COVID-19 Recovery Recommendations

May 6, 2020

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HILSC COVID-19 Recovery Recommendations (PDF)

Our community is in crisis. COVID19 has disproportionately impacted already marginalized populations, increasing inequity in access to critical resources like food, shelter and healthcare. Systemic disparities make it even harder for many Houstonians to protect themselves against the virus. The COVID19 recovery committees are responsible for prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable and must commit to building long-term wellbeing for all.

Houston is home to one of the largest immigrant populations in the country, with 1 in 4 people foreign-born, over 500,000 undocumented residents and 32% of children with at least one non-citizen parent. The impact of COVID19 on the immigrant community is acutely harmful. Existing systems of power are ill-designed to address the needs of immigrants irrespective of their status. This is particularly apparent where their marginalization intersects with the historic disenfranchisement of communities on the basis of race, gender, class, mobility, etc.


Guadalupe Fernandez, Tahirih Justice Center:
“Everyone is experiencing both the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the systemic response to it, which has exposed structural injustice and inequity in new and profound ways. Scapegoating immigrants offers no real solution to the public health and economic needs of our community. We remain committed to helping Houston’s immigrant survivors thrive through this turbulent time and will fight for policies that protect all members of our Houston-area community. Without immediate action from our local public officials, already at-risk groups like immigrant survivors of violence, who are among the communities hardest hit by the pandemic, will be further marginalized and vulnerable to illness, homelessness, and death.”

Pancho Argüelles, Living Hope Wheelchair Association:
“If our country wants to come out of this crisis strengthened and with a chance to become a better place for all, we need to face a fundamental contradiction painfully expressed in the recent federal CARES Act that excluded immigrants and their families from accessing those needed resources. Can we continue taking the work and money of undocumented immigrant workers, many of whom are now being considered “essential” such as farmworkers, food and grocery staff, caregivers, childcare providers, and maintenance and cleaning workers while abandoning them and their families during this pandemic? Our own legislative and political process created the disastrous conditions that make it practically impossible for a low-wage worker to migrate with papers or to regularize their situation once in our country. Yet when disaster hits, one thing is made clear: we are all citizens of the cities we inhabit. We live and die together, we show up for one another in the communities where we work, play, and pray, where our kids go to school together. City, county and state governments can lead the way in righting this terrible wrong. It’s the least we can do.”

Pamela Nickell, Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights:
There is no reason for children to be unlawfully turned away at the border and returned to the very dangers they just escaped. Federal law prevents U.S. immigration officials from turning children away without first evaluating their safety. At this moment, federal officials have ample capacity to safely screen children and place them in protective custody consistent with federal and state health guidelines—for their own safety and while protecting the safety of others. Frankly, it is no surprise that the administration is using COVID-19 as a pretext for denying children their basic human rights. But as with similar violations we must hold the government accountable for ensuring children’s safety.”

The Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC) condemns all federal actions that weaponize COVID19 as an opportunity to further advance harmful and discriminatory policies.

Federal funding for testing and treatment uses Medicaid to provide free testing to the uninsured. However, it did not alter the Medicaid eligibility requirement for immigrants. This means that undocumented immigrants, those with some status (like DACA or temporary protected status (TPS)), and even lawful permanent residents (“green card” holders) who have been in the U.S. less than five years will not have access to Medicaid if they get sick. Furthermore, the public charge regulations, aimed at inciting fear in immigrant communities, have caused many parents to withdraw from benefits that their U.S. citizen children qualify for, including Medicaid. One Houston social services agency  saw a 31% drop in enrollment in Children’s Medicaid, and 60% in adult Medicaid/CHIP-P.

In order for a household to receive an Economic Impact Payment, every child and adult in the household must have a Social Security number (SSN) valid for employment, with the exception of members of armed services. This means that mixed-status households will not receive assistance unless the person with an SSN files independently. Furthermore, undocumented immigrants who have been paying taxes with an ITIN number will not receive any cash assistance.

Unemployment insurance will only be given to individuals who have work-authorization both during the time they claim unemployment, and at the time they file the claim. Many immigrant workers are awaiting a decision on their immigration benefits, yet USCIS offices are currently closed. Others are at risk losing that status, such as DACA recipients who await a Supreme Court decision. Undocumented immigrants do not have work-authorization and are thus ineligible.

The federal resource packages did not offer disaster food stamps (D-SNAP), which would have provided food and nutrition assistance to everyone in the US, regardless of immigration status. Instead, only “qualified” immigrants can apply, which excludes large numbers of immigrants.  Although Pandemic EBT would provide some assistance to children who received free lunches while in school, we do not currently have it in Texas. Just as for Medicaid, public charge has led to huge drop-offs in SNAP enrollment rates in Texas. For instance, ECHOS here in Houston, saw a 47% drop in SNAP enrollment, from 2017-2019.

Texans of all immigration statuses are facing eviction due to nonpayment of rent. Yet undocumented immigrants face an additional hardship. HILSC has heard reports that landlords are threatening to call ICE if a tenant does not move out for non-payment, despite the fact that the Texas Supreme Court has stopped all eviction proceedings through April 30 and all writes of possession through May 18.

