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NYC Immigrant Communities Fight Hunger, Exploitation & Invisibility Through Mutual Aid

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Image Credit: Cinthya Santos Briones

We look at how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting undocumented people here in New York City, where the coronavirus has hit immigrant communities the hardest, even as the numbers of daily deaths statewide has declined in recent days. As reports of widespread poverty and hunger continue in the immigrant communities, people are also organizing and helping each other through mutual aid despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances. We are joined by Juan Carlos Ruiz, Lutheran pastor at Good Shepherd Church in Brooklyn and co-founder of the national New Sanctuary Movement and the New Sanctuary Coalition here in New York City, and Cinthya Santos Briones, a Mexican photographer, anthropologist and community organizer.

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StoryMay 12, 2020Los New Yorkers: Essential, Underprotected Undocumented Immigrants Struggle to Survive in Epicenter
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez, as we look at how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting undocumented people here in New York City, where the coronavirus has hit immigrant communities the hardest, even as the numbers of daily deaths statewide has declined in recent days. In Queens, often hailed as the most diverse borough in the world, the neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights have been overrun with COVID-19 cases. And even those who aren’t sick are reporting fears of hunger, with record-high unemployment, no federal assistance for undocumented immigrants. Many are considered essential workers, continue to go to work every day, without protective equipment or health insurance. Last week, hundreds of people lined up outside a church in Corona for a free bag of groceries and supplies. The line stretched 22 blocks, if it wasn’t well over a thousand. This is Rosi Sutelo speaking to Univision.

ROSI SUTELO: [translated] We can’t afford rent. We can’t afford food. That’s why we’re hoping we’ll get more help for everyone. That’s why we’re here.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a $125 million relief fund for undocumented immigrants in the state left jobless by the pandemic. That’s California. But when asked last Thursday about similar support in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo refused to commit.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: When you are broke, it would be irresponsible to do these things. I do hope and believe the federal government should have a more inclusive policy. All right, let’s do one —

JOSEFA VELÁSQUEZ: For example, that undocumented immigrants, that there’s no shot —

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: Well, we’re looking at it, but we have real financial problems right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Cuomo is meeting with President Trump at the White House today. This comes as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a $20 million initiative, sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, to send one-time payments to up to 20,000 undocumented immigrants throughout the city. Individuals will receive $400; families will receive $1,000. As reports of widespread poverty and hunger continue in the immigrant communities, people are also organizing and helping each other through mutual aid, despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances in the epicenter of the epicenter.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Juan Carlos Ruiz is a Lutheran pastor at Good Shepherd Church in Brooklyn, co-founder of the national New Sanctuary Movement and the New Sanctuary Coalition here in New York City. And Cinthya Santos Briones is a Mexican photographer, anthropologist, community organizer based here in New York City. Her recent piece in The Nation is headlined “Immigrants Are Bearing the Brunt of the Coronavirus Crisis,” and it’s part of a weekly series called “The Invisible Front Line” by The Nation and the Magnum Foundation.

Juan Carlos and Cinthya, thank you so much for joining us. You both are married, so thank you for joining us together on one Skype as you join us from your home in Brooklyn. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Juan Carlos, why don’t you start off by talking about the scope of the problem, what people are not seeing? You know, the lines of people just in Queens alone far outnumber the protesters in different states calling for reopening the states, but you don’t see these images, Juan Carlos. Describe them to us.

JUAN CARLOS RUIZ: So, basically, you know, it’s the despair that we seen on the ground. This is a battleground. The bodies are piling up. As you know, the official number of bodies here in the city that died, the people that die at home wasn’t even part of the official count. We have families living with infected people. We have families who haven’t worked for over a month. And also you have the other reality that many of our immigrant families, they have been in the frontlines. They have become the essential workers — and still invisible, very much invisible. But they’ve been going out to work without any protection.

You know, from the federal government, there is this confusion, mixed messages, disinformation, coming down the pipe. Also, you know, there in New York in the last year or so, given that we have, as immigrants, become a target, a national target, by the federal government, we have become rather visible, but as a way of scapegoating us, as a way of practically persecuting us under the Homeland Security. You know, we have become the threat, or the public threat, for national security.

So, on the ground, the picture is bleak. Our families are calling, not only the dead ones who are piling up in their homes, but they are hungry. And they don’t know where to turn. They don’t know where to go.

Our rapid response solidarity networks in the city, you know, all the way from Washington Heights, in Westchester, here in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, we’ve been responding — those rapid responses teams that have been doing a lot of the monitoring of the NYPD, how the NYPD locally has been in cahoots, working with ICE, despite the denial of de Blasio and Cuomo. They keep working. They’ve been complicit with this perfect storm. You know, they keep denying that the local police has been working with ICE, but the last year or so, we have had many families who have been persecuted, raided with the help of New York police. And this has created the perfect storm, because now the people, even any kind of a governmental institution, even when they need to go to the hospital, they have this deep distrust in these institutions, because we have been deceived over and over. They are doing deceptive practices by our own local government in terms of being complicit with federal immigration.

