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Stop Looking Away, Delaware

Tangible action is needed on behalf of Delaware’s most vulnerable communities facing the pandemic

 · December 11, 2020

(en Español)

Do we care about our most vulnerable communities?

Where is the love for those sustaining the biggest industries in our state?

How many more months are we going to look away, Delaware? 

It has been about nine months since COVID-19 reached Delaware, and each month, the state has rolled out new modifications to manage or slow the spread of the virus. 

As a whole, we are experiencing the pandemic differently: Some can work from home semi-permanently, some can take off from work while they quarantine, but others are without those privileges.

I was hopeful that COVID-19 would open our eyes to how much we depend on each other because this is a time that highlights the role of essential workers who sustain our livelihoods and provide our vital needs––groceries, produce, maintenance, etc. Unfortunately, we are still ignoring disparities ever more evident and unkind. 

I am talking about the invisible undocumented workers who risk their lives every day to feed their families and whose present conditions are inhumane and have only worsened during the pandemic. We all benefit from them, yet feel cautious discussing and protecting our chicken plant and food service workers. 

I have been back, forth, and across the state to meet with poultry workers from different plants. Whether we meet on the street or at a local shopping center, most workers have the same expression on their faces: seriousness, almost apathy, hopelessness.

“Nobody cares, Miss,” they say to me. “Nobody really cares, you know what I mean?”

Many workers describe abuse after abuse at their plant jobs through constant mistreatment, humiliation, and threats; supervisors abusing co-workers and owners pretending not to see human rights violations for the benefit of their profit. These disturbing patterns are also shared among workers in the foodservice industry. 

Simple acts, such as getting quality masks to prevent the virus’s spread, have become a hassle for workers. Imagine having to continually request masks for protection during a pandemic when you work in an environment that puts you in the front line of danger?

Now we are facing a fast and robust spread again as numbers rise across the U.S. Many workers are getting sick and don’t have the support network or benefits that many citizens have. There is no urgency to care for them. 

Those in power have attempted to stop the spread with sanitizer, masks, and testing; although that’s a reasonable effort, what about the core resources these workers need to stay home if they get infected by COVID-19? Instead of educating the community on how to stop the virus’s spread, where is the accountability for those without the privilege of a safety network, secure job, and warm home? 

While the decision-makers sit in a room to talk about COVID-19 education, an undocumented person faces abuse from landlords who barely upkeep decent living conditions, abuse at the job, and fear of speaking up. 

As someone who has been in some of these decision-making rooms, the disconnect sounds like conversations about PPE, testing sites, and medical support, but nothing more if persons don’t qualify for federal aid. 

And you know what that sounds like? Racism and discrimination. We can easily call out these terms at the federal level but are quick to label them irresponsible and insensitive at the local level. But yes, it’s discrimination, too. 

There is not only an elephant in the room, but it’s stepping on the back of this community while the highest local government doesn’t seem to understand or care enough. 

For undocumented workers going without a job is not an option. If someone gets infected, they don’t have access to the right resources to stay home and recover. 

“No job, no food, nor home,” says one mother.

Losing a job is a huge fear for many because that is all they have to feed their families and survive. Because of their status, they often do not have the opportunity to join programs to learn new skills and take on different jobs or career paths. Even receiving help with utilities and rent is a potential hazard because there is a lack of protocol on distributing financial resources to them without putting them in danger. There is a looming fear of unwanted attention on their immigration status. 

“I had COVID, and I got very weak,” shares a mother of three living in Sussex. “I had to stop working, [but now] I owe two months of rent, and I can’t go back to work because I am still weak, can’t smell or taste.” 

We need to do better. A few rent efforts exist, but they are not enough to provide the resources necessary in every corner of the undocumented immigrant communities in our state where the help is most needed.

We must ensure that workers are protected, respected, adequately trained, treated with dignity, and fairly compensated, especially now that they are risking their lives to produce and sustain the economy during the pandemic.

This is bad Delaware. We cannot be the new president’s home state with this stain of voluntary blindness. If democratic values are what we all love and respect, why are we not doing what it takes to fairness at home? 

Dear emerging legislators, I know you understand the people’s pain, and that is how you got your seat at the table. I plead for you to continue to work for the communities that you serve in the face of adversity and especially now, as we face an unprecedented pandemic. 

I felt called to write this to hold us accountable for not paying enough attention. To transform the quality of life for everyone in our state, we need to look inside and not be scared of taking action. The border outrage is right here among us, and we need to look that in the eye. We need to deal with local solutions that provide everyone with the same right to education and training, access resources, and promote English literacy as a primary need out of kindness and respect but not as a colonizing imposition.

