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Immigrants In Urban Areas Face Special Challenges Around Coronavirus Epidemic


In the U.S., immigrants in urban areas face particular challenges during the coronavirus epidemic. They're more likely to live in crowded housing and use public transportation. That can make them more vulnerable to the virus's spread. Alexandra Starr reports on how public health workers are making extra efforts to reach New York City's immigrant population.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: On a recent weekday morning, about a dozen immigrants and translators gathered at the headquarters of the African Services Committee. It's a nonprofit in Harlem. Franco Torres, the head of legal services, welcomed them.

FRANCO TORRES: First, I just wanted to be able to talk to you a little bit about something that you're probably hearing in the news a lot, which is about the coronavirus.

STARR: Torres talked to them about contacting immigration courts, about rescheduling their appearances if they felt ill. Translators communicated his remarks to the clients in French and Spanish. Then a health outreach worker, Prashant Puttaguta, spoke.

PRASHANT PUTTAGUTA: If you work and are able to work from home, we recommend you do that.

STARR: And if you feel sick, he tells them...

PUTTAGUTA: You can wear a mask and form other people that you are feeling sick.

STARR: One of the attendees, who asked to be identified as M because she doesn't want to jeopardize the asylum application she's filing, said her work had come to a standstill. She freelances in the textiles industry. All of her clients had canceled appointments.

M: Financially, I'm worried. There's so many things to be worried about. And plus, this thing comes along.

STARR: Kim Nichols, the co-executive director of African Services Committee, says many of their clients work in restaurants or as home health care aides. They live paycheck to paycheck.

KIM NICHOLS: They don't necessarily have any recourse to backup finance. We're very concerned that people are still working when they shouldn't be.

STARR: Nichols says her organization hopes to provide testing for the virus in the weeks ahead. That's in part because many immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, may not feel comfortable going to hospitals.

A few blocks from African Services, a Honduran immigrant stood in a McDonald's with her son, who's in second grade. She asked to be referred to by her first name, Ivette, because she's undocumented. She said most of the information she's received about the virus has come from Facebook and from her son's school. If her son becomes sick, she said she would take him to the doctor.

IVETTE: (Speaking Spanish).

STARR: "I'd take him immediately," she says. "I wouldn't wait a second." But if she gets sick, she's not sure. She hadn't heard that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said all patients will be treated, irrespective of their immigration status or whether they have insurance.

Nadia Islam is an associate professor at NYU Medical School. She says that in order to counter the coronavirus, policymakers need to think beyond providing health care.

NADIA ISLAM: Unless we create a health care system that's supportive by doing things like providing paid sick time, by making health insurance very accessible, the risk to the public is greater. It just contributes to the potential spread.

STARR: These are not new issues, she says. But the way existing policies impact immigrants and the broader community are more evident because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLEGE'S "LES AUTOMATES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alexandra Starr