Agencia ALPHA: Facing the Fears of Undocumented Immigrants

Stakes are high for immigrants as their fears of filling out the census and accessing health care continue to prevail in the age of COVID-19. 

April 15, 2020

Before COVID-19 hit, Agencia ALPHA was focusing much of its work on encouraging its immigrant constituents, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, to complete their 2020 Census forms. It was no easy task, especially after the federal government attempted to add a citizenship question to the census. Even though the question never made it onto the form, just the idea instilled fear in immigrants, especially those who are undocumented. But the stakes couldn’t be higher. The 2020 Census is critical for ensuring adequate federal funding to Massachusetts, shaping congressional districts and understanding the needs of residents.

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And, in the time of the coronavirus, it’s almost impossible to convince non-U.S. citizens to participate. “Because people were encouraged to fill out the census online, we were busy finding ways to provide access to the technology they needed,” said Patricia Sobalvarro, the group’s executive director. “But that involved setting up centers with computers, which is no longer feasible. Now, all we can do is remind them by phone that the census really is confidential and tell them that if they don’t fill in the forms, someone will show up at their door.”

A recent Boston Indicators blog carried a chart of the “20 Hardest to Count Cities and Towns in Massachusetts,” and most are those with high immigrant or non-English speaking populations. They include places like Lawrence, Lynn, Malden and, of course, Boston which owes all of its recent growth to immigrants. The problem is that a flawed count affects everyone in those communities.

Another fear undocumented immigrants have is seeking health care because it means interacting with a large agency and thus carries with it the danger of being discovered and deported. Those fears only increased when the federal rule on Public Charge became final in February. The rule makes immigrants who receive Medicaid and other publicly funded benefits, such as food stamps, potentially ineligible for green cards and visas and, in some cases, subjects them to deportation. While the Department of Homeland Security has issued an alert explaining that it “does not restrict access to testing, screening or treatment of communicable diseases, including COVID-19,” immigrants are understandably wary.

Damaris Velasquez speaking at a podium, people behind her holding signs.
Agencia ALPHA co-founder and program director  Damaris Velasquez  speaking about immigrant rights at the State House. (Photo courtesy of Agencia ALPHA)
“I spoke with one woman on the phone who had burned herself in the kitchen, but was afraid to go to a doctor and instead was using home remedies,” said Sobalvarro, who, along with her staff, is working remotely.

While grappling with these and other distressing issues, Sobalvarro and her colleagues were worried about how to continue its important work during this time of crisis. The nonprofit was founded in 2002 by two immigrant women from Guatemala. It’s a faith-based organization that provides programs and services to Latinos to help them reach their social and legal goals.

“We were very fortunate that some funding came through that will keep us going through the summer,” said Sobalvarro. That also meant that 100 percent of the grant from the Boston Foundation’s COVID-19 Fund is going directly to immigrant families to help them make it through this unparalleled crisis.  

This is one in a series of stories about grantees of the Boston Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund. These Greater Boston nonprofits are on the front-lines of our community's response to this crisis. While we are all struggling to cope with the hardships of the coronavirus, these organizations, their leaders and their staff are serving the most vulnerable among us. Boston Indicators, the Boston Foundation’s Research Center, is providing valuable data and analysis for these stories. Visit for more on the COVID-19 Response Fund .