Essential, yet undocumented: The LeadBoston Class of 2020 learns about immigrant experiences during COVID-19


On May 6, 2020, the LeadBoston Class of 2020 took part in a virtual program day centered on immigration and social equity. This year is the first year that LeadBoston has led an entire program day on immigration. It is important for leaders in Boston to have an understanding of immigration equity and the challenges that immigrants face in the city, and the disparities caused and revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic have made the topic increasingly relevant. By equipping LeadBoston participants with the knowledge of Boston’s systems and how those systems are both impacted by and impact their organizations and communities, the participants are able to drive equitable change. In learning more about immigrant experiences during COVID-19, the LeadBoston Class of 2020 sought both to find solutions to current challenges and to envision immigration equity post-COVID-19.

Amira Al-Subaey, the Field Organizer and Membership Coordinator at Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Coalition (MIRA), joined the LeadBoston program day to speak about MIRA’s work during COVID-19. With 130+ organizational members and offices in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, MIRA is the largest coalition in New England promoting the rights and integration of immigrants and refugees. They advance this mission through education and training, leadership development, institutional organizing, strategic communications, policy analysis, and advocacy. Amira works to expand membership opportunities to organizations across the state, foster relationships with leaders in immigrants’ rights in Massachusetts, and deepen collaboration with current MIRA members.

Learn about the challenges that Bostons’ immigrant populations are facing during COVID-19 and how immigrant-serving organizations are promoting the rights of immigrants right now: 

What are the priority issues for immigrants’ rights during COVID-19? 

According to MIRA, immigrants make up one sixth of Boston’s population and one in five of Boston’s workers and business owners is an immigrant. Nearly all – 90.8% – of Boston’s population growth since 1990 has come from international immigrants. More than half of Boston’s immigrants are naturalized citizens, while 16% are undocumented – about 173,000 individuals. Even before COVID-19, immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, faced a number of institutional inequities. The pandemic has shone a light on the disparities within our city. As Amira put it, “It is possible to be stuck in this irony of being both essential and undocumented. It is something we are seeing in Massachusetts and across the US – both in the disparities, and in who is getting the virus.” 

Here are the issues MIRA is prioritizing right now: 

Providing monetary relief to undocumented workers 

With unemployment rates reaching historic highs, individuals and families are relying on stimulus checks to pay for their essential needs. As Amira discussed in her presentation, people without a Social Security Number have been completely left out from government relief packages, including the federal CARES Act. The CARES Act also excludes anyone in the same household as someone who files their taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (used by workers without Social Security Numbers). MIRA, alongside many other immigrants’ rights groups, challenged this provision for being discriminatory to U.S. citizens with undocumented family members. 

MIRA has prioritized state-level advocacy to ensure immigrants receive their stimulus payments. They are currently in support of the Massachusetts state bill S.2569 An Act to provide equal stimulus checks to immigrant taxpayers, which would ensure equal checks for immigrant taxpayers. 

Supporting housing needs for immigrants 

As unemployment rises during the COVID-19 pandemic, many immigrants in Boston are unable to make their regular rent or mortgage payments. MIRA is in support of increasing the capacity of and widening eligibility requirements for Massachusetts’ RAFT program (Residential Assistance for Families in Transition). This program helps keep families who have gone through the RAFT approval process in their homes by paying for rent, moving costs, utility bills, and more. MIRA is urging the state to allocate $50 million in an emergency supplemental budget to the RAFT program.  

One response that MIRA counts as a recent success is Massachusetts’ moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. Signed into law in April, this decision ensures landlords cannot follow through on non-essential evictions (those that do not pose a danger to the health and safety of others).  

Ensuring all information and forms are available in languages other than English 

Government agencies on the national, state, and city levels have created a wealth of new documents following COVID-19. The documents range from information about staying safe during COVID-19 to how individuals and families can access social services. However, these materials are rarely translated into languages other than English, exasperating disparities for non-English speakers. According to MIRA, “One in 11 Mass. residents is limited-English-proficient,” meaning that these resources must be translated in order to be accessed by all. Massachusetts recently expanded their unemployment page to include a Spanish version, but there is still no version for those who speak Boston’s other most popular languages, including Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Mandarin, and more.  

MIRA is currently working with nonprofits in their membership network to fill the gaps and translate these materials. However, they are urging government agencies to be proactive and translate their materials for greater access, as well as make translated materials accessible for those using smartphone so that those without access to the internet or a computer have the information they need.

