Immigrants Face High Living Costs, Lack of Safety Net During Pandemic

by Sue Smith

“Can you help?” she asked. “We’ve just moved to the US, and my 75-year-old mom needs to find a primary care provider so that she can get new prescriptions for her medications.”

Our contact with migrant families often begins with a specific request for assistance. And usually, that’s the beginning of a long-term relationship with a family.

It was Monday, March 2, and not exactly the best time for this South American family of five to start fresh in the US. Less than a week later, COVID-19 would hit hard.

The Acero* family arrived in the U.S. in mid-February. Their business had failed, and they were at the point of bankruptcy.

Both Amada* and her husband, Santiago*, were willing to accept any jobs they could find to pay off debt and get back on their feet – and to eventually return home.

Despite the fact that both appear to be educated professionals, they weren’t looking for professional-level jobs.

“We’ll wash dishes, work in the kitchen, clean houses – whatever it takes,” said Amada. “We know it’s hard to start over, especially in the U.S., but we have nothing back home. We had to take a chance.”

After locating a physician for Amada’s mother, the family’s next step was to get the kids into school. The couple’s two sons, ages 9 and 12, needed school physicals and immunizations, which cost just over $500.

The parents had to meet residency requirements to enroll the boys in school by providing documented proof that they actually lived in the school district. This was difficult, because they were in a temporary housing situation, staying with friends.

With the boys finally in school, both adults could now work. Santiago quickly found a job, and soon after, Amada found one as well – both working in restaurants. Amada’s mother was available at home to help out with the boys.

The next hurdle was permanent housing. They quickly realized that renting an apartment for the family was out of the question, even with both adults working.

With savings nearly depleted, they were barely making enough to pay the first month’s rent, much less the one-month deposit that was also required when they signed a lease. Not to mention food, clothing and transportation expenses.

According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Out of Reach 2019”, a family should expect to dedicate approximately 30% of their monthly income to housing costs.

In the state of Virginia, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,203. A family working at the minimum wage rate (currently $7.25/hour in Virginia) would need to hold 3.2 full-time jobs in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. That translates into 128 hours of work per week.

The FMR in Fredericksburg and its surrounding counties is actually higher than the state average. FMR for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,665, and the family would need to hold 4.4 full-time jobs at the state’s $7.25 minimum wage in order to afford housing, or work a total of 177 hours per week.

Many immigrants, refugees, asylees, etc., enter the job market at extremely low levels and often work less than 40 hours per week.

Desperate for income and with minimal English skills, they frequently find work in restaurants, housekeeping or janitorial services, construction, landscaping and outdoor maintenance, etc. These jobs provide average hourly wages ranging from Virginia’s $7.25 minimum wage to around $14-$16 per hour for a construction helper.

The Aceros were in shock. They realized that their family of five would need at least two bedrooms. And not only did they need to pay the first month’s rent in advance, but they also needed to provide a security deposit equal to one month’s rent.

This wasn’t possible on the couple’s two salaries from their work in restaurants. The family was forced to rent two bedrooms in the home of strangers.

It’s been over a month since I met the Acero family, and COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on immigrant and refugee families like theirs.

The boys were in school only two days before spring break began early and abruptly, and classes have now been cancelled for the rest of the year.

Schools are still struggling with how to meet the needs of students with limited access to technology. The boys are at home all day, but unable to complete their schoolwork in English. While schools are working on ways to support English Language Learners or parents who aren’t fluent in English, this requires time to get everything in place.

Santiago lost his job on a Friday, and Amada on the following Monday. Amada’s mother initially received one month of medications through a reduced-cost clinic, but she needs to refill her prescriptions.

This month’s rent on the rooms is paid, but what happens next? There are no shelters for families like this, and friends simply can’t take in a family of five in these difficult times.

As difficult as things are for the Acero family, they are only one of thousands of families across the United States who are being affected in some way by COVID-19. Many don’t have a safety net to rely on, as their friends and family members are in similar situations.

Through LUCHA Ministries, we continue to provide food for families like the Aceros, to help them gain access to healthcare, and to provide other forms of assistance when we are able.

And we serve as advocates, intervening when we can and educating others on the plight of vulnerable migrants. We pray for them and call or text often to check up on them.

In spite of everything, Amada gives thanks for the blessings of being healthy and safe and together as a family. “God is good. God is so good,” she says.

This article was originally published on EthicsDaily.com April 30, 2020.

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