Suppose we stop using the words “justice, equity, and dignity” as talking points to show that we care, and instead, we get those talking points into passed legislation. Until law, those words have little value in our discourse, letters, videos, etc. Until then, we are fooling ourselves with the illusion of an empty narrative with no commitment or intention.

It is not news that people in all our communities are hurting, hungry, and helpless––facing adversities beyond many politicians’ understanding. It is about time to make a statement and show the world what Delaware can do.

Delawareans, we are in an international spotlight in this historic moment, and we must set the pace for our fellow states and legislators across the country. The first 100 days of the new president are essential to show us, show the world with bold actions what this new leadership is about, and see radical systemic changes. The world is evolving, and old fashioned politics and power-grabbing practices are not acceptable in our present collective vision. We have great legislators, and great emerging ethical leaders focused on innovation and bold work. 

We have big problems on many fronts, but we will not solve them with our antiquated mindset. We listen to the new voices of those who’ve experienced these inequities.

Regarding immigration, the recent picks made for Biden’s administration are the same people who’ve harmed communities during Obama’s administration. Being a person of color isn’t the sole qualification to suggest that they possess the ethics and kindness needed to work on immigration issues. This is why we must push for fundamental systemic changes in immigration and criminal justice law.

We have to understand that we need to support full and comprehensive immigration reform for those building a new life while supporting and sustaining this country. We have to be “the” state calling on our president to make this happen.  

On a more localized level, we must act together and do what is needed. Everyone else is reelected. Our governor has one more term and a chance to support better supervision of labor rights, immigration policies, access to education for undocumented adults, and some form of in-state tuition for their children. 

Undocumented workers are here to stay, and this is their home. Their children go to the same schools as yours. They are a vital part of our communities. Most of those families pay taxes and get zero benefits in return. 

This is our chance to make it right and stop acting as a double standard community. 

Let’s learn to see each other, connect, respect, and work together to rebuild our state, which requires nurturing, honesty, trust, and commitment. Our undocumented communities are saving the day big time, and we must understand that their lives can’t just be taken for granted.

We need sensitive policies to protect them now.

This is what we can do now:

1. Rent forgiveness or rent coverage: Undocumented immigrants are affected just like every other person in the state; they deserve to be housed. There has been little inclusion for them in local programs that assist with utilities and rent. This community needs intentional marketing to reach them, so they know about programs created to serve their needs.  

2. Strict labor rights, accountability, and supervision: This should include a board committee of advocates to review and propose standardized guidelines and best practices in the workplace. This group should meet with workers on a bi-monthly basis to check on progress and advocate on their behalf.

3. Investment in child care facilities: Adults need to work and have no place nor support to have their children be watched properly. There is a huge need for child care centers for this population and especially in the South.  There are a significant number of single mothers who primarily need this support. With distance learning, parents often have to go to work and leave their kids at home to be supervised by older kids or whoever can see them. 

4. Access to scholarships for undocumented adults to learn skills to find job opportunities: Without social security, the undocumented population doesn’t qualify for continuing education or any program to better themselves. This leaves them with a small pool of job opportunities. They could help with the shortage of bilingual workforce in schools “I have a teaching degree from my country and I want to help and be a teacher here but I can’t because I am not allowed to do anything in my situation.”, “I am a professional psychotherapist and I am not allowed to help parents and children that need support right now because of my status”. Say two community members one from Sussex and one from NCC.

5. In-state tuition or some sort of mechanism for undocumented students to have access to local colleges: Traditionally, undocumented students are some of the best students with a strong determination to succeed. Even though some Dreamers have access to support, many undocumented students do not. They also deserve to know that we support their dreams and value their future as any student and every student.

6. Investment in statewide community radio to provide unbiased programming in Spanish and Creole: There is a need to provide critical information to this community and inform them about resources, civic engagement, education opportunities, and more. Currently, there is no effective network to reach out and connect many of the immigrant communities. A web radio will work for some but not for many based on access to a secure and stable internet connection. We want to reach out to those that need the information to be protected and protect others. 

7. Finally, a firm safe communities policy statewide must be implemented to protect people from being targeted and abused: Each police department in the state has different policies, and not all of them are supportive and fair to immigrants. That needs to change so people can feel free to ask for help and attention without feeling that they will be harassed or deported because they have COVID-19. 

These are answers to a considerable part of the puzzle. 

Pioneering good change to model the new world will require courage, determination, a strategy with values, and authentic commitment from our officials. There is no complacency space for officials who just want to keep pretending to do but not acting to dismantle all the wrongs that history has done to communities for generations. We all are watching, and more community members will be ready to start training to challenge more seats if they feel they can serve their communities better. 

Are we ready to act and take bold actions to save lives? Let’s do it and set the path for everyone. 

No more looking away.

About the Author

Read more from Erika Gutierrez.