So, the situation is dire. And many, many of our families at this point not only do not have the means to pay the rent, but they don’t have the food that is necessary for their survival. So —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to bring in Cinthya Santos Briones. Cinthya, could you talk about the mutual aid? I mentioned some of the mutual aid we were doing here in New Brunswick in the Mexican community, immigrant community here. But could you talk about what’s going on in New York City with immigrant communities? And also, there’s probably much more of a tradition of mutual aid at the community level in many Latin American communities because people come from countries where government support or the safety net is not as great.

CINTHYA SANTOS BRIONES: Yeah. Thank you so much for bringing this out. I think that I see a solidarity not only through the religious groups and organization, pro-immigrant organization, also through restaurants. For example, in the Bronx, La Morada is feeding not just immigrants, also homeless. I was speaking with one of the owners, and they were telling me like they are providing per day 500 or 400 meals. And also, a lot of restaurants are in solidarity also, and people from the community.

The mutual aid, it’s not only from organization, it’s from people from their own immigrant communities. You know, we have in Mexico and different Latin American communities, in indigenous community, in rural communities, these forms of traditional mutual aid. You have community mutual aid that is right now in the transnational territory. And that kind of form of mutual aid is here. And, for example, Myrna Lazcano, that is an activist from Mexico, her home, her small apartment, become the epicenter of help in Harlem. And she is providing not only food to her community, also she is receiving calls and accompanying people who have their family sick in their own homes. So, this mutual aid is coming also from the community for civilians. And this is important to say, no? Of course, the organization of leaders, of faith leaders, are helping a lot the community, but also migrant communities are helping their neighbors, their families, their compadres and their comadres, in this crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Cinthya, if you could talk about the media coverage of undocumented communities? What’s being missed? And the importance of the personal testimonies that you’ve been capturing in photos and you’ve been talking to people?

CINTHYA SANTOS BRIONES: Yeah, of course. After the government declared quarantine, I reached out through WhatsApp to some close friends from the migrant and Guatemalan communities to check on how were they doing during this pandemic. And as we were continuing to sharing, they were sending me photos and videos about their new life in this pandemic.

And I want to say something that some of my friends had been telling me. They have been in front of this pandemic, but they have been always in front of any kind of disaster or pandemic. This is not the first time that the body of the migrant has been facing a crisis. They are always there for us, feeding us, working at our homes as a babysitter, as a nanny.

So, I was reaching out, through Magnum Foundation and the national magazine, national Nation magazine. So, we were talking about to do a piece. And I proposed to show the photos and the videos that these people that is in the frontline are making. As their role as citizen journalists, they are documenting through their own perspective, that we usually don’t see in the media, and at some point discolonize, you know, the perspective of journalists and show the migrant vision of how they are feeling and seeing and living this crisis. And we see, through these photos, how are the condition in their homes, you know, small apartments and a family living — one family of five members living in a one-bedroom apartment. We are looking at, you know, people making tortillas. Also, one of the photos that wasn’t published in this piece, but one of my friends sent me, Victoria, when she was in a protest outside of Bergen County Jail, and her husband was there. So, I think that it’s a lot of value when we see the importance in how migrants are documenting this crisis.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask Juan Carlos Ruiz about the hospital situation, and especially with the undocumented. Clearly, in the anti-immigrant atmosphere we’ve had in the country now for years, against undocumented specifically, many migrants may be afraid to go to the hospitals. But now we hear, just last night, President Trump saying that he’s going to try to shut down all immigration into the country, even legal immigration, for the future — this constant use of scapegoating of immigrants in the country under this administration.

JUAN CARLOS RUIZ: And as you know, Juan, I mean, we are fleeing these institutions from our home countries, you know, corrupt institutions, institutions that do not have the welfare of our communities. So, we are not new to that. But when we come to this land of the free, you know, we expect something else, but it plays out differently when you have — you know, from the high echelons of power, when you have these kinds of attack against our community. I mean, the rhetoric, the xenophobic rhetoric, the racism that has been fed, that continues to really have practical consequences, negative consequences, against — not only socially and culturally, but also economically, against our people.

You know, this virus has evidence, this whole infrastructure of terror, this misallocation of funds or resources into our communities, into the most vulnerable populations of our society. So, basically, the virus has unmasked this machinery of death that feeds on the blood, you know? As Scott Stringer said, you know, we have a lot of blood on our hands. And basically, even if we wash our hands day and night, it’s still bloody. And the government has really, really caused this perfect storm by the bunch of lies, by continuing to attack the most vulnerable and continually to victimize and scapegoat the immigrants and our black and brown communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Father Juan Carlos Ruiz, we want to thank you so much for being with us. And again, we cannot emphasize enough, for people to understand, 200 to 300 people a day, as confirmed by the mayor himself, are dying in their homes. How many of them were afraid to go to the hospital, afraid they could be picked up by ICE? Father Juan Carlos Ruiz, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement, thank you for being with us. And, Cinthya Santos Briones, a Mexican photographer, anthropologist, community organizer based here in New York, we’re going to link to your piece in The Nation headlined “Immigrants Are Bearing the Brunt of the Coronavirus Crisis” and your remarkable photographs.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, who’s getting bailed out, and who isn’t? And then we go to Otay Mesa in California, where women immigrants have been pepper-sprayed by guards as they deal with COVID-19. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Dr. Colleen Farrell performing “Amazing Grace” at Bellevue Hospital with accompaniment, as the staff held a service for their beloved nurse, Filipino nurse Ernesto DeLeon, who died from COVID-19.

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