Increasing de-incarceration, particularly for those in immigration detention centers 

Without access to private spaces or air ventilation, those currently held in jails, prisons, and immigration detainment centers are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19. MIRA recently submitted testimony in support of the Massachusetts state bill, H.4652 An Act regarding decarceration and COVID-19. This bill would expand the number of currently incarcerated individuals who would be eligible for release due to health risks related to COVID-19, including those of significant age and those with preexisting health conditions. This would include individuals currently held in immigration detainment jails – 60% of whom have no criminal history. 

In early April, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that individuals could apply for release on the basis of being at heightened risk due to their health conditions. As Amira shared with the LeadBoston Class of 2020 on May 6, only a handful of people have been released due to this ruling. These people have had access to lawyers who have motioned for their release, which is not an option for many incarcerated individuals right now. This is why MIRA is advocating for H.4652, which will more effectively and equitably release individuals at high risk. 

Guaranteeing tests and treatment for those who are undocumented  

The COVID-19 infection rate has not been equitable, with communities of color in Massachusetts and across the United States seeing much higher infection and mortality rates than communities that are primarily white. This includes cities such as Chelsea, which is home to a large immigrant population and is currently experiencing a COVID-19 infection rate three times higher than Boston’s. However, as compared to documented populations, those who are undocumented are much less likely to obtain medical treatment, a trend that has become starker during the COVID-19 pandemic. Reasons for this disparity include cost of services and immigrants’ risk of deportation, as well as a lack of clarity around what counts against individuals according to the newly expanded public charge rule. 

On their website, MIRA urges readers, “If you or a loved one are sick or know you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, don’t hesitate to get tested and treated, regardless of your immigration status or insurance coverage.[…]State officials have confirmed that testing and treatment for COVID-19 related services will be covered by MassHealth Limited; testing and treatment for COVID-19-related services provided by hospitals and community health centers will be reimbursed by the Health Safety Net.” As described by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “Consistent with its sensitive locations policy, during the COVID-19 crisis, ICE will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.” 

While these agencies are working to ensure there is less risk and costs for immigrants seeking care, this information is rarely widely distributed. MIRA is working with their community partners to ensure that immigrants across the state know that they should prioritize seeking treatment and testing if needed. 

A key point of access to healthcare for people of all immigration statuses is paid sick leave. MIRA is currently advocating for Massachusetts’ Paid Emergency Sick Leave legislation  HD.5039  (Donato) and  SD.2918  (Lewis) to protect workers and enable them to care for their families. The legislation also mandates health and safety protocols for all workers in “essential” industries, including the state’s 20,000 agricultural workers.  

Organizations and individuals must step in to support immigrants’ rights 

A few LeadBoston class members giving Amira a round of applause

The LeadBoston Class of 2020 engaged with Amira during and after her presentation and took what they learned to the post-presentation discussion. In the virtual discussion, they focused on evaluating the resources available to immigrants during the crisis and identifying the are gaps. In doing so, they weighed the ways in which U.S.-born and documented individuals in the United States have been socialized to not prioritize the needs of immigrants and those without documentation. They reflected on and shared back the ways in which they, as individuals and as organizational leaders, can address current needs. Ideas included donating funds to or volunteering time with immigrant-aid organizations, raising awareness about disparities within their organizations, and advocating for long-term change. They spoke about how we can respond to these current challenges in ways that ensure increased social equity post-COVID-19. 

The LeadBoston class recorded their own small-group discussions in a shared document that also includes materials and legislation Amira highlighted during her presentation. Class members also contributed information and resources regarding immigration and COVID-19. Following the program day, at least three LeadBoston class members have taken action to examine their organizations’ COVID-19 response and its effect on staff who are immigrants. One participant shared that they reached out to their team to determine whether their relief giving included supporting those who are undocumented.  

If you are interested in learning more about immigration equity and the topics discussed, access MIRA’s COVID-19 advocacy agenda and resources. You can find their priority bills, mentioned above, here: 


About LeadBoston

Become a part of YW Boston’s LeadBoston program and join a network of over 1,000 inclusive leaders in Boston. During this 10-month program, participants explore and learn how to address barriers to inclusion through facilitated dialogue, expert speakers, and peer learning. Through experiential activities, participants delve into the socioeconomic realities of Boston and explore innovative solutions to inequity.