To be undocumented means, first, to be on the run. Then, on the lookout. Always. This is why, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the measures being implemented nationwide, such as “shelter-in-place,” are both familiar and contradictory to their basic needs, their quotidian reality, their condition as social pariahs. Or at least that is how most undocumented Mexicans, like me, have for decades experienced life in the United States.
What makes the current crisis familiar is the sense of foreboding, of knowing oneself disposable at any moment. What makes it contradictory is the impossibility of staying put. For most of us, staying home is as unnatural as it is illogical. A violation of our faith in universal principles. If nothing else, in a capitalistic society, we the undocumented are bodies in constant motion. How else could we understand our place in a world that first uproots us and then denies us a new permanent home? It is surreal, finding oneself in this suspended state of being, not fully here but no longer there.
This limbo we inhabit, have you heard of it?
As immigrants, experience tells us that to even entertain the idea of having a home, we must leave home. In a world ruled by COVID-19, staying home means having the luxury of working remotely, of existing, in part, as a digital being. In other words, eliminating corporeal presence. For those performing menial jobs, this complicates things quite a bit, as you surely understand. In fact, a directive like “shelter-in-place” makes it impossible for us to perform our jobs at all, the jobs that Americans don’t want and won’t do. Picking fruits and vegetables, for instance. Cooking them. Delivering them safely so that others can remain well-fed and protected.
Of course, during a pandemic no one is safe, and everyone is being impacted by COVID-19 one way or another. Here I am just highlighting the work of the undocumented, the labor that’s usually unseen and unappreciated.
At this crucial moment, a good share of the responsibilities having to do with America’s elemental sustenance fall upon undocumented bodies that are as essential as they are disposable. Such a strange thing—to depend on the deliverables of a group of people who only half-exist, to rely on the labor of a lawless mass in order to sustain that most basic of laws, survival. Perhaps, when this crisis has finally passed, the undocumented will be remembered in the annals of COVID-19 as a great irony—a people stripped of humanity who helped usher humanity into the future.
If COVID-19 has shown us something new, it’s because of how brutally unbiased it is in its effects. In this respect, the equalizing nature of the virus is infinitely superior to American democracy—a perverse political system that has created the conditions for 11 million individuals to exist in a state of legal, social and economic destitution at the same time that it labels us criminals. Of course, all of this occurs as the Social Security Administration collects $13 billion from the undocumented every year.
With the U.S. having reached the biggest number of reported COVID-19 cases in the world in recent days, what will happen to its undocumented population? What will happen to those who won’t benefit from the economic relief package recently approved? What will happen to those who can’t stay home, who are constantly exposed to contagion and who lack access to even the most basic health care? What will happen to those living not paycheck by paycheck but day by day?
In moments like this, only the law of self-preservation has any weight. This means that no directive, no military-like raid terrorizing city streets can keep us home. It means that we will continue on, as bodies in constant motion.
José Ángel Navejas is a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic and Italian Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the author of Illegal: Reflections of an Undocumented Immigrant (University of Illinois Press, 2014).
This essay was originally published in The Point’s Quarantine Journal.