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Latinx Chambersburg and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Anna Hiltner


Anna Hiltner is a student in URB202, “Documentary Film and the City.” A Princeton native, she decided this Spring to continue the class’s exploration of migration by documenting the effect of the pandemic in the Latinx communities of Trenton. She worked by phone and on the streets in Chambersburg. Most interviews were held in Spanish and have been translated to English by Anna. 

CHAMBERSBURG, NJ — A few months ago, Chambersburg was a bustling neighborhood of small restaurants with Spanish names and events such as the Miss Guatemala parade. Though impoverished, the neighborhood was considered a place where immigrants could make a life for themselves in the U.S. Now, the streets are largely deserted and stores are either closed or covered in signs telling customers to wear a mask and keep a six-foot-distance from others. 

On March 9, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy declared a State of Emergency and a Public Health Emergency. On March 21, Murphy signed executive order 107 directing “all residence to stay at home until further notice” in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic. As of Monday, May 18, the number of cases has grown to 5,950 in Mercer County with 408 deaths. In Trenton, there are 2,296 confirmed cases with 54 deaths. According to Laura Mora, Community Organizer at the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF), most of those cases are concentrated in Chambersburg, a predominately Latinx neighborhood in south Trenton. “People are fighting to survive,” Mora said.


Out of Work, Out of Time


“Chambersburg is a fascinating place,” said L.A. Parker, a journalist at the Trentonian and resident of Chambersburg, in an interview. “It's going to face a setback because of the coronavirus, because a lot of the people that work here work off the books. They have no jobs now. They have no unemployment [benefits],” he said. 


Among the U.S. workforce, only 16 percent of Latinx workers can work from home, while roughly 30 percent of white Americans and 37 percent of Asian-Americans can. The inability to work from home makes the situation especially difficult in Trenton where people are disproportionately likely to work in the service sector. “There are many people who work in restaurants, the mall, and cleaning,” Elmer, a member of the Guatemalan Civic Association in Chambersburg, said, “and all of those have closed.” 

Joana migrated from Guatemala to Trenton one year ago. She settled down in Chambersburg where she lives with her husband, their four children, and four others who share the rent. Each day, she and her husband would see their children off to school and they would go to work at a factory packing meat and preparing sandwiches. “It has affected us in every way,” said Joana, “We have no food, no work.” She and her husband recently lost their jobs at the factory, “We asked for time off because we were very scared. We wanted to protect our children and they said it was okay. But 15 days later they said our jobs were already taken.”

Leandra, a Guatemalan immigrant who cleans houses for a living, is one of many women domestic workers in Chambersburg who are also out of a job. “It has affected me a lot,” said Leandra, “Since I work for cash, I can’t do unemployment.” Leandra now sells face masks, Clorox, and other goods from her home in an effort to make more money, using posts on Facebook and signs outside her door to advertise the informal business. 

Like Leandra, Marta - who has lived in the U.S. for 24 years since coming from Guatemala - cleans houses for a living and is ineligible for unemployment benefits.  “I am my own boss,” Marta said, “The families that I work for have not wanted me to go since the beginning of the quarantine. I usually work for a family every day and only two of them have told me that they will pay me.”  “I am very scared not only for myself, but for my mom, and for my son,” said Marta, who has a 13-year-old son and an immunocompromised mother who is vulnerable to the virus.


On May 7, Governor Murphy stated in his press briefing that “this is an unemployment crisis unlike that which we have ever seen before” after the department of Labor and Workforce Development received more than 1 million claims in just two months. While undocumented immigrants who work a formal job are eligible for unemployment insurance, they are not eligible for the $1,200 stimulus check made available in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by the President on March 27th. If there is one person without a Social Security number who has filed taxes in a family unit, then the entire family is deemed ineligible for the relief funds. “People who do not have papers are the most affected at the moment, because they do not have a check they receive, they have no one to help them and there is no work,” said Brenda Perez, another member of the Guatemalan Civic Association. 


As workers in Trenton lose their sources of income, many are no longer able to send money to their families in other countries that depend on these remittances to survive. Ervin Chavez, President of the Guatemalan Civic Association and leader of Salcajense Unidos in Trenton, notes the impact the loss of remittances has had on people in Guatemala: “It has affected our families and friends in Guatemala. We can’t send income and that hurts them.” 


According to the World Bank, global remittances are projected to plummet by about 20% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown. “The projected fall, which would be the sharpest decline in recent history, is largely due to a fall in the wages and employment of migrant workers, who tend to be more vulnerable to loss of employment and wages during an economic crisis in a host country,” The World Bank reported last month. In Trenton’s global community, this represents the loss of a vital source of income that also helps families in Latin America afford food, healthcare, and basic needs. “I want to send money to my sister and niece but I can’t,” said Leandra “I have to try and pay the rent, pay the bills.”

The loss of income jeopardizes housing security for people like Leandra, who are now at a higher risk of facing eviction. On March 19, Governor Murphy issued an executive order declaring a moratorium on removing individuals from their homes pursuant to an eviction or foreclosure proceeding. While the moratorium buys Chambersburg’s tenants time, families that are out of work and ineligible for benefits will still be unable to pay rent once the order is lifted. 


