COVID-19 has made immigrants fear seeking care, while Asian Americans feel Trump made them ‘targets’

Pro-immigration protest outside the second Democratic debate | Ken Coleman

The phones have been ringing off the hook at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

The voices coming through are a chorus on repeat: I’ve been laid off. What do I do now? How do I feed my family? Am I eligible for unemployment? Will I be deported if I go to the doctor?

What do I do now?

Michigan Immigrant Rights Center employees gather in Kalamazoo. | Photo courtesy of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center

“Immigrant workers are on the frontlines of so many industries, and we’re already hearing about so many folks getting laid off,” said Susan Reed, managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. “We’re also getting people calling us and saying, ‘I’m not fired, but I’m out of work indefinitely.’”

The questions the center is fielding are ones being asked across the state as COVID-19 spreads and further marginalizes immigrants, advocates said. As the number of COVID-19 cases mount, the inequities, discrimination and racism already faced by immigrant communities throughout Michigan have left individuals further marginalized and are barring people from accessing healthcare, translated information, education, and more, organizations working with immigrants around the state said.

“There is a lot of fear right now; you can’t access basic needs currently without a fear of being deported,” said Adnoris Torres, the executive director of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. “We have to look at what’s happened in the last few years with the way communities have been placed in holding cells and in what is reminiscent of internment camps. When something like a pandemic strikes, it’s devastating for a community that’s already been under so much stress.”

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During a global pandemic that has upended life for millions of people around the world and left a little more than 11,000 people dead, Asian Americans in Michigan and throughout the country are increasingly reporting hate crimes, documented and undocumented individuals are not seeking medical treatment for fear it would negatively affect their immigration status, and immigrants are overwhelmingly impacted by unemployment as restaurants close down.

For Michiganders whose primary language is not English, information about the coronavirus has been hard to come by including for individuals who speak Spanish, the second most common language in the United States. ICE detainees living close to one another in Michigan jails could face a public health disaster if there was a coronavirus outbreak inside the facilities.

Hispanic Center for Western Michigan Executive Director Adnoris Torres. | Photo by Jeremiah Bulkowski

“We say we’re a welcoming community, a welcoming state for those who have been historically marginalized, but we have to actually be that welcoming community,” Torres said.

‘You just put a target on the Asian community’

When Denise Yee Grim, a member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and the outreach coordinator for the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, heard President Donald Trump call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” something he has repeatedly done in recent days, she was outraged.

“You just put a target on the Asian community,” Grim said, referring to Trump. 

The coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year, after which Asian Americans have faced a wave of racism and xenophobia.

“The disease doesn’t discriminate, and we as people should be intelligent enough to stop this discrimination,” Grim said. “It’s the disease we need to fight, not people.”


Michigan Civil Rights Commissioner Denise Yee Grim | Photo courtesy of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Here in Michigan, that racism and xenophobia has led to hate crimes, verbal assaults, and Asian American-owned businesses facing a significant drop in customers even before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer mandated all Michigan restaurants and bars to close to dine-in patrons.

“It’s just so sad,” Grim said. “A man was beaten up in a small town in Michigan because he’s Asian. Comments like ‘You don’t belong here; go back to China’ are being said. …The virus is crippling Asian American businesses. These businesses are their livelihoods, and they’ve been long established businesses within their communities. Even the carry-out business is down.”

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission does not yet have specific numbers regarding the number of coronavirus-related hate crimes against Asian Americans. But the commission did say in a March 12 press release that there have been “multiple reports of discrimination and bias incidents targeting Asian Americans and individuals of Asian descent in Michigan and around the country in response to the spread of COVID-19/coronavirus.”

State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), the first Asian American woman elected to the Michigan Legislature, and state Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy), the first Indian immigrant elected to the state Legislature, also condemned the increased hostility and xenophobia towards Asian Americans. 

To file a discrimination complaint, contact the Michigan Department of Civil Rights by calling 1-800-482-3604 or click here.

