Students develop resources for immigrant communities during COVID-19

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State Center Philadelphia, Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (CIRC), and faculty in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education at Penn State worked with students in Penn State Law on a project designed to address the needs of immigrant communities in the context of COVID-19. The project involves the development of a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions (FAQ) that will be used to assist organizations working with immigrants.

A Seeding Change grant awarded through the Penn State Center Philadelphia to Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and clinical professor of law and the founder and director of CIRC, and Kathleen Sexsmith, assistant professor of rural sociology, funded the project.

Penn State junior Bianca Gutierrez contributed to the FAQ through CIRC and has a summer internship with Justice at Work, a multilingual, legal nonprofit founded solely to support low-income workers facing both immigration and labor rights issues. Justice at Work is one of the organizations that will receive the FAQ document.

“The purpose of the FAQ is to create and disseminate accurate information to the immigrant community and their families,” Gutierrez said. “Before COVID-19, we had a similar project in development focused on immigrant workers’ rights in two food system sectors, but we quickly pivoted because of the pandemic to focus on the pressing needs of the community.”

Ashish Sharma graduated with a master of laws degree from Penn State Law in May 2020. He said working on this project enabled his team to identify the effects of the broader immigration system on workers. The FAQ will help to address their concerns.

“Workers are experiencing delays in immigration benefit interviews, health and safety concerns in detention, fears about seeking medical care because of immigration status, and delays in hearings at immigration courts,” Sharma said. “Food service workers who were laid off because of the pandemic have increased economic and food insecurity and many of them need to know how their immigration status will affect their ability to receive a stimulus check or service at a food pantry.”

Gutierrez said before she attended law school, she knew few things about the vulnerabilities of the immigrant community.

“It wasn’t until last year that I learned about some of the awful conditions that immigrant farmworkers face, especially women who experience sexual assault,” Gutierrez said. “For this reason, when I was accepted to work at CIRC, I was really eager to be a part of projects that would impact Pennsylvania farmworkers.”

The delivery of the FAQ document to organizations that are part of daily outreach to immigrants is a crucial part of the project.

“Collaboration with professionals that share your passion for the protection and advocacy of the immigrant community is essential,” Gutierrez said. “Getting this in the right hands is success for our project.”

The FAQ document will be distributed to organizations that assist thousands of people from immigrant populations across Pennsylvania, including Justice at Work, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Pennsylvania Farmworker Project, Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, Temple University’s Sheller Center for Social Justice, Puentes de Salud, and Popular Alliance for Undocumented Worker’s Rights. It also will be available on the CIRC website.

Wadhia said the pivot from the original Seeding Change grant to responding to COVID-19 was a clarifying moment for the team and its mission.

“Food chain workers and farmworkers, many of whom are immigrants, are among those most at risk for COVID-19 and vulnerable because of their immigration status,” Wadhia said. “I am so proud that my team could pivot to consider the relevant questions and answers for this community. The shift also aligns with the rapid response our clinic has been engaged in for the last three years in the wake of the 2016 election.”

For more information about Seeding Change grants, visit the Penn State Center Philadelphia guideline and application webpage.

Last Updated April 15, 2021