In midst of pandemic, undocumented families struggle to survive

Donated boxes of food and personal-hygiene items await distribution to undocumented immigrants, a small-and-vulnerable population in Southeast Colorado Springs, experts say. 

Shortly before noon on an overcast day in May, a steady stream of vehicles flowed through the parking lot of a Southeast Colorado Springs nonprofit. 

Cindy Marroquin, statewide programs manager for Servicios de la Raza, clutched a clipboard with a list of names. She greeted the drivers and checked their names against an RSVP list, before she and a volunteer loaded a box of donated food and personal hygiene items into each grateful driver’s car. 

The drivers spoke a mix of English and Spanish. They wore masks and gloves. Some had family members in the car with them. 

It’s a scene that has repeated weekly for the past few months, as undocumented immigrants — the first to lose their jobs during the crisis and all of them unqualified for government reimbursement under a $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package — struggled to support families the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We don’t want to just close the program and say ‘good luck,’” Marroquin said. “We know the circumstances, and a lot of them got laid off.”

The food distribution program arose from a pre-existing partnership between the Southeast & Armed Services YMCA and Servicios de la Raza, a Denver-based nonprofit organization with offices in Southeast Colorado Springs that provides culturally appropriate advocacy, education and support for the state’s Latin-American community. 

Before the pandemic hit, Servicios ran a weekly diabetes-prevention program for nearly 40 Latin-American women at the Southeast Y, but when COVID-19 forced that program’s suspension, the question became how to keep clients healthy and fed. 

Enter Colorado Springs Food Rescue. The Hillside nonprofit focuses on creating a sustainable, socially just food supply by redirecting foodstuffs that would have been discarded to those in-need. With its sign-on, Servicios turned from class-provider to food bank. 

“A bunch of organizations have come up and said, ‘Hey, what do you need?’” Marroquin said. “Anything from [menstrual products] to …” she gestured toward a stack of donated bathroom scales that were awaiting distribution, “is a big help.”

The no-questions-asked distribution serves the undocumented, a hidden population of neighbors who work hard, pay taxes via Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, and are, by multiple indicators, among the most vulnerable to the virus and its economic impact. 

“Some people work hard, file their taxes and they get nothing,” said Julissa Soto, the outspoken director of state programs for Servicios de la Raza. “I just want the undocumented community to know someone is here for them. Somebody cares about them.” 

Mission: equity

Soto has never been one to mince her words. She speaks openly about her history, being smuggled across the southern U.S. border in the trunk of a car, and of escaping an abusive relationship. 

She advocates vociferously for immigrant rights, spearheads mental health services for the Spanish-speaking community, and supervises programming that provides family education and supports mental health interventions for youths. Her efforts recently won her a $15,000 grant from the Pikes Peak Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, and have garnered more than $150,000 in support from the pilot Transforming Safety initiative.

So it should be no surprise that she doesn’t hold back when it comes to her thoughts on the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act specifically prohibited the distribution of support funds to “any nonresident aliens.” 

“Why do we have to look at status and not needs?” Soto asked. “Are we servants of the community or are we servants of the community, with conditions?” 

She knows that’s a bold statement. On April 22, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation suspending entry of “immigrants who present risk to the U.S. labor market” for 60 days during the period of economic recovery. 

“In the administration of our Nation’s immigration system, we must be mindful of the impact of foreign workers on the United States labor market, particularly in an environment of high domestic unemployment and depressed demand for labor,” the proclamation stated. “I have determined that, without intervention, the United States faces a potential protracted economic recovery with persistently high unemployment if labor supply outpaces labor demand.”

Hidden, but here

While the undocumented population is just a fraction of Southeast Colorado Springs’ diverse demographics, it is here and it is struggling, Soto said. Undocumented individuals, she added, are often too scared to ask for help. 

Since the beginning of April, the load-and-go food bank has served about 200 undocumented families each month in El Paso County alone. The total grows closer to 600 when you factor in similar distribution sites run by Servicios elsewhere in the state, including in Denver, Soto said.

And although Colorado is slowly returning to work, she emphasized that more needs to be done to fill in the gaps.

“I need strong leaders who are going to help out,” she said. “Putting food on their [undocumented immigrants’] tables is not illegal.

“I call upon leaders … to step up. I’m trying to serve those who are not going to get any help.” 

The food bank hours and location are not being released publicly to protect the integrity, privacy and safety of its clients, but Soto provided the Express copies of anonymous letters written by beneficiaries. 

“I would like to remind everyone,” wrote one recipient, “that Hispanics, like other races and nationalities, we are humans with needs. Now more than ever, we have the fear of ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] knocking at our doors, but we also have the coronavirus to be afraid of and not being able to reach out to get medical services because we are afraid of deportation.” 

A community at risk

A study conducted in April by the Colorado Health Institute found that residents of Southeast Colorado Springs face more obstacles to meeting social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders than their peers elsewhere in El Paso County. The Denver-based research and advocacy nonprofit crunched numbers related to population density, overcrowded housing and essential labor in each of the state’s census tracts, and created a Social Distancing Index. 

What it found is that five tracts located south of East Platte Avenue, north of South Academy Boulevard, east of Union Avenue and west of Powers Boulevard had the highest overall index score in the area. The higher the score, the greater the roadblocks to proper social distancing. 

“That’s either because they have to go to work, or their neighborhoods are dense, or the houses they live in are crowded,” said Joe Hanel, communications director for the institute.

“That ties pretty closely to income,” he continued. “If you have a lower income, you’re going to need to double up housing, get a roommate, have more members of your own family [in the same property] or double up with another family.” 

National trends and state documentation have shown that communities of color are more likely than white communities to contract and be severely impacted by the coronavirus. And that weighs heavily on the minds of Soto and her clients. 

“It would be devastating if we would get sick with the virus,” one client wrote. “Not only would it affect one person, but it would put our whole family in danger in more ways than you think. 

“We live in fear of immigration, in fear that ICE is waiting for us at every corner. Now more than ever we need help!”

For Gloria Winters, chief medical officer of the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, the partnership forged between the Y and Servicios de la Raza via the diabetes prevention program was critical to establishing a trusting relationship with vulnerable populations. 

“We can’t change everything; we can’t cure COVID,” she said. “But when everything [fell apart], we could give you back a measure of control.

“It’s such an intangible thing, trust … but that’s the foundation of where it starts.” 

This story is part of the COVID-19 Coverage Network, powered by the Colorado News Collaborative or COLab. Southeast Express joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 other newsrooms across Colorado to better serve the public. 



Founding Editor and General Manager Regan Foster holds dual bachelor's degrees in journalism and Spanish and a master's degree in journalism with specialization in political reporting and media management.