COVID-19 spike in heavily immigrant communities tied to fear of ‘Public Charge’

Local community organizations offer resources, urge inclusion

A heat map of COVID-19 cases by Nashville zip code. (Courtesy of Metro Nashville Department of Health.)
A heat map of COVID-19 cases by Nashville zip code for the week ending May 1. (Courtesy of the Metro Nashville Department of Health.)

A “heat map” released by Metro Nashville officials shows concentrations of COVID-19 cases in two Davidson County zip codes — 37211 and 37013 — that are home to many of the area’s immigrants. 

Some local advocates for the immigrant community say fear of the federal policy known as “Public Charge” is one reason for the spike. 

“There are multiple barriers that immigrant communities have to navigate in their attempts to access help and get the necessary resources for their families: unemployment, language barriers, and general fear of what they can access without having their ability to have their status negatively impacted,” said Judith Clerjeune, policy legislative affairs manager for Tennessee Immigrants & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC).

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services defines Public Charge, a concept that was first enacted as the Immigration Act of 1882, as a policy to restrict a person’s ability to gain legal entry to the U.S. if they are likely to depend on government benefits — like food stamps or Section 8 housing — and requires additional paperwork for immigrants who are not exempt. 

Locally, the immigrant community has been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, with Hispanics making up 9% of positive cases. TIRRC has recently partnered with Metro Nashville and several other immigration and religious organizations to add more community outreach workers to health department response teams, leading efforts to specifically work in immigrant and refugee communities. Their aim is to reduce barriers preventing immigrants from accessing preventative care, such as language barriers, food scarcity, economic loss and fear.

Additionally, an assessment center in an immigrant community provides testing to reduce the spread of the virus.

“These tests have been open to members of the community for a month and are completely free. Our wait times are less than 10 minutes and we test anyone that feels they should receive a test,” said Katie Lentile, Chief Communications Officer. 

“We’re excited for the steps that we’ve seen from some levels of the state and some levels of the city government, but again, there’s always more to be done,” said Clerjeune.

Although the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has clarified that seeking medical aid during this pandemic will not trigger Public Charge, immigration organizations remain reactive in order to provide communities with all the available information.  

Greg Siskind, a founding partner of the Memphis immgration law firm Siskind Susser, has handled a number of Public Charge cases and says he hopes that the ongoing crisis and ramifications for public health will force an end to the policy, which has become even more restrictive since 2019. 

An overhaul of the law by the Trump administration expanded the benefits that are taken into account when determining whether someone is a public charge.

Immigrant groups is a broad term that includes migrant farm workers, international students, refugees, asylum seekers, and other undocumented and documented workers. Many of these remain ineligible for relief aid due to not having a Social Security number, despite having been issued individual taxpayer identification numbers. Households with mixed statuses also do not qualify for relief packages, but both Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi are calling on the next aid package to change that.  

For now, immigrants largely depend on area non-profit organizations for aid, whether medical or legal.

“We’ve been trying to track how people have been affected by tornadoes or by COVID-19 and a lot of times they won’t say they’ve been affected because a lot of times these are people that have overcome incredible circumstances, so they are used to standing up, being resilient,” said Tessa Lemos Del Pino, executive director for Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors. “They keep going no matter what, but when we ask them particulars, like has someone in the house reduced their hours, reduced their work because of COVID-19, then their answer is yes.”

“They’re not quick to talk about the problems,” she said.

Immigration representatives hope that the current epidemic brings Nashville communities together to stop  COVID-19,”  said Clerjeune. 

“It’s a matter of public health for all of us to make sure everyone regardless of immigration status, regardless of what communities they’re from have access to what they need,” said Clerjeune, “If we are to pull through, all of our communities have to be part of the solution.”