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Casper's immigrant families face added hurdles during coronavirus
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Casper's immigrant families face added hurdles during coronavirus

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Nearly every family across Wyoming has been affected by the swift spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Numerous businesses and schools have indefinitely closed. Unemployment claims have surged. Testing for the virus remains severely limited. In short, uncertainty saturates nearly every corner of life.

But many immigrants who live and work in the Equality State, especially those without U.S. citizenship, have faced additional hurdles throughout the public health crisis — from difficulty accessing proper federal relief and medical care to the stress of being separated from family.

Maria immigrated from Mexico in 2012 and is now living in Casper. Since the emergence of coronavirus cases in Wyoming, she has struggled to obtain the government assistance her family now needs. The Star-Tribune has agreed to use only her first name for her safety.

“I thought that my daughters and I were eligible for the federal help that the government passed, as we are here legally in the U.S.,” she said by email in Spanish. “But given that I am married to an immigrant, I can’t receive this help.”

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act, an economic recovery package that lawmakers promised would lessen the blow to workers and businesses during the pandemic by expanding unemployment benefits and providing $1 billion for free COVID-19 testing at government-funded community health centers.

Lawmakers also included a recovery rebate, commonly referred to as a stimulus check, for individuals and families. The Treasury Department will provide $1,200 stimulus checks to individuals and an additional $500 for children. Couples filing taxes jointly will receive a combined $2,400.

But there’s a catch to receiving the cash: You need a Social Security number.

Individuals without Social Security numbers do not qualify for the recovery rebate. That includes immigrants holding Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers who pay sales, income and property taxes and are authorized to work in the U.S.

That can make matters complicated for mixed-immigration status households. If a couple files taxes jointly, but one carries a Social Security Number and the other an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, the couple would need to file separately to qualify for the relief, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

At that point, only eligible family members (with Social Security numbers) would receive the cash rebate. But filing separately can come with its own consequences, including becoming ineligible for some Affordable Care Act subsidies.

‘Damned if you do...’

In Wyoming, 8,166 residents have at least one “unauthorized immigrant family member,” according to 2017 data analyzed by the Center for American Progress.

“A lot of times our immigrant neighbors are off the grid, whether they are documented or not,” said Kim Kunckel, who serves on the Immigration Alliance of Casper’s leadership team. “Maybe a family member is documented, but the rest are not, so they really live in the shadows and don’t have access to many types of support.”

What’s more, immigration advocates said the CARES Act restricts immigrants’ access to testing, treatment and eventually vaccines for COVID-19. A selection of government-funded community health centers will offer free testing. States will also be able to use Medicaid programs to cover testing for some uninsured patients. But several million immigrants legally residing in the country are not eligible for Medicaid.

According to Kim Deti, a Wyoming Health Department spokeswoman, immigrants in Wyoming could apply for the Medicaid Emergency Services Program to receive coverage of COVID-19 testing.

“As long as the individual qualifies for the Emergency Services Program and the claim is coded as an emergency, the service would be covered,” she told the Star-Tribune. “I’m also told an individual would have to meet one of our other coverage groups except for the citizenship criteria to qualify for the Emergency Services program.”

Eligibility for expanded paid sick leave or unemployment insurance benefits under the new CARES Act will not be determined by immigration status, though individuals do need to have been authorized to work.

To Antonio Serrano, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming, these measures aren’t sufficient, because many immigrant families, especially those with undocumented members, are scared to even seek help.

“There’s a huge fear: You’re faced with deportation and possible death in some cases, or you’re faced with possible death for not getting (medical) help,” Serrano said. “It’s like you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”

The CARES Act does not contain provisions explicitly exempting hospitals or clinics from the reach of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, the agency has issued a statement saying, in light of coronavirus, it will revise its protocols and “not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.”

But Serrano, of the ACLU, believes these enforcement changes still fail to go far enough; fear continues to discourage immigrants from seeking help at medical facilities, or applying for federal support, he said.

