In Texas, the Coronavirus Disproportionately Impacts Immigrants


Immigrants in Texas face extra challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Texas State Capitol Building
Teaser Image Caption
The Texas State Capitol in Austin.

On Friday, May 1, Texas Governor Greg Abbott allowed the stay-at-home order in the state to lift, despite the fact that the death toll in Texas continues to rise, and less tests have been administered per person than in almost any other state in the country. Texas, along with Georgia, will become case studies for the world in what will happen if the local government reopens before cases have plateaued or decreased.

On Thursday, April 30, the day before the governor’s announcement, the state hit a single-day high of 50 deaths. The total number of coronavirus-related deaths to that point was 847 out of 30,522 positive results in the state, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

And while some people are cheering the governor’s decision for economic reasons, others are afraid of the inevitable second wave of infection and the deeper economic costs that might bring. These concerns are magnified for the almost 5 million immigrants living in the state, including the estimated 1.6 undocumented immigrants.

“It is more stressful for immigrants,” says Maria Renee Morales, who is a Guatemalan living in Texas on a one-year work permit. Because Central American economies are so dependent on the United States, as the US economy slows, “in Latin America, it will be worse.”

Like many of her immigrant friends, Morales’s job as a community activist not only pays for her rent and bills, but helps support her family who still live just outside of Guatemala City. The nonprofit she works for, Jolt Action, a political organization focused on leveraging the influence of young Latinos in the state, has moved employees to working from home. Because her visa status is tied to her employment, Morales knows she is lucky to have a supportive job.

Morales’s job not only personally allows her to support herself and her family, it also enables her to do something to help people who have always been precarious in Texas and who are now more vulnerable in this pandemic and economic downturn. What keeps Morales up at night is concern for people she loves and people she works to help: “I worry about all of the people who lost their jobs--how will they eat? How will they feed their kids?”

Still, she is opposed to the governor’s decision to reopen the state while the number of cases continues to rise. In Texas, she thinks “the people who pay this price will be the black and brown communities.”

The complicated stress that Morales faces as an immigrant with a visa connected to her employment is exacerbated for Maria, who has lived in Texas without documents since the 1990s. Maria asked that her last name be withheld due to her constant concerns that she might face deportation; she lives with her family in a small town in Texas.

Her husband crossed the border into Texas from their small village in Mexico in the mid-1990s, when agricultural jobs tanked after the US signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Maria joined him a year later after making a tense journey with her son; she still wakes up with nightmares thinking about those hours in an inflatable dinghy crossing a river when neither of them could swim.

Had there been any jobs available in Mexico, Maria would have stayed there. Her journey north was a life or death decision—watch her son starve, or risk his life to bring him to the US.

She works at a dry-cleaning store that was closed for two weeks, but locations were reopening as Governor Abbott lifted the lockdown. For now, she’s only working two or three days a week; she is grateful for the income, but returning to work only increases her fears of catching the virus. Her husband, who works in construction, is employed but has less projects than in the past.

Maria estimates she and her small family have about two weeks’ worth of reserves before they will start defaulting on some of their bills; returning to work even part-time will keep that from happening. “We have to risk ourselves to work—we have no other option,” she said. “We have to be prepared if we get sick, if we lose money. We have to save and budget, because we only have what we’re given today.”

That lack of support for Central American immigrants in Texas is not new, but the suddenness and scale of the pandemic and the accompanying worldwide financial crash is escalating the situation exponentially.

Almost 70% of the immigrants in Texas come from Latin America; though of course not all of the Latinos in the state are immigrants, the majority of the immigrants are Latinos. The experiences Maria and Morales describe are all-too common.

Morales’s co-worker, Brigid Hall, Chief Operating Officer at Jolt Action, said one of the under-covered aspects of the pandemic and economic crisis is its impact on vulnerable populations: “Latinos are the least likely of any race or ethnic group to be insured,” and the median household income for Latino homes is “$37,000, compared to $64,000 for whites.” Latina women in particular are the most vulnerable, earning only $0.55 for every dollar earned by white men.

In the US health care system, the tension between getting access to good medical care and financial security has been a subject of debate for decades. The tension is often seen on a personal level. The social media posts have become common enough to be memes: GoFundMe sites to help a cancer survivor cover medical bills so that her family doesn’t become homeless, or co-workers banding together to share their sick days so that a man is able to be with his spouse during an unexpected hospital stay without losing his job.

The coronavirus made this tension ubiquitous in a matter of weeks. It’s no longer something some families face—it’s happening around the world.

But the stakes of the debate in Texas are rooted in a state culture that pits individual rights against arguments for the common good, and systems that have historically disproportionately benefited white Texans.

The arguments between those who are pushing to reopen the state for economic reasons and those who are advocating for continued stay-at-home measures are only going to increase in the weeks to come. And whether the coronavirus surges in Texas or whether the economy does better will surely impact later conversations around these issues in the state as well as the larger nation and around the world.

For now, the governor’s guidelines for opening businesses rely on limited occupancy: restaurants, movie theaters, and retail centers can open their doors but cannot allow exceed 25% of their maximum capacity.

The governor’s report to the state called on Texans “to act responsibly as we reengage in the economy, to continue following all health precautions and sanitizing guidelines, and to care for our vulnerable neighbors.” It puts the onus on individuals to look out for one another.

If the history of Texas is any indication, immigrants in the state will remain at the highest risk on either side of this debate, through less access to health care or lost income. And as the economic effects ripple throughout the region, their home countries—which many of them left because of already catastrophic lack of job opportunities—will only continue to suffer.

As Maria put it, “We immigrants don’t have much support. We don’t have an emergency net.”