The Heights

At risk and "often unseen," the pandemic hits different for Mid-South immigrants (Quick Read)

Dorian Canales is a senior at a Memphis-area university. He had a lot on his plate before the pandemic. Now his graduation has been postponed and classes moved online.

He, like many Memphians, is also worried about how COVID-19 will affect his family’s future.

“The CDC might encourage people to stay home, but people like my family have to find the means to survive and provide,” said Canales.

Canales is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA recipient. He immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras when he was 7-years-old. His parents, both painters, can't work from home and can't afford not to work.

“Many minorities have to work the essential jobs. They’re your construction workers, stockers, and fast food workers. They’re inevitably going to be exposed to the virus," said first-generation American and Memphian Nestor Avila.

It's estimated that 40,000 to 60,000 people who are foreign-born now live and work in Shelby County. They include U.S. citizens, legal residents, refugees, undocumented workers, and those here on work, student, and fiancé visas. Only those intending to stay long-term are immigrants.

Memphis' immigrants are educators, business professionals, and small business owners. They're also shift-based workers across industries--distribution, healthcare, janitorial, construction, food service, retail.

As Memphis reopens, these Memphians will face an increased risk of exposure to the virus. They'll also face roadblocks to economic recovery unique to their communities.

There's fear around documentation, restrictions on aid, language barriers, and new and proposed federal policies that will hinder immigration and access to jobs post-pandemic.

“[Immigrants] still are often unseen, unheard, under-counted, and, therefore, highly underserved," said Michael Phillips, executive director of local nonprofit, Su Casa Family Ministries.

Jared Myers (R), executive director of Heights CDC, works with a local teen to canvas The Heights neighborhood. The Heights is home to Memphis' largest Latino community and international business community. Su Casa Family Ministries is also located in The Heights. (Cole Bradley)

CUrrent Concerns

Like Canales, Avila’s parents are from Honduras. He was born in Memphis.

He's 18 years old now and balances his university course work with his job stocking shelves at a local grocery store. His father is a construction worker and is the primary earner for their family of eight.

Avila knows they're at risk when they go to work, but it's a necessity.

“Most people are worried about a lack of food,” Avila said. “Not everyone has the same resources and same income to stock up.”

An New American Economy COVID-19 special report showed immigrants are over-represented among front-line essential workers. They're just over 14% of the U.S. population but account for 36.5% of home health aids, 28.7% of physicians, and 15.7% of nurses. They also make up over 16% of grocery workers and over 18% of food delivery workers.

"Some of our tenants have already called to say they won’t be able to pay this month’s rent," said Jared Myers, Heights CDC's executive director, of those living in the nonprofit's affordable-rate rental properties. "They’re also asking for assistance with utilities and with food access.”

The Heights is home to Shelby County's largest Latino community and international business community. Heights CDC recently launched a COVID-19 relief fund for area residents.

Myers said too many of their neighbors are unaware or unsure of how to get aid because most resources are available only in English.

“Not having information in their language is a huge barrier,” he said.

To-date, there's been only one COVID-19 testing event gear towards Spanish-speakers. It was held May 6 by Christ Community Health Service. CCHS does offer translators at its Hickory Hill, Raleigh, and Broad Avenue locations during normal testing house. 

There have been no testing specifically directed at Mid-Southerns who speak other languages.

Immigrants may also fear that seeking services will put undocumented family members at risk. Undocumented workers are also ineligible for federal aid that requires a Social Security number. This includes CARES Act pandemic relief like stimulus checks or grants for college students,

Small businesses have taken crushing blows in the pandemic, and immigrants are more likely to own their own businesses than those born in the U.S. Of particular note are Asian-owned businesses, which have seen sales plummet and hate crimes increase due to association with the virus's Chinese origins.

Read Part II: "Immigrants face new fears for jobs and citizenship post-pandemic" (Quick Read)


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Find more resources and ways to help in both English and Spanish in our Memphis Area COVID-19 Resource Guide. 

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Read more articles by Ashley Davis and Cole Bradley.

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