“A public health concern should not become a xenophobia concern,” Chang and Kuppa wrote in a Feb. 28 statement. “The attacks on Asian Americans that have been happening around the country are wrong and need to stop. We must not succumb to conspiracy theories and misinformation. It is our shared responsibility to recognize the roles we play in dispelling bias and slander, and instead dedicate our energy to amplifying scientific facts and the truth.”

To address the increasingly volatile environment for Asian Americans, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission is urging people “in positions of authority throughout Michigan to address the truth about the virus and to speak out against this unlawful discrimination,” Grim said.

“If you have experienced racism or discrimination, we encourage you to report it and know that you have the right to file a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights,” she said.

Michigan lawmakers call out xenophobic reactions to coronavirus

Deportation fears stop immigrants from seeking health care

Following years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies from the Trump administration, immigrant rights advocates throughout Michigan said immigrants have long been wary of accessing health care, including during the coronavirus outbreak, for fear that their immigration status will be negatively affected. 

“There’s been a lot of stress and strain, and people have stopped seeking medical help,” Torres said. “They’ve stopped applying for programs like [the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)] because of the current political situation. And this has come from both sides of the aisle; it’s not just one man or one party. There has to be comprehensive reform. We have to look at these issues in the future to address situations where people do not feel like they can seek help.”


Michigan Immigration Rights Center managing attorney Susan Reed | Photo courtesy of MIRC

Reed, of MIRC, emphasized that immigrants, regardless of their status, can access medical treatment through federally qualified health centers [a list of which can be found here]. This message, she noted, is particularly important in light of the so-called “public charge rule,” which Trump announced in August. It makes it harder for immigrants to obtain green cards if they’ve accessed government benefits and has caused considerable confusion.

“A public health crisis like this brings into focus in a serious way how terrible it is that we exclude undocumented people and people with a variety of immigration statuses from public health coverage and services,” Reed said. “I do want to say people do not need to be afraid to go to federally qualified health centers because of public charge. That’s not going to create problems for people.”

Despite federally qualified health centers being safe spaces for immigrants and the fact that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a statement saying immigrants would not be penalized for seeking treatment for COVID-19, Reed and Torres say they know there are many individuals who will still feel too frightened to reach out for medical help, potentially until it’s too late.

“Public charge has this huge chilling effect,” Reed said. “It’s made a huge sector of the population afraid to access health care.”

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‘An incredible disaster when the virus rips through the jails’

While many Americans are isolating themselves to prevent contracting and spreading COVID-19, there is a drastically different story playing out for the nearly 40,000 people in ICE custody. For ICE’s civil detainees being held in four county jails in Michigan Calhoun, St. Clair, Monroe and Chippewa a coronavirus outbreak would be disastrous, Reed said.

“We are calling, together with all the immigration-serving nonprofits in Michigan who are part of the Michigan Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, for ICE to immediately release all of their civil detainees,” Reed said. “These detainees are only being held so they show up for hearings and show up for deportation, and there are alternatives to detention that ICE could be using instead of detaining them in jails where they could become part of an incredible disaster when the virus rips through the jails. ICE has a brief opportunity to do what’s right.”

ICE did not respond to a request for comment for this article. The organization states on its website that there are no confirmed coronavirus cases at its detention facilities.

Pro-immigration protest outside the second Democratic debate | Ken Coleman

Facing unemployment

Unemployment has soared across the state and country as governments mandate that businesses shutter to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. 

In Michigan, unemployment claims increased by 550% last week, according to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Nationally, Goldman Sachs estimates that 2.25 million filed claims as a COVID-19-fueled recession looms.

Many of those being laid off in Michigan are immigrants, advocates said, as Whitmer’s orders impacted businesses like restaurants and bars. Now Reed and other advocates say the challenge is ensuring immigrants connect with unemployment insurance or other benefits if they do not qualify for unemployment. Any immigrant with work authorization is eligible for unemployment, including those with temporary immigration statuses, she emphasized. Individuals without work authorization, even those with long histories of work in the country, are not eligible, she said. 

