What It’s Like To Be Undocumented & Unemployed In The Coronavirus Pandemic

Ai-jen Poo

Care workers are the invisible workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis. They are cleaners, nannies, and caregivers. Their work is critical and yet they are unseen, underpaid, and undervalued. Through Caring Through Coronavirus — our partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the nation’s leading organization for the respect and dignity of domestic workers — we are looking at life in the coronavirus pandemic for real domestic workers today. Ai-jen Poo, the director of the Alliance, will be interviewing the workers.

Name: Ingrid Vaca

Occupation: House cleaner

Age: 57

Gender Identity: Woman

Location: Washington, D.C.

How has coronavirus affected your work situation?

“I have no work now. At first, I wasn’t really worried what would happen to my work. But then, one of my clients called to say, ‘Please don’t come to clean my home, I don’t want anybody in my house because I’m very scared about the coronavirus.’ I thought maybe some people would be worried, but I didn’t think it would change everything. That was on a Friday. Then on Monday, I had another cancellation, and that continued until now where I don’t have any work.

“One of my most difficult experiences was the cancellation of one client whose home I have cleaned for 15 years. His son called me and left a message saying they didn’t have money to pay me anymore. I’ve worked with his father for 15 years, and I took care of him as though he was my father, and then one day I’m just gone with a message on my phone. Now I have no clients left, and I have to pay rent and bills and buy food, but I don’t know how.”

How does being undocumented impact you in the face of coronavirus? 

“I came here in 2000 from Bolivia with my two sons and a suitcase full of dreams, and I have been working as a domestic worker, house cleaner, and nanny to raise my sons, who are both adults now. 

“I don’t have documentation, so I’m treated like I am nobody. I have worked hard for every family I have worked for, and many times have become part of the family, but when there is a crisis it is as though you don’t exist. Everyone is talking about the stimulus checks, but I don’t have any access to government assistance because I don’t have a Social Security Number, even though I pay taxes.”

I’ve worked with his father for 15 years, and I took care of him as though he was my father, and then one day I’m just gone with a message on my phone.

What has been your experience trying to access assistance?

“I’ve been told my situation is not ‘very serious,’ like other people’s circumstances. I called a number that I was given, looking to get rental assistance from the government, and the person I was talking to asked if I had kids under 18. When I said ‘no,’ he said my situation is not dangerous; it’s not bad like other families. But I won’t have a place to live if I can’t pay my rent. I don’t even know if they are still considering my application or not. 

“I live with my son and we haven’t had any income for a month. Even though my son has DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], we don’t have the protections citizens do. He doesn’t have any health insurance because he only just started working a new job, and I am afraid of him going to work each day. They don’t give them masks where he works, but he has to go because I don’t have any work now. Our rent is $1,600 a month.”

What is hardest about this for you?

“Being treated like I’m disposable. As an undocumented worker, you are already vulnerable. Once I was working for a woman who took advantage of undocumented Latinas by employing us to clean multiple houses for just $40 each day. She knew that we didn’t have other options and had to feed our children, so she exploited our situation. I worked with her for eight months until I was able to find something else. I’ve had an employer tell me he would give me the job if I kissed him, as though I don’t have any rights, because he knows I’m undocumented. 

“I’m tired of being treated like an animal. I’m feeling really depressed and I’m trying to keep going, but it’s really, really hard.”

What else would you like people to know?

“I want people to know we are human beings, too. We are people, and we really need respect and dignity — our humanity — because we are the people who take care of kids and who clean houses so others can go to work. 

“My mom and grandparents were always fighters and fought against any injustice in the community. They taught me to have a big heart and look out for everyone else. I hope that people remember people like me and call Congress and take other action to urge them to include people like me in any future relief, and show support for me the way I have shown support for others.” 

If you would like to support domestic workers, you can donate to the Coronavirus Care Fund, which is providing domestic workers who apply with $400 in emergency assistance.

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