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Los New Yorkers: Essential, Underprotected Undocumented Immigrants Struggle to Survive in Epicenter

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As the coronavirus continues to devastate New York City communities, we hear the voices of undocumented New Yorkers about how they are surviving the pandemic. Their stories are told in a new ProPublica story headlined “Los New Yorkers: Essential and Underprotected in the Pandemic’s Epicenter.” We speak with one of the story’s reporters, Adriana Gallardo.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York City, with Juan González in New Jersey. Here, New York City is the epicenter of the pandemic. We’re turning now to meet some of the undocumented New Yorkers living through what is happening here, their stories told in the new ProPublica report headlined “Los New Yorkers: Essential and Underprotected in the Pandemic’s Epicenter.”

This is Adan, a former kitchen worker who lives in the Bronx with his wife and two teen sons, who are U.S. citizens. Adan says he worked at the World Trade Center two decades ago, where he lost so many of his friends September 11th, not identified or acknowledged in the death toll because their names did not match those on record or their families were unable to claim the bodies.

ADAN: [translated] The same thing is going to happen as it did in the Twin Towers: A lot of people are going to end up in a mass grave. I don’t remember how many Mexicans died, but we used to fill the elevators going all the way up to the restaurants. And there were a lot of Mexicans working there. A lot of people died, even though they said only a few. That’s why, most people who work in the restaurants now, in deliveries, the same thing is happening right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on this story, we are still with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Adriana Gallardo, engagement reporter at ProPublica, who worked on this story. She wrote this story with Ariel Goodman. In the interests of transparency, Ariel is my niece.

Adriana, can you talk about the essential and underprotected New Yorkers that you met, that you profile? Start with Adan, who we just heard.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yes. Adan is a perfect example of some of the workers that we met in this piece. They’ve been in the city for decades. They belong to the low-wage service industry. And in Adan’s case, I was surprised when he had this flashback, in the middle of our conversation, to 9/11. And he was, as you heard, so certain that many of the people who are powering these buildings and delivering all types of service, it’s something — will also be forgotten in the shake of things and in the ways that undocumented deaths are happening in the city.

And him, you know, through Adan, he was sort of my Sherpa through this piece. We would talk every few days, and every few days he would have an update of people he knew who were dying, who were sick. And he himself and his wife and son had both — had, all three of them, been ill with COVID and beat it at home. And so, many folks like Adan, who are both trying to save themselves and then help others, like his brothers, who were convinced they wouldn’t get care if they went to seek it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Adriana, in listening to their stories, what were some of the biggest concerns that you have in terms of the undocumented community as it continues to face this pandemic without any kind of the kinds of governmental support, emergency payments from the federal government, extra unemployment insurance, all the other support that Congress and the president have been giving to the general population?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yes. You know, many of them felt failed multiple times by not just local government, in things such as requesting burial assistance, which wasn’t available to folks without a Social Security number until middle of last week. You know, they were disappointed by their own embassies and their own consulates, that were very slow to react to the hundreds of deaths that were piling up very quickly.

And they were left with some of the most difficult decisions, which were to either continue working and risk their entire — the health of their entire families or themselves, or sit at home and sort of wait for this to pass, while not having any sort of income, any sort of relief. And people like Adan, who said, you know, his landlord kept coming, knocking on the door, looking for rent, and him being unable to come up with next month’s rent. And these are very proud folks, who talked about how much they loved what they did and how proud they were to never miss a rent payment until things like this happened. And so, I think, for them, it was a case of ultimate disappointment and ultimate isolation in a city that’s already very difficult to navigate.

AMY GOODMAN: There’s a meme that’s going around: “Instead of paying rent, we should just clap for landlords instead. If it’s good enough for nurses, landlords should have no issue getting by on it.” I wanted to turn to Berenice. She suffers from kidney problems. Her son struggles with asthma. She’s been home for weeks, along with her husband Luis, who, before the pandemic, worked at a cab company.

BERENICE: [translated] Yes, we need money, but there is also our health. If we contract [coronavirus], this is serious, because I have poor health and so does my son. We’re here trying to endure as much as we can. This situation is not easy with the expenses. The little we have, we spend on buying food. And we have family members who have gotten sick and friends who have died. We are trying to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Sonia. She became ill with COVID-19 symptoms almost three weeks ago and was afraid to go to the hospital.