As immigrants face widespread unemployment, they are turning to advocacy organizations across the state, said Alejandra Meza, the community navigation coordinator at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan. At the center, employees are creating a resource guide with information about food pantries, food programs, help with bills and more to support immigrants struggling in the wake of COVID-19, particularly individuals who are undocumented and cannot access unemployment benefits, Meza said.

“The undocumented population, they have to work to survive, and an issue they’re faced with right now is, if they’re working under a false name or Social Security number, they’re stuck with either having to give that false information to get unemployment or they don’t access it,” Meza said. “We’ll try to work with them as much as we can so they don’t have to struggle so much.”

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‘It’s life and death’: A lack of translation hits hard

When a flood of information about the coronavirus began arriving from federal, state and local governments, immigrants and immigrant advocates immediately noticed something: it was almost entirely in English. 

As the COVID-19 cases mount, information has, slowly, begun to be translated into other languages, but long after it arrived in English. There have been some recent efforts by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to provide information in other languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Arabic, highlighted on social media by Sen. Chang.

Following complaints from congressional members, the Trump administration released a limited amount of coronavirus information in Spanish on Wednesday. But the federal government, as well as state and county governments, have primarily issued information in English.

“It’s life and death,” Torres said, referring to the availability of translated material. “At the current moment, we see that’s not a dramatic statement. Countries are under quarantine; cities are under curfew. It’s a life and death decision to have something in a language that’s going to be understood and approachable.”

In the wake of little to no translation, advocacy groups, nonprofits and community organizations have stepped in to try to fill the gaps. 

In West Michigan, for example, LatinxGR launched a crowdsourcing strategy to connect local bilingual or multilingual volunteers with groups that need coronavirus information translated. LatinxGR is a collaborative of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Latino Community Coalition, Latina Network of West Michigan, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the West Michigan Latino Network.

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center helps people apply for citizenship along with the Michigan Immigrant and Labor Law Association and the University of Michigan International Center. | Photo courtesy of MIRC

Additionally, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation just awarded a $25,000 emergency grant to the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan to provide translation services during the COVID-19 outbreak. The center, which is able to translate documents into 85 different languages, is now translating information from the Kent County Health Department, as well as from local school districts and other nonprofits.

“I think we need every person to be informed to minimize exposure to the virus,” said Erika VanDyke, a representative of LatinxGR and the communications coordinator for the Latino Community Coalition. “This lack of translation is exacerbating the pandemic. If we’re talking about flattening the curve, the more people who are informed about what that means, the better.”

Erika VanDyke, of LatinxGR | Photo by Dreams by Bella Photography

And it’s not just about communications regarding the disease itself, but about mitigating the fallout from the coronavirus, VanDyke explained.

“It’s going to get worse, and I keep thinking about resources,” she said. “People are going to need food more. If we’re not sharing good information about resources, people are going to get less and less connected as time goes by. That means people are hungry; are sick; don’t have heat.”

Holly Rea, the manager of language services at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, said the center is translating coronavirus information into Spanish, Kinyarwanda, Vietnamese, Swahili, Burmese, Nepali and Arabic for the Kent County Health Department.

Before this translation was available, Rea emphasized the lack of information posed significant dangers to immigrants and non-immigrants alike. 

“People weren’t getting even basic information, like symptoms of the coronavirus and ways to stop spreading it,” she said. “I’m hoping this will wake organizations up to the disparities and the huge gap we still have in language accessibility.”

This gap in information doesn’t solely center on translation itself, but on ensuring the county has connections in immigrant communities, VanDyke said.

Susan J. Demas

“What should have happened was immediately there should’ve been a list of organizations the county was reaching out to and saying, ‘This is the information that needs to get out to the Spanish-speaking community, the Swahili-speaking community, the Arabic-speaking community. There’s no evidence that’s happening, and that’s really disappointing.”

Minnie Morey, the executive director at the West Michigan Asian American Association (WMAAA), also has been working on connecting Asian American nonprofit organizations with the translated information sent to her organization from the county and state.

“If they need food, we give the information about where they can go get that,” Morey said. “We let people know [energy companies] won’t shut off people during this crisis. If the resources are there, we share them.”