Economic hardships

Maria initially came to Denver from Mexico to escape unemployment and poverty in 2012. The 45-year-old eventually moved with her family up to Casper to be closer to her sister.

“I was thinking of my son and giving him a better quality of life as that was already impossible in our country,” she said.

In addition to her sister’s family, Maria’s brother lives here. But since the coronavirus pandemic started, the entire family has been struggling, she said.

“They are suffering from the havoc caused by this pandemic as they are left without work and my nephews aren’t going to school,” Maria said.

Some in her family have had their employment hours cut back given the widespread closure of businesses. Others, like her son, are now unemployed.

“We are some of the many people that this pandemic has affected,” she said. “We usually work full time, and now we aren’t even working half of the time that we were before. My son was laid off this week.”

The closure of schools, the scarcity of viable jobs and strained medical facilities worry her.

“For me and my family, it is very difficult to not be able to get together with our families and friends as we had before, and our children remain shut in,” she noted.

But Maria’s not just thinking about her own family; the plights of other working families in Wyoming concern her, especially those who worked minimum wage jobs in hotels and restaurants and now face unemployment.

Last week, the Department of Workforce Services announced it had received 4,652 new claims for unemployment insurance for the week beginning on March 23. That’s in addition to the 6,010 applications the department is still continuing to process from previous weeks. Compared to the week of March 12, last week’s initial unemployment claims climbed a staggering 800 percent.

The leisure and hospitality industry in Wyoming was hit especially hard by the economic slowdown, with 952 workers filing unemployment claims the week of March 15, according to the state’s data. Immigrants make up a significant portion of the hospitality industry and other low-wage roles.

“I would like to see the state help them with economic support and health insurance for each person that has paid their taxes without regard to their legal status while the pandemic passes,” Maria said.

Away from family

Adeline Mukelabai also has been wrestling with the mayhem the pandemic has caused, not just for her and her son in Casper, but for the rest of her family back in Zambia, where she is originally from. She is a single mother with a 9-year-old son. Her sister is here on a student visa and enrolled at Casper College. But most of her family still lives in Zambia.

Mukelabai speaks with her family every day over the phone. But she’s still anxious. Zambia lacks sufficient medical infrastructure to handle the potential surge in coronavirus cases, she explained. The possibility of widespread government aid is unlikely. This month, Zambia confirmed its first cases of the virus.

“If people (in Zambia) don’t go to work, if they go home and stay, they won’t have anything to eat,” she said. “And there is no capacity to extend them checks or pass a bill like that has been done here; there is nothing like that. It’s just our prayer that this comes to an end, because it would be such a disaster for many African countries.”

Stay-at-home orders that several states have adopted in the U.S. would not be as feasible in Zambia, she explained. If her family does not continue work, they will not have any money for food.

“I’m actually more worried for my family and friends back home than I am for myself here,” she said. “We are all at risk, but I think they are more at risk than I am.”

Mukelabai came to the U.S. recently through the Diversity Immigrant Program and holds a green card. She will likely be eligible for the assistance extended by the CARES Act. But she must contend with other challenges, like health care. She applied for CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and Medicaid and was denied because she has not resided in the U.S. for more than five years. She could turn to the insurance marketplace, but coverage is pricey, she said.

Non-citizens living in the U.S. are more likely than U.S. citizens to not have health insurance, according to

a report published by the Kaiser Family Foundation

last month, likely imperiling the health of immigrant families even more during a pandemic.

As for her sister, Mukelabai does not know if she will be able to reap the benefits of government support; she only holds a student visa.

For now, the 35-year-old mother is focused on staying home and caring for her son.

“We just keep hoping and praying that it comes to an end,” she said.

Additional resources for immigrant families in Wyoming can be found on the Immigration Alliance of Casper’s website, www.immigrationallianceofcasper.org.

Star-Tribune staff reporter Seth Klamann contributed to this article. Katherine Boehnke, who serves on the Immigration Alliance of Casper’s leadership team, provided translation support.

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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