As Community Organizer at LALDEF, Mora has continued to be in contact with families in the community from her home. “Many landlords terrorize the tenants by threatening to kick them out if they do not pay,” Mora said, “I receive so many phone calls from people who are worried that their landlords are going to kick them out. I tell them that they have to tell the landlord that they are protected by the law and that the courts are closed so they cannot evict you right now.” 


On The Front Lines

Chambersburg’s essential workers risk their health working in places where they can be exposed to the coronavirus. According to Charo Juega, the former director of LALDEF, the community “is even more exposed than ever to all kinds of exploitation. Now there is no income coming in so whatever little work there is tends to be very very dangerous. Those that are working are working in unhealthy and dangerous conditions.” 


Ana, a single mother from Colombia who rents a room with her three-year-old daughter, is an essential worker at an Amazon fulfillment center. Out of fear of exposure, Ana was able to take time off from work for the first month and a half. But in order to afford rent, health insurance, and send remittance to her 13-year-old son in Colombia, she needs to return to working at Amazon this month. “I basically need to return to work, because if I don’t, they are going to suspend my medical benefits and I can’t because right now I am in treatment,” she said.

On May 1, Amazon workers protested from their cars at the Elizabeth Amazon fulfillment center as part of a nationwide strike that was in response to what employees called poor working conditions and protections against the coronavirus. Like the protestors, Ana fears what she may be exposed to upon return to the Amazon warehouse. “It is known that there have been people sick at Amazon, but they still want us to work,” Ana said, “It scares me because I can use a machine and there is no way of knowing if someone sick with the coronavirus used it before me.”

Workers were also facing dangerous conditions in small businesses in Chambersburg. 

“In the first month, stores did not make sure that people came in with masks or maintained social distance,” Mora said, “and that was when stores were full of people getting toilet paper. We are now seeing the consequences of that.”

According to Trenton journalist Parker, “We are probably going to see the most deaths in Chambersburg because people were not receiving the information they needed from the very beginning.” Lack of a local Spanish news outlet and limited translations into Spanish made things worse. “We did a disservice by not realizing that we had to tell everyone in their language about the devastation of this disease,” said Parker, “Three weeks after the executive order you could walk into a laundromat and nobody would be wearing a mask or keeping six feet.”


While there are some statewide television news stations in Spanish, there are no Spanish news outlets in Trenton. “Here there is no Spanish newspaper that is giving us information,” Ervin said. “It continues to be pretty much word of mouth process in the immigrant community,” Juega said, “That's the most trusted source.”


According to Juega, “there is a lot of misinformation” that sometimes gets spread through goodwill. “There was a rumor going around that one night there were going to be helicopters hovering all over Mercer County spreading anti-virus substance to kill the virus and to please stay home because it was going to be a deadly shower,” she said. Miranda, another member of the Guatemalan Civic Association, pointed out that some of the misinformation contributes to denial as well: “There are people who still think that the virus is not real.”


More trustworthy information comes from the organizations and associations that work in the community. “That is why we are the ones giving the information,” Ervin said. The Guatemalan Civic Association, LALDEF, the Trenton Health Team, and the Henry J. Austin Health Center have been working together to inform the community through social media about social distancing measures as well as available aid. While many receive news this way, others have limited technology. I could not talk to some of the people I tried to interview because the service was so staticky. 


Even if informed about the virus, immigrants do not have access to the affordable healthcare they need. According to the United States Census Bureau, Trenton has a poverty rate of 28.4%, three times that of the state, and only 20% of residents have health insurance. “How are they going to go to the hospital if they don't have health insurance and they don't have money to pay?” questioned Mora. 


Tonia, a Guatemalan immigrant and U.S. citizen who works as a domestic worker, said that even though she is better off than more recent migrants to the city, she has encountered significant difficulty navigating language discrimination at doctor’s offices and qualifying for Medicare. “Many people would rather be sick than paying healthcare or dealing with the healthcare system,” Tonia said.

Elmer pointed out that parents also cannot go to the hospital if they get sick because they cannot leave their children at home alone: “There are people taking natural medicines or getting antibiotics off of the black market to treat themselves at home because there is nobody to take care of their children if they leave. All of the children are studying [at home] and the parents need to be there to supervise the homework and communicate with the teachers.” 


ICE stays off the streets, but keeps detainees in dangerous conditions


As of May 7th, 18 detainees in Elizabeth Detention Center and 3 at Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark have been tested positive for the coronavirus, but testing of detainees is limited. These centers hold undocumented individuals suspected of visa violations or unauthorized arrival until a decision is made by immigration authorities about their legal status. Long before the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, these detention centers were under ridicule for “inadequate healthcare, indifference, and indefinite confinement.” A 2019 report by the Department of Homeland Security found “serious issues relating to safety, security, and environmental health that require ICE’s immediate attention” in the Essex County Correctional Facility. Now, conditions have been criticized as inadequate in preventing an outbreak within the centers. As of May 11, 84 correctional officers and 4 civilian staff at Essex County Correctional Facility have tested positive and 2 inmates have died from possible COVID-19 complications. 


