Mis Ángeles: Meet The Woman Who Answers Questions For Undocumented Angelenos

Jessica Huerta has been fielding questions related to COVID-19 from undocumented Angelenos via livestream. (Photo courtesy of CHIRLA/ Illustration by Chava Sanchez)

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For a certain group of Los Angelenos, the pandemic is much more complicated than social distancing, than even economic collapse. Because if you or your loved ones are undocumented, questions like:

"Do I have coronavirus?"

Are quickly followed by:

"Should I risk getting tested or asking for help?"

There are many things to consider, so many that I suspect we don't yet know the impact of COVID-19 on immigrant communities. Why? There's a lack of clarity, and an abundance of caution, about what happens if you do ask for help. There's a scarcity of health insurance.

For answers to some of these questions, I turned to Jessica Huerta, who has the same suspicions.

"Most of our essential workers are our people," Jessica explained during a phone interview, "so while COVID-19 is not discriminatory, Latinos are exposed in greater numbers than others."

Jessica is community education coordinator for the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights Los Angeles or CHIRLA, which serves primarily Latino immigrants in L.A.

"There isn't a clear picture of how the system works," Jessica said. "If you're not insured, who do you contact? Who is going to be the one that's guiding you to go get tested? They have no one. So it's unlikely that they will ever be tested."

She isn't regularly analyzing data from the L.A. County Health Department, which recently concluded a study that suggests a massive undercount of COVID-19 cases in the county as a whole. But Jessica is in constant contact with members of the undocumented community.

And she's taken on the role of question-answerer.

Jessica spends her days going through CHIRLA's hotline where people leave their questions, or make requests for help. Then there are the emails, text messages, cold calls, many of them coming from people who are left out of most government programs.

***

These days, a lot of the questions are about health care. And rent. And basic survival.

Once a week, Jessica and her team answer the questions live.

On a recent Tuesday evening, Jessica jumped on CHIRLA's Facebook page for her live-streamed question and answer session, "CHIRLA En Tu Casa." Then, in Spanish, she set about answering a list of questions people had sent in.

Here's a sampling of them, with her answers:

"If I get a COVID-19 test, will I go on a list?"

Testing is available for all L.A. County residents who have symptoms. There is no question about legal status.

"Even if I get a positive test, how will I pay for the treatment?"

Through L.A. CARE, Los Angeles County is covering testing and treatment for coronavirus.

"Will getting aid penalize my application for a change in immigration status under the public charge rule?"

For any health-related aid, no. It will not be used to determine a violation of the public charge rule. For other aid, it depends. You should contact CHIRLA's hotline for specific questions at 888-624-4752

"If I don't pay my rent, can my landlord call ICE?"

It's against the law for a landlord to coerce you. L.A. is currently has some eviction protections if you are impacted by the coronavirus.

"If I get laid off, is my DACA status at risk?"

Not immediately. DACA is however in danger of ending this summer by court order so make sure you renew your permit as soon as possible. There is no way of knowing exactly what the Supreme Court will decide, but there is hope that if you have a current permit, it will buy you some time.

"Can I collect unemployment if I have DACA?"

If your DACA is up to date, and you have been laid off, you qualify for unemployment.

"Can I get government aid if my partner is undocumented?"

This is another complicated issue that can depend on your specific circumstances.

Jessica refers people back to the hotline for advice on trickier questions, like this one. (Many U.S. citizens married to immigrants who lack a social security number have not received government stimulus checks.)

***

There are lots of questions. Jessica has some of her own.

She worries there could be many more Latinos who are getting sick than the county numbers suggest, and who are not seeking medical help.

"Even if they are sick, they won't seek the care because they are afraid of things like the public charge rule or they don't have access to technology to apply or even find resources," she said.

Another challenge, she admits, is that many undocumented people are more worried about making ends meet than their long-term health. And making ends meet right now is hard.

"It's a little bit challenging because they say they have to meet essential needs," Jessica explained. "That's something that if you're not going through, you're not going to understand."

Jessica says the first thing on people's mind is the rent. Landlords can be intimidating. And some do take advantage of the fact that people without legal status are naturally afraid of getting the authorities involved.

"I know that there are landlords who are more flexible," she said, "but we have heard stories that landlords are more hostile in a way now. They're threatening them in the way they are demanding the payment."

Jessica and her team try to get the best advice she can to these folks about food and money and COVID-19 health related issues.

"But, like I said, I'm not in their shoes," she lamented.

She tells people to call the CHIRLA hotline and keep asking questions, and she'll try her best to get them answers. It may take a while, she said, but someone will call back.


About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor.

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