Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the issues that vulnerable migrant communities face, and Prince George’s County — where about 22.4 percent of the population is foreign-born — is no exception.
Even before the pandemic, undocumented migrants were especially vulnerable to making less than minimum wage, working in unsafe conditions and having their legal status used as a threat against them by employers, landlords or anyone else in a position of power. Throughout the pandemic, a lack of access to health care and unemployment benefits have made it difficult for undocumented migrants to keep up with monthly rent.
For many undocumented immigrants, coming home to an eviction notice is a very possible reality. Landlords in Prince George’s County are aware that some of their tenants may be undocumented. They take advantage of the fact that many undocumented tenants speak English as a second language and are unaware of their rights to due process under the law.
And in Prince George’s County, the harmful effects of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations have been worsened by the undercounting of undocumented migrants. The county already has a low census response rate, and undocumented migrants are less likely to complete the census out of fear of retribution about their legal status. This makes it difficult for local immigration assistance organizations, such as Casa de Maryland, to help migrants get justice, fair treatment and access to health care.
And that fear of retribution is not unfounded. Despite the fact that the county previously said it would not cooperate with immigration agents on noncriminal issues, three undocumented migrants were placed into deportation proceedings in 2019 after contact with local police. Those incidents, especially in a county that has been so outspoken about protecting its undocumented population, came as a harsh betrayal. So it’s no surprise many residents distrust governmental bureaucratic proceedings such as the census.
To alleviate the burdens of COVID-19, county officials need to provide undocumented residents with county-funded unemployment benefits and access to affordable health care services. The county must also actively work to combat undocumented tenant evictions by providing them with rent forgiveness, as well as making them aware of their civil rights under local and federal law.
While these protections are specifically related to COVID-19, the county also needs to better protect undocumented migrants by reinforcing the already-existing ICE bans and ensuring that county police won’t cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement under any circumstances.
County officials must also ensure residents are aware of the ICE ban, so undocumented migrants can feel safe in their communities. Increasing general feelings of safety would improve the livelihood of undocumented migrants.
Undocumented migrants greatly contribute to the county’s economy, labor force and community. They pay taxes and form a part of the county’s widely diverse culture, and many work in essential jobs that a large portion of legal residents or citizens would not do. Prince George’s County would not be the same without its migrant population, and it’s time officials step up to protect this vulnerable group — both during the pandemic and after.
Laura Phillips-Alvarez is a junior anthropology and government and politics major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.