Newark, NJ – A steady stream of residents from the Ironbound section of Newark, some in cars, some on foot, arrived at arranged pickup points in the neighborhood this weekend to get the help that they need because of problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is help that many people, because of their immigration status, can't get anywhere else but from their neighbors.
"Undocumented people live in constant fear. They can't access government resources the way that U.S. citizens can at a time like this," said Vicky Hernandez, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC), one of several nonprofit community organizations that joined together to hand out free food packages on Saturday morning at three separate spots in the neighborhood, including the ICC's Down Bottom Farms on Ferry Street. "Being able to access free food fills a huge void for them," Hernandez said.
The massive food drive was organized by state Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, whose 29th Legislative District includes the Ironbound.
“People in this neighborhood are so humble, and they are really ashamed to ask for help. Here, it's all about someone knowing someone who's struggling and won't ask for help. We have to do all we can to help each other," said Pintor Marin as she helped to hand off food packages.
“We've never experienced anything like this, and it's scary,” Pintor Marin said. “But we're resilient people. We can do it.”
The coronavirus pandemic has created a huge void in the national economy. Federal officials announced on Friday that the U.S. economy lost 20.5 million jobs in April, the most sudden and largest decline since the government began tracking the data in 1939, at the end of the Great Depression.
Evidence of the nearly 15 percent national unemployment rate is particularly stark in a neighborhood like the Ironbound, where many people work in cash-payment jobs such as construction, cleaning services, or as waiters and bartenders in the area's well-known and profuse restaurants.
These types of jobs are taken largely by undocumented immigrants, a demographic that is particularly predominant in a neighborhood that has long been the starting point for new arrivals to America.
However, unlike U.S. citizens, undocumented immigrants cannot rely on government relief sources, including unemployment, that can provide vital relief at a time of job loss and widespread economic hardship.
Carina, an undocumented immigrant from Argentina who supports a family of four working for a cleaning service, was lined up for one of the more than 1,000 non-perishable boxes of food supplied by the Community Food Bank of New Jersey throughout the Ironbound.
"I can't get unemployment, I don't have health care. I don't receive any help," said Carina as she waited with about 20 more people at Down Bottom Farms, part of the ICC's urban agriculture program. "The government shouldn't be thinking about our documents right now. They should be thinking about us as human beings."
Jennifer McGrath, a longtime Ironbound resident who was born a U.S. citizen, noted that not only the undocumented are falling through the cracks as America's economy continues to crumble.
"Times are hard right now because of this pandemic, so anything extra help helps," said McGrath, a stay-at-home single mother with three children, two with disabilities. "Before this, everyone had their struggles. But now, it's more of an eye-opener. It's a good thing that the community comes together like this. Like I said, every little thing helps."
"No jobs, no papers, no help - this all just breaks my heart," said Galo Proano, an Ecuadorian immigrant and president of the Newark chapter of the Latin American Motorcycle Association, whose members had handed McGrath a box of food for her family.
"I'm blessed that I've got a lot to give,” Proano said. “We've got to stick together now. We have to do something to help our people."
The Sport Club Português on Prospect Street has been helping immigrants begin building their version of the American Dream in the Ironbound since the 1920s.
Outside of the club on Saturday morning, volunteers handed over food to one couple who pulled up and drove off quickly. The wife, a chauffeur, recently was laid off because of the pandemic. The husband, who helps take care of their two children, just finished a round of chemotherapy. Although known to the local volunteers, they exchanged no words, except thanks.
A look around the corner from the club on to a desolate Ferry Street, the neighborhood's main commercial artery, normally bustling with business on a weekend morning, underscores the serious challenges that lie ahead for the people of the Ironbound, fighting a pandemic that cares not about how one makes a living, nor their legal status, nor life itself.
But Jack Costa, the former president of the Sport Club Português, remembers his club's role as an entry point for the generations of immigrants who have made the Ironbound the close-knit neighborhood that it is. He also knows what role his club, and its members, have to play as the pandemic proceeds.
"A human being is a human being. There is no such thing as an illegal. These people are needed. All the people we talk to, they want to work," Costa said as he picked up another food-filled box. "We've been out there promoting the idea that this is a safe city for undocumented people to come to live and work in. If we've been inviting them, we can't abandon them. We've got to help them now."
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