities are tested by the current crisis.
Our research emphasizes how difficult it is for local organizations to build trust with immigrants when the federal, state, and local policy environment is less than supportive. The exclusion of many immigrant families from federal COVID-19 emergency supports has many policymakers, service providers, and advocates worried about the effectiveness of local recovery efforts to address immigrants’ health and well-being during the pandemic. Excluding immigrant families risks not only their well-being but that of the entire community. The continued implementation of the public charge rule in the context of the crisis risks amplifying chilling effects.