Immigrants, refugees face heightened insecurity during pandemic

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, May 6, 2020

A woman near El Paso, Texas, walks on the international border bridge with Mexico March 13, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has increased burdens on immigrants without legal status. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

To read this article in Spanish, click here.

Immigrant and refugee communities face uncertainty and stress every day, and the coronavirus pandemic has increased that, causing people who minister to immigrants and refugees to worry.

“There’s just a lot of people who are very, very uncertain — not as if they weren’t uncertain before — in regard to all of this. It’s really difficult,” said Father Larry Dowling, a member of the Priests for Justice for Immigrants and pastor of St. Agatha Parish, 3147 W. Douglas Blvd.

Those who are undocumented are particularly vulnerable because their immigration status makes it easy for employers to take advantage of them, Dowling said.

“Obviously there’s been some issues that have come up in regard to lack of employment,” he said. “But also, some places that are not essential business have been making them work and subjecting them to some dangerous conditions.”

Immigrants and refugees do not qualify for the economic stimulus checks given to U.S. citizens or other economic or health care support.

“That’s obviously a big oversight, since many of them are essential workers so there’s clearly that concern,” Dowling said.

The immigrant community in general is often reluctant to reach out for economic benefits or health care assistance in normal times, he said, and that reluctance has only increased.

“You have to wonder about the pressure on families and just the resistance to reporting and going to the hospital and those sorts of things,” Dowling said. “In the Hispanic population, there’s a growing health crisis of people being at risk because of the conditions that they live in or the stress that they are under and are especially susceptible to the virus. All of that complicates this for the population.”

Dowling encouraged Catholics who want to help immigrants in need during the pandemic to contact churches in immigrant communities.

“I think for Catholics, it’s an awareness of the pressures and the tensions of the community. And direct outreach to some of the predominantly immigrant parishes to say, ‘What do you need? Are there specific things I can help with?’ That would be the best way to respond,” he said.

Dowling, his fellow priests who minister to immigrant communities and other church ministers are reaching out to individuals and families reassuring them that they have ways to help them and encouraging them to seek health care if they need it.

A lack of access to and understanding of virtual tools can hamper those outreach efforts, which is why Pastoral Migratoria, the archdiocese’s immigrant-to-immigrant ministry, has focused on training local and national leaders within immigrant communities about how to conduct virtual gatherings using tools like Zoom and WhatsApp, said Elena Segura, the archdiocese’s senior coordinator for immigration.

Pastoral Migratoria started in the archdiocese in 2008 and, with the support of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is helping to launch similar programs in other dioceses.

Most immigrants and people who are undocumented have cellphones but not laptops, so ministers must use phone-friendly platforms, Segura said. Immigration ministers are using virtual tools for prayer, peace circles and information sessions on topics such as financial programs they might qualify for, workers’ rights and mental health.

“We’ve been doing that all over, training the trainers, on how to create virtual space online,” Segura said.

Others can learn from the immigrant community during the pandemic, she said.

“Everybody is living in a state of uncertainty, but the immigrant community has been experiencing the same thing for so many years,” Segura said. “Now the world is experiencing it and is going to understand what the undocumented and immigrant community has been going through.”

Many immigrants and those who are undocumented have learned to rely on God in times of uncertainty, and that example can benefit non-immigrants during the pandemic, she noted.

“You and I are pilgrims. Immigrants are pilgrims. They live one day at a time,” Segura said. “All of us need to live like undocumented immigrants. All of us are called to live one day at a time.”

Refugees who have resettled in the Chicago area face stresses and uncertainties similar to those that impact other immigrant communities. Each year Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago helps resettle around 200 refugees who have been forced to flee their homelands due to war, terror and persecution.

Some of those clients have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and Catholic Charities is helping them apply for unemployment.

“It’s challenging for the general public to apply for unemployment, but can you imagine what it is like for our clients who aren’t English-speaking?” said Elmida Kulovic, director of the agency’s Refugee Resettlement Program and a former refugee herself. “Fortunately, they all have smart phones so every client already prior to COVID-19 knew how to reach out to case managers and employment counselors. That was an easy transition to informing clients how to reach us.”

Kulovic’s office has been able to supply clients with multi-language educational materials about COVID-19 and social distancing developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ refugee office. They have also started virtual culture orientation and job readiness classes using WhatsApp to help newly arrived clients get settled in. These classes took place in person before the pandemic. When needed, Catholic Charities is also delivering food and supplies like toiletries to clients.

Obtaining necessary documents to start job searches has become a bigger challenge for refugees, because government offices are closed, Kulovic said.

“We have clients who arrived and have a Social Security card. However, they cannot get state IDs, so this is something that’s a big obstacle for us and our clients for them to look for jobs,” Kulovic said. “Thankfully, public transportation is not discontinued so this is not an obstacle. Some of our colleagues in other states say this is an obstacle for their clients because they can’t get to their jobs.”

So far, clients have not needed help with rent, but Kulovic expects that will become an issue soon for those who continue to be without work.

Work continues, but in a different way than normal for the Catholic Charities’ LOOM program. LOOM is a non-profit social enterprise started by the agency’s refugee resettlement program where refugees — mostly women — make handicrafts that are sold to help them earn money. 

While the LOOM studio is closed, artisans have turned to making personal protective items at home.

“We are providing materials for them, and many of our artisans who have sewing machines at home started sewing cloth masks,” Kulovic said. “We are delivering these to Catholic Charities senior housing programs for the residents. It’s such a great collaboration.”

The artisans are being paid for the masks, and are sending some of that money back to family members who are in need.

“Many refugees upon arrival here are struggling to adjust to their new life in the United States, but at the same time they do have family members overseas who need their support,” Kulovic said.

Kulovic acknowledged that the isolation and stress of the pandemic can be particularly hard for refugees.

“Refugees are really resilient people, and I know this situation of social distancing is bringing a lot of anxiety to everyone, but especially to those who have been through trauma like refugees,” she said. “We will see in the long run how this will impact, in general, our society and our refugees.”


  • refugees
  • immigration ministry
  • coronavirus

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