Amanda Tello drove her red SUV carefully down the narrow streets of the mobile home park tucked away in west St. Louis County. With cars parked on both sides of the street there was room for just one vehicle to pass at a time.
She was there for the same reason I was: following a tip that officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had raided the park, looking for undocumented immigrants.
There had been no raid, though a man who lived in the park told me there had been some suspected ICE agents driving around for a couple of days, in vehicles with dark, tinted windows.
“There’s always a fear,” Tello told me, in communities like this one with heavy immigrant populations, particularly Hispanic ones. She works with a group of activists helping immigrants gain access to services, food and utility aid, and educational opportunities for children. She is part of a rapid response team that heads to neighborhoods whenever there is a report of a possible ICE raid, to record interactions with federal officers and to provide help to people if it’s needed.
These days, ICE hasn’t been particularly active in St. Louis, she says. Their office, like so many others, is shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, Tello and others are trying to help guide immigrants — especially those who don’t speak much English — through the crisis.
“It’s a very vulnerable time for poor people,” Tello says.
Indeed, just last week, more than 3 million people across the country filed for unemployment in one week, a dubious new record. But many of the people whom Tello and organizations that help immigrants serve can’t access most government aid programs. Their ability to react to the pandemic is that much more difficult.
Especially those who fear that they have contracted COVID-19.
“They’re worried that if they report they are sick that they will be deported,” says Meredith Rataj. She’s the immigrant services site director for the Southside Center operated by St. Francis Community Services. The realities of the stay-at-home orders in the city and the county have made the most basic communication with their clients more difficult. Case workers usually meet with clients at the office, or at their homes, and the pandemic removes that option.
Worse, Rataj and Tello both tell me, few of the orders and other important documents being produced by government agencies in the city and the county and the state of Missouri come with Spanish translations.
And even when they do, they’re sometimes wrong.
Take the attempt by the state Department of Health and Senior Services to provide Spanish translation for some of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice on COVID-19 symptoms and treatment.
The translation, Rataj said, was borrowed from the state of Washington. It even included the phone numbers from that state, instead of numbers for Missouri.
That’s one reason why various volunteers and organizations are working to translate important government guidance during the coronavirus pandemic. They have started a page online with such translations (bi.ly/stlcovidespanol), are posting some information on Facebook (facebook.com/STLJuntos) and have started a website where they are raising money for immigrants who find themselves out of work and unable to pay for rent or food.
Tello left the mobile home park Friday morning relieved that she didn’t have much to do. She passed on some information and eased some concern. But she knows the tough times are just beginning.
A letter is taped to the door of the park’s laundry room, written by the priest of the Catholic church attended by most of the immigrants before stay-at-home orders interrupted their worship. The letter asks the landlord to show grace to the residents who may struggle in coming months to pay their rent.