We call on all COVID19 recovery committees and leaders – particularly Harris County Recovery Czar Armando Walle and City of Houston Relief & Recovery Czar Marvin Odum – to implement local policies that address the needs of all community members, irrespective of immigration status.

HILSC supports the following:


Timeline: 1-6 Months

Immediately establish coordinated relief funds to provide financial support for families at or below 80% of the AMI guidelines that are experiencing significant hardship or loss of household income because of the pandemic. Assistance should be prioritized for families that are made ineligible for other forms of government relief (such as the CARES Act) or are receiving relief that does not meet their needs. Assistance should also be prioritized for individuals with chronic health conditions and mobility limitations. Funding should be distributed through trusted, grassroots, non-profit organizations that have strong existing relationships with immigrant communities. The size and budget of an organization should not be a factor in determining these fund distribution partnerships.


Timeline: 1-6 Months

Harris County should allocate substantial financial resources to the Harris County Legal Defense Fund, and the City of Houston should join with the County and contribute financial resources to the fund to extend its reach.  Lawyers are critical to ensure that Houstonians are released from immigration detention quickly, in order to reduce the risk that they contract or spread COVID19. Immigration legal services also put more immigrants on a pathway to legal status, making them eligible for more public health services in the future.


Timeline: 1-6 Months

Emergency notifications with public health information must be accessible in at least the top five languages spoken in Harris County and the City of Houston. To reach more communities, City and County offices must partner with local school districts and faith communities — through collaboratives like Houston Responds and others — during an emergency to disseminate critical information to families through their existing communications tools.

Timeline: 6-12 Months

Relationships with trusted non-English media outlets must be strengthened to ensure information is communicated accurately and shared widely. Public agencies must partner with professional, high-quality interpreters and language justice organizations in order to decrease barriers to access for the immigrant community and signal commitment by service providers to caring for our diverse population.


Timeline: 1-6 Months

Guaranteed housing is an absolute necessity during this crisis to ensure the health and safety of the community. Harris County and the City of Houston must institute programs that protect people’s ability to stay in their homes through direct rent and mortgage assistance, payment forgiveness programs and extended eviction protection. Housing must also be made available for persons experiencing homelessness and immigrants – particularly children – recently released from detention.

Timeline: 6-12 Months

Many immigrants have informal housing arrangements and are not afforded the same legal protections as formal lease agreements. These communities need resources and education to ensure their residents both know and exercise their rights. Long-term planning must prioritize safe and affordable housing of historically black and brown neighborhoods, including immigrant communities.


Timeline: 1-6 Months

Recovery efforts must include supplemental funding to organizations who provide culturally competent, mental health services. The COVID19 crisis is exacerbating underlying mental health conditions, while simultaneously limiting individual access to already limited mental health services. The isolation of COVID19 is particularly challenging for many immigrants who have experienced trauma throughout their migration as well as the devastating mental health impacts of detention.


Timeline: 6-12 Months

Create a photo ID program so that all residents of Harris County and the City of Houston can more easily access essential services with proof of identity and create more efficient processes for emergency assistance programs. Many community members, such as undocumented residents, individuals experiencing homelessness, low-income residents, transgender residents, elderly persons, victims of domestic violence, formerly incarcerated or detained individuals, and other vulnerable populations do not have access to a government ID. All government agencies and officials (including the police) should accept the ID card as a valid form of identification and no personal information kept on file.


Timeline: 1-6 Months

During this pandemic, incarcerated people are at increased risk of exposure and death. COVID19 has entered our local jails, infecting inmates and jail employees. Harris County and the City of Houston should work closely with local law enforcement agencies to reduce arrests and expand cite and release programs. Local jail officials should not honor  ICE detainers that violate federal and constitutional law.


Timeline: 1-6 Months

Free COVID19 testing must  be available for all residents free of charge. Immigration status should not be a deterrent to accessing testing. All persons deprived of their freedom in correctional facilities and detention centers should also be tested automatically.

Timeline: 6-12 Months

Formally implement tools like HILSC’s Immigrant Accessibility Index to help public agencies assess the extent to which their direct client services are accessible to all, regardless of immigration status. Organizational and systemic accessibility includes policies and practices that are trauma-informed, physically and linguistically accessible and created through a lens of cultural humility.


Timeline: 1-6 Months

Harris County and the City of Houston should establish effective protections for workers on the frontlines and in high risk jobs during crises. Workers rights organizations have provided concrete policy suggestions that currently benefit workers in Austin and Dallas. A robust protection and enforcement process should mandate: access to necessary personal protective equipment (masks, gloves, etc); access to hand washing stations or hand sanitizer and mandatory breaks to sanitize; emergency paid sick leave; hazard pay; and protection against retaliation, wage theft and workplace abuse.


Timeline: 6-12 Months

The closure of schools and the implementation of social distancing during COVID19 has deprived low-income populations of access to the internet. The consequences are especially harmful to students unable to participate in online learning. Harris County and the City of Houston must partner with private enterprise to provide free internet access to those in need without a complicated application process.


Our recommendations represent a fabric of meaningful policy changes that, when collectively implemented, safeguard the wellbeing of our community. The public money needed to implement these policies belongs to all of us – and should be used to benefit all residents of our region. The Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative offers its expertise and network of partners to the COVID19 recovery committees and their leadership to help advise on and implement these policies.


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