Nicolas Morales - an immigrant from Mexico who was let out due to health concerns by a federal judge on April 20 - wrote about his experience with the coronavirus at the Elizabeth Detention Center in an op-ed published in the LA Timeson May 8: “At nearly all times, I was packed into a large room with other immigrants. Our beds were close together, with only two to three feet between them. We shared toilets, showers, sinks, communal surfaces and breathing air. We did not have hand sanitizer or masks. We could not disinfect our shared surfaces. We could not maintain any meaningful distance among us, let alone six feet of distance. We were never permitted outside; there is no meaningful outdoor space.”

At the beginning of May, a drive-by protest demanded the release of ICE detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center and detained persons held hunger strikes in both the Elizabeth and Essex detention centers, protesting the way they were handling the pandemic in the facilities. Waldemar, a member of the Guatemalan Civic Association, said that “immigration [ICE] has released some people with medical problems with an ankle bracelet. People were refusing to eat the food and there were a lot of cases in there.” 


According to Mora, the presence of ICE and the police has decreased significantly. In light of the pandemic, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) has announced that it will “focus enforcement on public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds. For those individuals who do not fall into those categories, ERO will exercise discretion to delay enforcement actions until after the crisis or use alternatives to detention, as appropriate.” ICE has also suspended in-person check-ins. With the closure of the courts, deportation hearings have been postponed till months later, buying immigrants more time to put together their cases.

Remote Learning: “I feel like my children are going to repeat a grade”


On March 18, Murphy ordered all schools in the state to close and transfer to remote learning. On May 4, he announced that the schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year.


According to an article published on on March 29, Interim Superintendent of Schools Ronald Lee said that 5,000 students - 40% of Trenton’s student population of 12,600 - never accessed the online platform where the district’s teachers and students could keep track of assignments and complete coursework digitally. On April 8, Mayor Reed Gusciora and Trenton Public Schools distributed laptops and planned to deliver the rest to those who could not pick them up.


The impact of closing the schools has been particularly onerous on the Hispanic immigrant communities in the Trenton area. “The virus is going to hurt education a lot,” said Mora, “Many children are waiting for a tablet, waiting to see the teacher. Some parents can’t even afford to have a phone.” While families in Trenton have received tablets from the schools, remote learning has not been easy. 

“Kids are struggling with the remote learning and parents are struggling. They are frustrated because they can't help their kids. They don't have computers, or they are given computers and do not know how to use them,” Juega said. Hispanic immigrants, in particular, are less likely to have access to a computer or home internet service. 

In Chambersburg, many parents are not fluent in English, presenting an extra challenge to learning at home. Jeimmin, who moved to Trenton seven years ago from Guatemala, is one of these parents. She has spent the last two months trying to help her five-year-old twins and two-and-a-half-year-old learn at home. But she has had to work through lessons in a language she barely understands. “It’s hard helping them with their homework because I don’t know any English so I can only help with some numbers,” said Jeimmin. 

“I know many parents are really worried,” Mora said, “Last week, one mom told me, ‘I feel like my children are going to repeat a grade.”

A Community Comes Together

On May 3, The Guatemalan Civic Association collected essentials in Chambersburg to give to families in need. From 8am to 6pm they received donations of food and sanitary products from families, associations, and businesses and distributed the goods to families affected by the pandemic. Waldemar, one of the coordinators in charge whom I met at the event, said that they had 250 families on their list who requested food donations.


This is one of the many efforts by members of the community to organize and provide help to food and income insecure families. Members of the Guatemalan Civic Association have also been delivering hot meals donated by restaurants. “We have many families that are sick with the coronavirus,” said Brenda, “I am delivering food to eight of those families every day.” According to Mora, stores have been raising their prices, “making it impossible for people to buy what they need” and increasing the demand for donations.


The Guatemalan Civic Association uses their Facebook page to spread awareness to the Guatemalan community in Trenton. “It is difficult for the community economically, socially, and psychologically,” said Ervin, “but the Guatemala Association and LALDEF are united in informing the community.” LALDEF has been using their page on Facebook, their website, and phone calls to spread information. Their website includes a detailed list of resources and information for anyone who needs it. LALDEF has also been working with the Trenton Health Team and Henry J. Austin Medical Center to hand out flyers to families and businesses. 


The issues of poverty, exploitation, access to healthcare, and education are part of a long history of systemic oppression in immigrant communities. Undocumented immigrants especially have a difficult time making ends meet in the United States due to fewer employment opportunities, ineligibility for most federal public benefits, additional costs due to immigration court fees, and vulnerability to landlord and employer exploitation. This combination results in a national poverty rate for immigrants that is three times the national rate. These sources of inequality have made Latinx communities especially vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. While families were struggling long before this crisis, Chambersburg’s story with the coronavirus is only just beginning.

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