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COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Plans in Two Highly Diverse U.S. Communities Offer Lessons for Strengthening Future Emergency Responses
Press Release
Wednesday, July 27, 2022

COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Plans in Two Highly Diverse U.S. Communities Offer Lessons for Strengthening Future Emergency Responses

WASHINGTON — Two markedly different U.S. communities—the nation’s fourth-largest metro area and a small city in southwestern Minnesota—drew from prior crisis responses to develop COVID-19 relief and recovery plans that included innovative strategies for providing public health and economic support to immigrant families, a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report finds.

With immigrants and other minorities disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and deaths, MPI researchers selected Houston, TX and Worthington, MN to conduct interviews over the first 18 months of the public health crisis to examine access to testing, vaccines and health care. They also examined the access to income supports provided by governments or philanthropic organizations for immigrant residents, many of whom were ineligible for federal assistance because they are on temporary visas, have less than five years in lawful permanent resident status or are unauthorized.

Though the COVID-19 relief and recovery plans developed by the two communities, which are among the most diverse in the United States, had very different origins and execution, they both offer examples of innovative outreach and service delivery that could promote the health and economic resilience of all U.S. residents during future crises, the report finds.

Worthington was an early COVID-19 hotspot in 2020 after an outbreak and subsequent temporary shutdown at the town’s largest employer, a meat-packing plant. After an initial spike, successor waves of infections and deaths have declined. This result owes in part to the community’s COVID-19 outreach to immigrants, which drew on the strong network of faith-based and other community groups that emerged after the community was rocked by the arrests of hundreds of unauthorized immigrants during a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) worksite enforcement operation at the meat-packing plant in 2006. Worthington’s public health response also relied on the pork processing plant itself, which offered workers $100 to get vaccinated and helped facilitate the delivery of health and other assistance.

Harris County, home to Houston, built on the relief and recovery model established after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and its own strong network of local government, community and philanthropic organizations to reach out to immigrants and their families amid the pandemic. The nation’s most diverse metro area, Houston needed a sophisticated plan to identify and reach many diverse and vulnerable subpopulations, immigrants included, for testing and vaccination. The city of Houston and Harris County governments along with philanthropists also stepped in to provide pandemic relief to unauthorized, mixed-status and legal immigrant families that were not covered by federal stimulus assistance. About 30 percent of the $165 million in direct assistance to Harris County residents was obtained from local sources and did not carry immigration-status restrictions, the MPI researchers found.

“Even if COVID-19 fades, new natural disasters, public-health crises and economic disruptions are inevitable,” said MPI Senior Fellow Michael Fix, one of the report’s authors. “Promoting U.S. communities’ resilience requires reaching all residents during a crisis, which, as we show, can benefit from building on past experiences and leveraging the strengths of diverse local stakeholders. Our study of two deeply immigrant-aware communities offers models that can be broadly useful ahead.”

The report’s recommendations for preparing future emergency response playbooks include:

  • Institutionalizing networks that bridge gaps between immigrants and major institutions such as employers, health providers and local governments, with a focus on tapping trusted intermediaries from local communities to conduct outreach to the neediest immigrant families.
  • Expanding service delivery and outreach to rural and outlying areas where immigrants increasingly live, in part because of rising housing costs.
  • Obtaining community feedback to evaluate how disaster relief programs can be implemented efficiently, effectively and equitably.

Read the report, Changing the Playbook: Immigrants and the COVID-19 Response in Two U.S. Communities, here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigrants-covid19-us-communities.