FOREST, Miss. (WLOX) - The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic brought out the best in the United States, both in those that were born in the country and elsewhere.
Among those working on the frontlines, 28.4 million were foreign-born - making up 17.4% of America’s labor force.
They fought the virus first hand in hospitals, kept store shelves stocked, worked long days in food plants and a myriad of other jobs and services to keep the nation afloat during a time of health and economic crisis.
“I just want people to know that we are working and everyone, too, is benefiting from (immigrant) labor,” Leticia Martinez said.
She is one of the 41,320 immigrants that work and live in Mississippi.
The Canton-native has been in the state for 30 years, working at a nearby chicken plant in Forest, but she and others like her detail the struggles the central Mississippi community has recently gone through.
“Everything was completely impacted by (the virus),” Edwin Gonzalez said.
The Panama-born resident runs his own landscaping service, which has taken a dip in business.
“A lot of people are out of work right now so they cut their own yards,” he said. “That’s difficult for me. I need to be outside doing work whether it’s cold, hot, whatever.”
Gonzales represents some of the few immigrants with income during the pandemic. Others had to leave work due to health concerns, like Ernecenda Terez.
“You couldn’t go outside because of the virus. You had to stay put in your house,” Terez said.
The Guatemalan native feared finding work due to the risk of contracting the virus and then spreading it among her husband and children.
“We don’t have medical insurance so if we get sick who will take care of us? So it’s very frustrating,” she said.
Terez, like many immigrants during the pandemic, struggled with finding work and paying for groceries, bills and other expenses.
“It makes me scared because I’m a single mother,” Lidia Herra said.
The Morton resident works at a nearby chicken plant, where working conditions were not always up to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“At first it was really difficult, and thank God there wasn’t much contraction,” Gonzales said. “There wasn’t any separation. There wasn’t any social distancing. People had to work face to face.”
A majority of the state’s immigrant population works in “Accommodation and Food Services,” making up 7% of all industry workers, with manufacturing and health care following.
As the pandemic raged on, the call for more essential workers rang, but some immigrants, documented and undocumented, said roadblocks set in place after the 2019 ICE raids caused challenges.
“A lot of people already did not have work,” Yolanda Soto said. “It’s been more difficult to work for companies because they require more from you and do more searches.”
Uncertainty in the job market is also coupled with inadequacies in the health care system.
“I don’t even know if they will vaccinate us,” Rosa Maria Hernandez. “We don’t have any health insurance or anything right now.”
Keeping people safe and informed during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for both state and federal health officials, but it’s even more difficult when you have to break language and cultural barriers.
“I speak a little English but sometimes, there are things I don’t understand,” Martinez said.
In the Magnolia State, the Mississippi State Department of Health has its own non-English information, but advocates said there has to be more.
“For Hispanic people, we need something more clear and more information,” Giovanna Blanco said.
Blanco is a caseworker with El Pueblo, a nonprofit dedicated to providing legal and support services for Mississippi immigrants.
Throughout the pandemic the organization and a handful of others have been posting the latest COVID-19 data on social media pages, providing PPE and even distributing food to people in need.
“This is a big help,” Blanco said. “For the Hispanics here, they know a place like this one gives them some type of relief. They can take a deep breath.”
While advocates do their part in helping at-risk communities, immigration lawyers also feel the impacts of COVID-19.
With social distancing guidelines in place, many attorneys like Patricia Ice are holding legal meetings virtually.
“I did not really want them to come in person. I’m a senior at high risk for COVID,” the director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance said. “It’s been difficult making arrangements with some people to meet in a video chat because they don’t know how to work the video chat. They don’t know how to work Zoom. Maybe they don’t speak English very well.”
As the pandemic rages on, Mississippi’s immigrants want to see more southern hospitality in the Hospitality State, as they face similar health and economic hardships as everyone else.
“We are all people like everyone else. We are all humans. We are all the same. We are all fighting,” Martinez said.