There are no adequate words to describe the immense pain, distress and loss that the coronavirus pandemic has brought upon our state. There are also few ways to express the deep gratitude we owe to our essential workers, who are shepherding us through this crisis.
Working Floridians have suffered immensely, in large part, a consequence of a state government beholden to corporate interests over the most fundamental needs and rights of everyday people. This is why our unemployment system is inaccessible by design, why we have so few safety nets to protect vulnerable communities, and why workers are forced to choose between a paycheck and the health of their families.
It is also not an accident that immigrant communities and people of color, who make up the majority of workers in essential industries, have disproportionately felt the horrific impact of the coronavirus. It is a direct result of a state government that has put corporate profits before public health, and leverages racism alongside xenophobia to distract from their blatant corruption.
Yet still, it is working people, people of color, immigrants and the intersections therein who have demonstrated incredible sacrifice, resilience and heroism during this crisis. Our postal workers, farm workers, health care workers, first responders, teachers and countless others, have stood firm on the frontlines to keep us all safe. Yet time and time again, immigrant communities, though essential, are excluded from programs designed to keep us all safe. This is not only anti-American; it puts everyone’s health at risk, and slows down an already difficult economic recovery.
At the federal level, President Donald Trump continues to exclude immigrant communities from relief. From his efforts to repeal the DACA program, exclude immigrant students from American institutions of higher learning, prohibit immigrant entrepreneurs from the paycheck protection program, and halt legal immigration all together, he has continued to employ a xenophibic platform that rejects our most fundamental American values. Immigrants continue to be held in unjust detention centers where COVID19 rages, and federal relief packages continue to exclude undocumented essential workers from economic relief; even excluding mixed-status families from direct stimulus checks.
Sadly here in Florida, immigrants also face disgraceful barriers to basic protections. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers had to organize a massive petition drive to simply secure access to testing. Where states like Washington and California established direct assistance funds for undocumented residents, nonprofits like the Florida Immigrant Coalition had to launch their own “Essential but Excluded Fund” to provide direct cash assistance to excluded families.
During the 2020 legislative session, my Democratic colleagues and I championed several pieces of legislation designed to protect and empower immigrant communities. Proposals included basic heat stress protections for outdoors workers, expanding Bright Futures access to DACA-recipients, expanding language access in our public schools, and ensuring every Floridian has the opportunity to be trained, licensed and insured to drive — common sense proposals that would have served to keep us all safer during this pandemic and helped for a faster, more equitable recovery.
Yet these proposals were ignored. Instead, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a version of E-verify into a law, a broken anti-immigrant employee verification system that will only exacerbate fear among the same workers who are literally keeping us fed. We continue to implement a system where immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are restricted from receiving affordable and high quality health treatment as a result of their status. Immigrant-owned small businesses, job-creators in our communities, are forced to close their doors. Without access to unemployment benefits, undocumented workers with multi-generational households are forced to choose between paying their bills and the health of their families. The vicious cycle continues, as COVID-19 related death and infection rates are disproportionately high among Black and immigrant communities.
At a time when the health of all residents has never been more important for recovery as a whole, we must do better. We must protect and empower all Floridians, regardless of immigration status. Socioeconomic status, fear of punishment for seeking treatment, language barriers, and lack of work security all contribute to a reduced incentive for immigrant populations to get tested and puts them at higher risk for infection. A health system based on exclusion does not serve our communities. We, as elected officials, have to commit ourselves to creating a health care system and economic structure that provides access and security for all.
My parents were immigrants from Iran who met and planted roots in Orlando. They came to America because in this country, they saw opportunities they couldn’t find anywhere else. My father worked two restaurant jobs while earning a degree at the University of Central Florida. My mother worked overtime at K-Mart. My family, like every single immigrant family in this state, is part of the fabric of Florida and deserve the opportunity to be safe, healthy, and prosperous. As we face this pandemic and the struggles of recovery before us, I hope my colleagues across the aisle do not forget all of the essential people, including undocumented Floridians, and do right by them as they have for us.
Anna V. Eskamani, a Democrat, represents Orlando in the Florida House.