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The Pandemic

Coronavirus pushes undocumented families in memphis into shadows

Fear of ICE agents, deportation greater than fear of coronavirus

A four-year-old gets a bag of new books from Edith Ornelas (second from left) and Nicole Davila with the Mariposa Collective as the pair delivers care packages of food, clothes and baby supplies to undocumented immigrant families in Southeast Memphis on April 23, 2020. In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, Ornelas, a cofounder of the collective, and volunteers visit local families several times a week to provide aid. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)
A four-year-old gets a bag of new books from Edith Ornelas (second from left) and Nicole Davila with the Mariposa Collective as the pair delivers care packages of food, clothes and baby supplies to undocumented immigrant families in Southeast Memphis in April 2020. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Ornelas, a co-founder of the collective, visits local families several times a week to provide aid. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

Tiny sets of eyes watched Edith Ornelas through windows as she drove her dark SUV slowly past rows of mobile homes.

The Memphis trailer park was unusually still and quiet, even for an overcast spring afternoon.

”There are a lot of kids in here, but they’re all inside,” Edith said. “Now they’ve got two reasons to be afraid to come outside. ICE and COVID.”

Edith found Maria’s mobile home and stopped the car. She got out, opened the tailgate and reached in for a box full of rice, beans and other food.

Maria, an undocumented immigrant, and her three school-age daughters are among the growing number of migrant families on Edith’s supply route.

”Before COVID, I was visiting three or four families a week,” said Edith, a volunteer for opens in a new windowMariposas Collective. “Now it’s up to 22 families. The number increases every week. It was never easy for them, but the virus and the lockdown have made it much worse.”

No one knows how much worse. Undocumented immigrants are an undocumented part of the coronavirus crisis.

Members of the joint COVID-19 Task Force are becoming more concerned.

They know many migrants have lost their jobs, but many others are working in places that leave them and their families vulnerable to the virus.

Edith Ornelas, co-founder of the Mariposa Collective, puts together care packages of food, clothes and baby supplies to be delivered to undocumented immigrant families in Southeast Memphis on April 23, 2020. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Ornelas and volunteers at the collective visit local families several times a week to provide aid. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)
Edith Ornelas, co-founder of the Mariposa Collective, puts together care packages of food, clothes and baby supplies to be delivered to undocumented immigrant families in Southeast Memphis. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

They know that undocumented families are ineligible for government stimulus checks, unemployment benefits, and small business loans.

They also think that a large and disproportionate number of migrants and asylum seekers are not getting tested for COVID-19.

”They can’t afford to get tested. They can’t afford to test positive,” said Jenny Bartlett-Prescott of opens in a new windowChurch Health, who is the task force’s community testing coordinator. “They’re worried they’ll lose their jobs, or worse, they’ll be detained and deported.”

The task force is trying to make testing more accessible and less threatening.

They’re giving away food boxes at some testing sites. They’ve added Spanish speakers and signs at some sites.

They’ve added testing sites in Hickory Hill, Parkway Village and Binghampton, neighborhoods with large Hispanic populations. The 38118 Zip code was identified as a coronavirus “hot spot” Wednesday by the health department.

’re trying to get the message out, in English and Spanish, that no one needs insurance and no one has to share immigration status to be tested.

And they’re developing a survey to learn more about the particular fears and anxieties facing the local migrant community.

”These are the people who are filling our delivery orders and stocking our shelves and cooking our food,” said Mauricio Calvo, executive director of opens in a new windowLatino Memphis.

”They are hiding in plain sight. They’re used to having a lot of bad things happen to them, but they don’t know what to do about the virus.”

“They’re completely trapped”

Edith wore a mask and gloves as she took food, clothing, and some feminine hygiene products to Maria’s door.

The girls wanted Edith to come in, but she wanted to limit her exposure and theirs. She stood in the open doorway and peeked in.

Family photos lined the wall. The TV was on. Several pairs of shoes were patched with duct tape.

The oldest daughter, 13, was drawing. The youngest daughter, 7, who is diabetic, played with dolls. The middle daughter, 11, who is anemic, was just sitting on a bed.

While Maria and Edith talked, the girls took turns crying.

”They’re afraid, angry, frustrated,” Edith said. “They haven’t been in school, they haven’t even been out of this trailer in weeks. And they haven’t seen their father.”

