Op-Ed | New York City immigrants: Seek care and support without fear

FILE PHOTO:  The outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan, New York City
FILE PHOTO: People queue to collect food distribution at Harlem’s Community Kitchen and Food Pantry service by the Food Bank for New York City during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., May 9, 2020. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo)

By Dr. Oxiris Barbot and Bitta Mostofi

During the COVID-19 crisis, we have witnessed hundreds of thousands of New York City immigrants putting their lives at risk to protect their fellow Americans. The 500,000 immigrant workers serving on the frontlines are over half of our health care workers, are working at grocery stores and in transportation, and are EMS responders, firefighters, and delivery and postal workers. Our ability to survive this pandemic is due in large part to immigrant New Yorkers and now more than ever, immigrants deserve our utmost respect and our support.

We know that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the health and livelihood of the more than 3.1 million immigrants and children of immigrants in New York City. In a recent Health Department survey, 51% of immigrants reported that they or someone in their household has had hours reduced at work or lost a job due to the pandemic and 45% said they currently do not have enough “food they want to eat.”

This pandemic has highlighted the underlying conditions of structural racism, which is itself a public health crisis. Black and Latinx New Yorkers have died at almost twice the rate of white people as a result of COVID-19. Asian Americans have been subject to bias incidents and hate crimes in connection to coronavirus.

Yet, federal policies continue to block and discourage immigrants from accessing the support they need during this time. The Trump administration’s explicit anti-immigrant agenda has caused many residents to fear public health guidance, to be cut off from access to medical care, and to be met with blame and exclusion rather than solidarity. Immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, have been shut out of most federal coronavirus relief programs.

The public charge rule—the Trump administration’s green card “wealth test”—continues to sow confusion and distrust of government and overbroad immigration enforcement has created an environment of toxic stress, where our community members live in constant fear of being separated from their family. These realities are deterring immigrants from seeking care even when safe ways to access health care are available. During a pandemic, the “chilling effect” of these policies is especially deadly, and addressing systematic inequality and injustice is more urgent than ever.

In New York City, we reject discriminatory policies that pick and choose who among our community deserves help during a crisis. In April, we joined the New York State Attorney General in asking the District Court for the Southern District of New York to halt implementation of the public charge rule during the COVID-19 national emergency. The court’s decision, which may come any day now, could have a profound affect for the upwards of one million New York City residents estimated to be impacted by the public charge rule. 

While we continue to fight against this rule in court, we are working to ensure that our communities are empowered with clear and accurate information, in the many languages they speak, about which benefits they can access safely during this time. 

This week, communities will start to see a new Health Department and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs campaign with a clear, powerful message: Seek Care and Support without Fear. This multilingual ad campaign seeks to educate and assure communities hardest hit by COVID-19 infection and mortality that many health and social services—including COVID-19 testing and care, emergency Medicaid, food assistance, tenant protection, and free legal help—are available to them regardless of immigration status, ability to pay, or employment status, and to counter misinformation about eligibility for public benefits. To learn more, visit nyc.gov/immigrants.

New York City residents who have questions about how accessing public benefits may affect immigration status, can call ActionNYC hotline at1-800-354-0365, Monday to Friday between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., for connections to City-funded, free and confidential immigration legal help.

As our city begins to recover from this challenging time, we want all immigrant New Yorkers to trust that they can seek the care they need without fear of immigration consequences, to be empowered by knowledge about their right to get support, and to know that their City has their back.

Dr. Oxiris Barbot is the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Bitta Mostofi is the Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.