‘Essential Workers Become Essential Voters’ : Immigrants Call for Change

Essential workers from around Virginia held a protest Oct. 1 at the White House, calling for better protection against COVID-19 and a plan to fight the virus. Photo by Arianna Coghill.

By Arianna Coghill, Julia Raimondi

October 10, 2020

Group holds White House rally, criticizes lack of negotiations

WASHINGTON D.C.-Unless something changes, Kwaku Agyeman is afraid of what the next few months might bring for his family. The Alexandria resident, who immigrated from Ghana eight years ago, sees a nation struggling, not the country he looked up to growing up. 

“I’m baffled,” Agyeman said. “[Ghana] handled the virus more properly than what happened down here. The president lies and says it’s like the flu and look how many lives it cost us. It’s mind-boggling.” 

As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 7.7 million COVID-19 cases in the US. By Friday night, the death toll reached 214,000, after the group confirmed another 915 yesterday. Beyond the health risks, Agyeman also sees a government that’s not doing anything to actually help businesses get through this situation. He works as a wheelchair agent at Ronald Reagan National Airport and while people are starting to travel again, the hours and income aren’t where they were pre-pandemic. 

“My income is very little,” Agyeman said. “They gave the airline industry a bailout but we workers didn’t get enough and that’s becoming a worry for me. I’m afraid my family and I will become homeless very soon because I might not be able to pay rent.”

That’s why he took part in a protest earlier this month in front of the White House. On Oct. 1, Agyeman and hundreds of other essential workers gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue. They called for better protections, safer working conditions and a change in government. In the week since then, they’ve also called for talks to restart over a COVID-19 relief package. Basically, Agyeman and his fellow workers are tired of being asked to handle the essential work without essential protections, financial or otherwise. 

Workers see a lack of support  

The workers, all part of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, point out they’re on the frontline. They don’t get hazard pay, in many cases there’s not enough protective equipment and in general, they don’t feel there’s an actual plan on how to fight the virus. Instead, they see a president and Congress that pushes them to get back to work under dangerous conditions. 

“We came here thinking America has everything,” Agyeman said. “We looked up to the leadership in America, but right now everything is becoming harder for everybody.”

Silvia Cabrera tells a similar story. She and her husband immigrated from El Salvador 30 years ago. They wanted better opportunities for their three children. Now a US citizen, Cabrera works as a custodian in a Virginia office. But now she’s concerned. She’s concerned about COVID-19, about a lack of a plan to fight it and about a lack of support from the government. Cabrera believes that President Trump, for example, does not care about the risks that she and other essential workers undertake.

:The man we have now in the White House is just a liar,” Cabrera said. 

Lourdes Garcia, meanwhile, just doesn’t want the rest of the country to suffer like Puerto Rico did. Originally from the island, she’s lived in Virginia for three and a half years. Garcia remembers 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. And beyond that, she remembers President Trump’s response. 

“This thing that we call the president threw toilet paper rolls at us. I think that was a very cowardly act,” said Garcia. “A lot of people are still living in tents in Puerto Rico. They’re still waiting for help.” 

Garcia sees the nation’s struggles with COVID-19 and sees the same lack of support.

‘How can things be this way?’

Days after the rally, President Trump announced he was stopping negotiations over a COVID-19 relief package. On Tuesday, still in a hospital bed while he recovered from COVID-19, Trump said a package could wait.

“I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business,” Trump tweeted.

That didn’t sit well with the essential workers who protested at the White House just days before.

“If the President cared about helping essential workers get through the Coronavirus pandemic, he would demand stimulus talks continue,” said Jaime Contreras, vice president of Local 32BJ. “President Trump is willing to let essential workers, unemployed people, and millions of families living on the edge of poverty suffer for another month. It is not surprising that a President who would jeopardize the health of his staff, his family and even his Secret Service agents would leave essential workers behind.”

Cabrera meanwhile isn’t surprised. She points to Trump’s tax situation as an example that he only cares for himself. The president criticizes immigrants at his political rallies, arguing they don’t pay taxes. However, The New York Times recently revealed tax documents stating Trump only paid $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017. He also paid no federal income tax in 10 of the last 15 years.

“To begin with, its a lie that immigrants don’t pay taxes,” Cabrera said. “Even people who are undocumented get an I-10 number to pay income taxes. We’ve always, always paid taxes. So its up to Trump to pay everything he owes, not the Latinos who have always paid. I was furious. I was really indignant. We working poor people pay all our taxes and the president pays nothing. How can things be this way?”

Julia Raimondi is a freelance reporter for Dogwood and Arianna Coghill is a content producer for Dogwood.

CATEGORIES: Uncategorized


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