One day in early March, Maria’s husband, also undocumented, dropped their daughters off at school, then drove Downtown to pay a traffic ticket. He never came back.

”He knew it was a risk to go, but he was more worried about not paying the ticket and giving them a reason to deport him,” Edith explained.

He was detained and deported anyway — after living and working here for nearly 20 years as a landscaper, paying taxes and raising a family.

Now, Maria is weighing her own risks.

Should she stay here without a source of income and risk getting deported herself?

Or should she take her three American-born, English-speaking daughters to live with their father in Mexico?

”People ask her why she just doesn’t go back home, but this is her home, too,” Edith says. “This is the only home her daughters know. They’re Americans.”

Edith hears stories like Maria’s every week as she works to patch holes in the safety net that allow entire families to fall through.

National surveys show that three of four undocumented immigrants have lost their jobs during the pandemic. Half who are still working had their hours cut.

Three in 10 were unable to pay the current month’s rent, and more than eight in 10 don’t think they will be able to pay next month’s rent.

Edith Ornelas, co-founder of the Mariposa Collective, loads care packages of food, clothes and baby supplies into her car at First Congregational Church to be delivered to undocumented immigrant families in Southeast Memphis on April 23, 2020. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Ornelas and volunteers at the collective visit local families several times a week to provide aid. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)
Edith Ornelas, co-founder of the Mariposa Collective, loads care packages of food, clothes and baby supplies into her car at First Congregational Church to be delivered to undocumented immigrant families in Southeast Memphis in April 2020. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

”Those families largely live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford the privilege of being sick or quarantined,” said Bryce W. Ashby, an immigration attorney for opens in a new windowDonati Law.  ”Immigration enforcement already has families on edge and now they are faced with this outbreak. And the CARES Act makes undocumented immigrants ineligible for stimulus checks.”

Maria and her husband own their mobile home, but they rent the trailer park lot for $350 a month.

Her husband’s small landscaping business paid the bills until he got deported. Maria doesn’t have a driver’s license or a photo ID. And now she has no income.

The kids haven’t been at their charter school since early March. They didn’t have Internet access until last week, when their teacher brought them a laptop with a hotspot.

”They’re afraid to go outside,” Edith said. “They’re afraid of immigration agents. They’re afraid of the virus. They’re afraid to go to a clinic. They’re trapped.”

Edith found some church folks who are helping Maria pay her rent.

She brings them food, household supplies, over-the-counter medicines, and a few other items once or twice a week.

This time she brought three new pairs of tennis shoes for the girls.

”They were so grateful for everything, they wanted to give me a hug,” Edith said. “I wanted to give them all a hug but I couldn’t. It broke my heart.”

opens in a new window“How privileged we are”

A couple of weeks ago, Edith got a call from a Hispanic woman who lives in Cottonwood Apartments in southeast Memphis.

”She was desperate,” Edith said. “She couldn’t find diapers anywhere.”

The woman, Dunia, had two children of her own. She’d taken in four others. And she was trying to help the mothers of a dozen others.

Edith brought her several boxes of diapers and baby wipes, along with boxes of food and other supplies.

Edith first met Dunia in late October after a opens in a new windowtornado tore through the complex.

The tornado damaged 41 of the 47 buildings in the complex, and 16 of them were deemed “structurally unsafe.”

About 700 of the 1,000 or so people who lived there were forced to relocate. Mariposas helped some of the families who remained.

”They had nowhere else to go,” Edith said.

Many of the Hispanic women who lived there worked as housekeepers. Some were fired because they didn’t show up for work the day after the tornado.

Now the coronavirus was taking more of what little the tornado left behind.

Edith Ornelas (left), co-founder of the Mariposa Collective, and Nicole Davila deliver care packages of food, clothes and baby supplies to undocumented immigrant families at an apartment complex in Southeast Memphis on April 23, 2020. In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, Ornelas and volunteers at the collective visit local families several times a week to provide aid. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)
Edith Ornelas (left), co-founder of the Mariposa Collective, and Nicole Davila deliver care packages of food, clothes and baby supplies to undocumented immigrant families at an apartment complex in Southeast Memphis. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

”They’ve all lost their jobs,” Edith said. “Some of the men have lost their jobs or had their hours cut back. Some just left. We’ve been trying to help.”

