Undocumented Migrants: If We’re ‘Essential’ Workers During COVID-19, Why Detain Us?

  APR 7, 2020

The federal government has designated farm workers as “essential” to the U.S. food supply chain during the COVID-19 crisis. Ironically, about two-thirds of U.S. farm workers are undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Either way, they do most of our food picking and processing, especially in Florida.

So Paulino Gallegos has a question: If undocumented workers like him are “essential” to the cause – why was he recently locked up?

“It’s confusing to me that I got detained when I did,” says Gallegos, 54, who lives in Florida City and does agricultural work in the Redland area of South Dade.

“I mean, it seemed they were saying one thing and doing another.”

Gallegos came here from Mexico 21 years ago. He has no criminal record; he’s active in his community; he pays his taxes and one of his children is a U.S. citizen. On March 18 – the same day U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said it was backing away from arrests of non-criminal migrants like Gallegos because of the coronavirus pandemic – ICE agents picked him up away.

Paulino Gallegos (in checked shirt) with his family. (Analleli Gallegos is at far left) CREDIT COURTESY ANALLELI GALLEGOS

“He goes to work, he picks up his co-worker – who was the one that had the detain order against him,” says Gallegos’ daughter, Analleli Gallegos, who has immigration protection under DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – because her father brought her here when she was 10.

“That’s when they stopped them – and they took my dad as well” as a “collateral” detention.

READ MORE: COVID-19 Prompts Some Immigration Facility Closures – But Fewer in South Florida

When Paulino was taken to ICE’s Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Analleli worried most because her dad is diabetic – meaning he has a weakened immune system that’s vulnerable to the coronavirus infection. And ICE detention facilities are usually very crowded.

“So I’m panicking and I’m very scared and confused,” says Analleli. “He’s a very kind man and he’s a role model to me. What would be the possible reason that they would still have him there?”

Many of the coronavirus protective recommendations we should all be following aren’t possible for everyone. Migrant farm workers can’t pick strawberries remotely from home, over Zoom. –Oscar Londono

ICE cannot comment on individual detainee cases; the agency referred WLRN to its original statement that it’s curtailing non-criminal detentions of undocumented immigrants. But South Florida immigration attorneys are confused about why arrests like Paulino’s are still happening.

“It seems like their marching orders remain the same,” says Jessica Schneider, an immigration attorney who heads the detention program at the nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami, which is representing Paulino Gallegos.

That seeming contradiction reflects other areas of uncertainty lawyers are pointing to during this crisis, such as whether immigrants need to show up for status appointments now.

“I wish I could tell them that they could relay on the guidance that ICE has issued,” Schneider says. “But based on everything that we’re seeing it’s unclear at best if ICE is following their own guidance.”

Schneider agrees the most important concern right now is the risk of coronavirus infection for detainees – and federal workers inside facilities like the Broward center. That, after all, is a big reason ICE said it would relax migrant detentions during the pandemic.

“We have heard of them taking measures to engage in more social distancing,” Schneider says. “But medical experts say it’s impossible to prevent spread of COVID-19 in these jail-like conditions.”


Which is why hundreds of Broward Transitional Center detainees recently signed a petition urging ICE to release everyone held there, especially since they’re non-criminal detainees. ICE said it is not aware of that petition, but the agency insisted it is taking healthcare precautions and is beginning to release more detainees.

Immigrant advocates point out the coronavirus is also a serious risk for non-detained migrants, particularly for those living and working in tight quarters like agricultural camps and fields.

“It’s the undocumented workers we’re relying on in this food supply moment, right?” says Oscar Londoño, who heads the immigrant advocacy NGO WeCount! in Homestead. “But many of the coronavirus protective recommendations we should all be following are not possible for everyone.

Migrant detainees at the Krome detention center in Miami. CREDIT JOSE IGLESIAS / MIAMI HERALD

“You can’t pick strawberries working remotely from home, over Zoom.”

WeCount! has started an Immigrant Worker COVID-19 Fund to raise at least $50,000 for undocumented workers in South Dade – to help them with things like medical needs, since many are now afraid to go to public health clinics.

“We’ve seen notices that community health clinics will not be targets of ICE enforcement operations,” says Londoño. “But there are these questions and lack of trust lingering in the minds of many undocumented immigrants as to how safe is it?”

Paulino Gallegos was finally released on his own recognizance over the weekend. He’s wearing a monitoring bracelet on his ankle now, as he tries to adjust his immigration status.

But he says he hopes that since Washington has designated the agricultural work he’s doing as  “essential,” “that will help change U.S. attitudes about undocumented migrants.”

The other thing he hopes: that during his detention he wasn’t exposed to COVID-19.