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Living as an immigrant through the coronavirus pandemic is like being placed inside a bottle with a fastened cap and left to die, a business owner said.

That's how Jose Gutierrez, owner of a Little Rock cleaning company, described himself through a translator during a media call Wednesday morning hosted by Arkansas United, an advocacy group for the state's immigrant population.

The current climate feels so dire to immigrants because businesses are closing and the number of infections keeps spiking, all while the government keeps overlooking a group that is vital to the U.S. economy, said Mireya Reith, founding executive director of Arkansas United.

"Regardless of the [seriousness] of the situation, they are required to show up for work," Reith said, adding that a significant number of immigrants statewide and across the country are part of the country's "food and meat production" and are on the "front lines" of ensuring Americans' food supply.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Reith was joined in Wednesday's media call by three speakers who described how the economic slowdown has directly affected them. The three were Gutierrez, 47; Tania Bahena, a 32-year-old dental assistant from De Queen; and Karla Palma, 19, a nursing student in Fort Smith.

The covid-19 chaos is unfolding as 5,000 or so immigrants across Arkansas wait to see how the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, commonly known as DACA.

The Supreme Court could allow President Donald Trump's administration to shut down the program, enacted in 2012 under President Barack Obama, that granted temporary protection from deportation to roughly 700,000 people who were brought to the U.S. as children and are in the U.S. illegally.

Those people, known as "Dreamers," have been allowed to legally work and attend school in the U.S. as long as they pass background checks and meet specific requirements. There are 5,000 DACA program recipients in Arkansas, according to Arkansas United.

Reith, who is a former chairman of the state Board of Education, said "clarity is still needed" on the $2 trillion stimulus agreement that was struck Tuesday night between the White House and the Senate. There have been "mixed interpretations" about how much assistance will be granted to immigrants, and whether people with work permits and Social Security numbers are the only ones who would benefit, she said.

Bahena said De Queen is a small-business community. Several of the city's restaurants have closed temporarily. She said her employer, Smiles of Arkansas, temporarily closed after seeing patients Friday. Employees will be paid through April 13, but there is uncertainty after that, she said.

Because she isn't a U.S. citizen, Bahena won't be eligible for unemployment benefits. She knows she is not alone.

"De Queen is run by a lot of small businesses, and it has a pretty big immigrant community," she said, adding that many families in her community are living "paycheck to paycheck," so any prolonged stop in income makes for an anxious situation.

State and federal officials have yet to commit to ensuring that Arkansas' immigrants will have access to negotiated relief, Reith said. Advocates, like Reith, also are concerned about covid-19 testing, treatment and services for the immigrant population.

She pointed out that several immigrants, many of whom are DACA recipients, are scientists who are working on vaccines, health care workers who are helping the sick, agricultural workers who are putting food on the table and custodial workers who are maintaining sterile work environments.

Bahena said she is worried about a stimulus package that seemingly excludes most immigrants.

"Not getting any kind of help is going to make worse what is already happening," she said.

Metro on 03/26/2020

Print Headline: State's foreigners fear aid package deals them out

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