Mariposas Collective was formed a year and a half ago to help asylum-seeking migrants who were passing through Memphis on buses to other ports of refuge.

The volunteers pass out food, water, diapers, over-the-counter medicine and other supplies to the migrants, many of whom haven’t eaten in over two days.

Edith went the first time to help translate. Being there, she was transported.

”I hadn’t thought about my own immigrant journey for a long time,” Edith said. “I guess I’d tried to erase it. Seeing all of those kids and families on the bus reminded me of me and where I’d come from. And how privileged I am now.”

Edith was born in Mexico and lived there with her mother and extended family until she was 7.

Her father had migrated to Chicago when he was 16. A year later, President Reagan granted amnesty to him and nearly three million other illegal immigrants.

Edith’s father worked in restaurants, rising from dishwasher to head chef. On visits back to Mexico, he met and married Edith’s mother and they had two daughters.

When Edith was seven, her parents gave her a U.S. cousin’s passport and told her she was going to Disneyland. They met her at a McDonald’s in San Diego and drove to Chicago.

”I still haven’t been to Disneyland,” Edith said.

She has been back to Mexico many times. Her mother, sister and her became U.S. residents in the early 1990’s.

Now she takes her own son to visit family in Mexico. Before the virus, she also took him with her on her supply runs for Mariposas.

”I want him to know where we came from, and to know how blessed he is, how privileged we are” Edith said.

Edith has a nice home and car, a healthy child in a good school, a loving and supportive husband, opens in a new windowLin Johnson.

Johnson was chief financial officer and district superintendent for Shelby County Schools until last summer. Now he’s a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.

”Sometimes I feel disgusted to have so much privilege,” Edith said. “It’s humbling. I just keep trying to help. I gotta do something. I know I crossed that border for a reason.”

“Trying to keep each other safe”

Edith’s supply route took her to several neighborhoods, from Parkway Village to Berclair.

In Berclair, she visited Paula, a pregnant woman who has a one-year-old child.

Paula walked to America from Honduras, a treacherous 1,200-mile journey that took months.

She met her husband along the way. They traveled together and were mugged at the border. She was granted asylum and came to Memphis on a bus. Her husband found another way.

”They were living in the Cottonwood when the tornado hit,” Edith said. “She lost her job cleaning houses. He’s working construction but he’s lost a lot of hours.”

The coronavirus pandemic shut down the asylum system in March, but immigration raids, detentions and deportations go on.

”The fear of immigration raids already pushed a lot of immigrants off the grid, but they were finding ways to help and support each other,” said Rev. Goyo De la Cruz, who serves Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

”Now the virus has further isolated them. Their kids can’t go to school. They can’t go to church. They’re afraid to go to a clinic or the hospital. They’re afraid to go outside.”

De la Cruz and several other local Methodists have established an Immigration Relief Fund through opens in a new windowTrinity United Methodist Church.

The fund will help migrants with rent, utilities and expenses during the pandemic.

Advocates are hoping local or state governments will use some of the federal relief money to help.

The mayor of Minneapolis, for example, used his emergency powers to create a $5 million forgivable loan fund to help renters and small businesses regardless of their immigration status.

”We could do the same here,” Calvo said. “The stimulus checks are supposed to help taxpayers in need. All immigrants pay taxes. And if we want to get the economy going and keep it going, we need immigrants to keep working.”

Dunia, the woman who called Edith for diapers, keeps working.

When Edith brings supplies to Cottonwood, she only visits Arisela and her family. But she brings enough supplies for half a dozen other families.

Dunia does the rest.

”I’m the supplier, she’s the distributor,” Edith said with a laugh. “No, really, they are doing all they can to take care of each other. I’m just trying to help them do that. I can’t imagine what these families are going through.”

Dunia and her husband are caring for six children — including four who are not their own.

That includes an eight-year-old boy who was abandoned by the man who used him to cross the border last year.

”When her husband complained, she told him she’s going to do for that child what she hopes someone would do for hers,” Edith said.

“When she said that, I just wanted to hug her. But I knew I couldn’t. We’re all trying to keep each other safe.”

To learn more about Mariposas Collective, visit their opens in a new windowFacebook page.

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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