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Why Are Migrant Workers Missing in the Federal COVID-19 Response?
20 July 2020 - Irene Bantigue

Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) is a transnational organization that advances migrant worker rights in Mexico and the United States. We recently caught up with Rachel Micah-Jones, CDM’s Executive Director, as well as Marí Perales Sanchez, Communications Coordinator of Policy & Campaigns. We discussed how COVID-19 has increased migrant worker vulnerabilities and the federal government’s failure to provide meaningful and enforceable protections. We also talked about how the current momentum around social injustices in the United States serves as fertile ground to create new legislation for immigrant communities, as well as how they hope to engage. 

As if the climate surrounding migrant worker rights under the Trump administration were not tense enough, Marí Perales Sanchez says that “their vulnerabilities have augmented since COVID-19.” 

During this time, the CDM team has worked tirelessly to counter the spread of misinformation in Mexico. Rachel Micah-Jones shares that many migrant workers are still waiting to find out if they will be coming to the United States this season. There are also recruiters capitalizing on heightened uncertainty, demanding payments for false medical exams, employer tests and more. “It’s a big concern for our team, so we’re working hard to intervene before migrant workers pay money,” she says.                        

Additionally, CDM’s legal team has been taking on cases related to complaints from migrant workers subjected to unsafe working conditions across the country. One such case takes place in Louisiana, where H-2B visa workers in the seafood industry recently got fired for going to the hospital. Despite the heightened risk of COVID-19 in production plants, many immigrant workers continue to work because the $2 trillion CARES Act excludes them from accessing pandemic relief funds. “That’s an area where the government is deliberately failing undocumented workers nationwide,” Marí says.

When asked what is working about the current COVID-19 relief effort, Rachel emphasizes that when it comes to migrant workers, “the government could be doing so much better.” She continues by adding that “we’re missing out on opportunities to build out worker support, ensure safe housing and transportation, infectious disease standards [and more].” Most of the policies being issued are guidelines at best–they do not create enforceable legal standards and remedies in the case that migrant rights are being abused. 

Black Lives Matter, DACA Win for Dreamers, and Restoring Hope in America

Yet with increased momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement and other social injustices in the United States, both Marí and Rachel are hopeful that more inclusive laws and regulations for migrant workers will develop. “People are paying attention in a way that they weren’t before,” Rachel says. “Whether that’s going to translate as changed behavior is another story, but it’s encouraging to see action happening on the ground.”

For Marí, the Supreme Court decision concerning the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program restored some hope. She was one of the plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits filed against the Trump administration for suspending the program, putting thousands of undocumented immigrants at risk.

In early June, Marí had returned to her childhood home in Houston, Texas, to be with her family. She leaned into her support system and talked with Rachel to prepare for the Thursday release of the decision. “I was in shock,” Marí says as Rachel forwarded the full Supreme Court opinion. “The decision came out better than we expected. It’s still more of a starting point than a solution, but it’s better than what we had imagined.” 

How did she spend the following day? Celebrating on a Zoom call with more than 70+ people that were also involved in the case, and similarly “elated, yet still in shock.” 

Marí reminds us that she comprised one part of the bigger picture. She also emphasizes “the Supreme Court win should be attributed to the immigrant community, and not solely to the decision of the court.” The lawsuits were made possible because of a dedicated coalition of DACA recipients, named plaintiffs, lawyers, institutions and more. “It’s wonderful to see a community of people wanting to step in to prevent Trump from attacking immigrant communities.”

Right now, the CDM team continues to balance immediate priorities related to COVID-19 and long-term opportunities beyond the horizon. They are even thinking as far as the 2026 FIFA World Cup tournament–set to take place in North America–and the possible opportunities it can bring with an expressed commitment to human rights standards. Until then, they are thinking about how to financially sustain their work so they can continue advocating for migrant workers in the absence of transformative legislation.