SONIA: [translated] I’m afraid to go to the hospital, because I have diabetes. I have high cholesterol, high blood pressure. And hearing the news, I’m afraid. I did not want to go to the doctor, to tell you the truth. I preferred to isolate myself here at home. I only bought home remedies and [drank] a lot of hot tea. The situation itself has been very sad for me, because I am here in my community, helping in whatever way I can. But I also know a lot of people, and I have seen that many of them have already died, many people I know, and it is very sad to know that they arrive with symptoms at the hospital and they don’t leave there alive. That was my fear. That’s why I didn’t want to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonia and Berenice are just two of the people you profiled, Adriana, in this very powerful piece, “Los New Yorkers,” as they talk about the number of people who have died. You pushed hard in this piece to find out about burial benefits. And can you talk about what came of that? There has just been a change, I mean, The Wall Street Journal reporting — sadly, they use the term “illegal immigrants,” The Wall Street Journal, they still use that term. But they talked about the burial benefits going up for New Yorkers, from $900 to $1,700, including undocumented.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yes. When we started writing this piece — and there’s two deaths that we document in the piece, and one of them was an undocumented kitchen worker who worked in Times Square. And his family was fundraising, like many other families, to cover the burial cost and the cost of cremation, and, you know, in a pattern that just seemed — you know, it was a sudden illness, maybe brief hospitalization. Many of these folks were in the trailers, the freezer trailers that line the streets of New York, and then an incinerator. And for them, you know, navigating all of that process is incredibly challenging, and then, of course, all of the cost implications.

And just last week, May 5th, the city of New York changed regulations. And now — before this, the person requesting burial assistance and the person who died both had to list a Social Security number on the application. That has since evaporated, and now all New Yorkers qualify for burial assistance. So that’s where we’re at.

I did want to mention that, about Berenice and Sonia, I met both of them through an organization here in New York that works with Indigenous Mexicans, which make up a majority of the Mexican community in the city. La Red de Pueblos Trasnacionales is who supports many of them. And so, we’re also talking about folks who are at even smaller — you know, break into even smaller communities of vulnerabilities for them. They come from very remote places in Mexico and in other countries in Central America, and they’re facing unsurmountable challenges now in caring for their dead.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Adriana Gallardo, could you talk about the whole situation? There’s been an estimated 400 Mexican migrants who are known to have died of COVID-19 in the New York area. But for health reasons, the government of Mexico will only accept their bodies if they are cremated. Can you share any updates on this? What does this do in terms of the cultural traditions for some, for many Mexicans? And is there any change seen in terms of the Mexican government’s position on the bodies being able to be returned back for burial in their homeland?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: I believe there has been no change in that policy. And what this means is a tremendous disruption to tradition. Many of these folks both who celebrate Indigenous cultures and who practice Catholicism, really, you know, their tradition is to bury the body, return it to the earth, have ceremonial rituals of that kind. And the cremation has really altered that notion of death and who keeps the ashes.

For one of the families, the ashes are sitting at the funeral home until they’re able to send them back. You know, there’s tons of flight restrictions. There’s lots of other barriers to getting the bodies or the ashes back to their families. And that’s been a tremendous obstacle for many of these families, such as the brothers that we profiled. They did everything together. They came to this country together. And now one brother is sitting in Queens figuring out how to send the ashes of the other to their mother in Mexico. So it’s been tremendously difficult, in ways that I think are hard for us to imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor de Blasio said, in the last few weeks, that when you had, for example, 300 people dying a day, or 600 people, another 300, 200 to 300, were dying a day who were not being counted. They were dying at home. So many of those people are immigrants, afraid to go to the hospital. Is that what you found, Adriana?

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Absolutely. I mean, we heard things like families arguing amongst themselves, in where someone in the family would say, “If we go to the hospital, we’ll be the last seen. If we die there, if we die — we’ll be the first to die. We’ll be sectioned off according to social” — I mean, part myth, part fear, part distrust in health systems. I mean, we’re trying to undo a notion that’s been long — healthcare is a privilege in most places, and undocumented workers aren’t the first to be receiving access to healthcare. So, even as they were hearing very encouraging messages from the governor and they were keeping up with the news, they didn’t feel comfortable stepping into clinics. We also heard from many who lived within walking distance of hospitals, and they were watching the chaos unfold outside their door, and became even more afraid of coming in at the peak of the crisis. And so, yes, we heard time and time again that they were just too afraid to go. And by the time they went, it was too late. And that was no accident. And yes, many people, I think, more than we know, died at home. That’s for sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Adriana Gallardo, we only have a couple of minutes, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what drives you to cover these stories, some of your own experiences that have shaped your perspective of what the role of a journalist is in society.

ADRIANA GALLARDO: Yes. Yeah, a lot of this work is absolutely personal, not just because the two cities that we just discussed are places that I care lots about. And, you know, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, lived in Chicago for many, many years. You know, I’m a Mexican woman. I came as an immigrant at 5 years old, worked in a janitorial family. And really, I think I see a lot of my family, and a lot of the people that we talk to for our stories are people that I can relate to.

And I’m lucky to work in a team that really values the perspectives of the working and the perspectives of journalists who maybe aren’t from the traditional backgrounds that we see in newsrooms. And yeah, so a lot of this work are things that I care to understand on deeper levels and be able to really, like we said at the top of our segment, really value who gets remembered and how, and why — what can we do as journalists to really do a bit more to give these folks a nod for everything that they do.

AMY GOODMAN: Adriana, we want to thank you so much for being with us. We want to ask you to stay with us for quick post-show to talk about your gorgeous piece, “The Lucky Ones,” about your own life, and also about the Alaska story, for which you just won, with a team of people, the Pulitzer Prize. Adriana Gallardo, engagement reporter at ProPublica, part of a collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News that just won the prize. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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