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Leading through COVID: An App as a Lifeline for Immigrant Communities

In this series, we talk with Yale SOM alumni about their professional and personal lives during the global pandemic. Laura Arrazola ’19, a graduate of Yale SOM’s Master of Advanced Management program, describes her experiences managing a virtual community that helps hard-hit immigrants navigate the pandemic. 

An illustration of immigrants in the U.S.
Sean David Williams

Adapted from a phone interview, May 1, 2020.

I got married two months ago to a classmate from Yale SOM. We’ve both been working out of our apartment in New York for the last seven weeks. It’s a one-bedroom, so we each have our own spaces, thank God. Like everyone else, we’re trying to maintain sanity while dealing with the pandemic. On top of everything, our work visa situation is uncertain and we will most likely have to leave  the United States within the next three months. My husband is Israeli. I’m from Colombia. 

“Since the pandemic hit, Latin immigrants have been hit hard, especially if they’re undocumented. Their lives are hanging by a thread. A lot of them have lost their jobs. They’re sick; they don’t have health insurance.”

Since August 2019, I’ve been leading the expansion of Latin American communities at Homeis, an online platform that empowers, informs, and connects immigrants in the United States. Pre-COVID, my responsibilities were focused on managing a community of 120,000+     Latin users. I pitched businesses—small, medium, and large—to bring them on board the app to offer culturally relevant information and resources in Spanish. I also recruited immigration lawyers, doctors, psychologists, nutritionists, and other experts to provide content and expertise for free, so that immigrants could access these much-needed resources. Essentially, we’re building and consolidating a library of vetted information in Spanish for the Latin community in the United States

Since the pandemic hit, Latin immigrants have been hit hard, especially if they’re undocumented. They’re basically invisible right now. So many of them are very, very worried. Their lives are hanging by a thread. A lot of them have lost their jobs. They’re sick; they don’t have health insurance. 

But the biggest fear that people have is ICE continuing to conduct raids even during the pandemic. It’s palpable in so many posts. People are very hesitant about anything involving authorities. They are also hesitant about accepting any public help because of the Public Charge Rule, which specifically dictates that people seeking permanent status in the United States must not have used public benefits in the past. People are worried that if they go to the hospital, if they use food stamps, that will affect their future in this country.

My focus at the beginning of the pandemic was to find some amazing immigration lawyers to do free Zoom Q&A sessions with users. I also found three doctors within the community itself. Anxiety, stress, and fear are such a big part of this for people; I’ve brought in psychologists to discuss the trauma. We’ve also done session with life coaches, insurance agents, and financial experts.

“Local support and information really helps build the connective tissue of a community in which all its members are supported and uplifted, and this is especially true for immigrant communities that are under the radar.”

Now we’re trying to provide detailed information at a local level. Where can people find a food bank? Where can they get clothes? Where can they get shelter if they need it? I’m recruiting volunteers around the country to be community managers, people who are passionate about helping. Because they are Latinos themselves, they understand first-hand the hardships people from their community face.   

During a time like this, we really need people within our communities to step up, empower others, and help locally in any way they can. The dynamics that we are seeing on the app are just amazing. We’re flooding our platform with information, resources, and people who are willing to help. They are empowering each other to get through this situation. This sort of local support and information really helps build the connective tissue of a community in which all its members are supported and uplifted, and this is especially true for immigrant communities that are under the radar and are not being heard or taken into account.

Right now, we have two active communities. The Mexican community has been active since October. Because of the pandemic, we’re speeding up our plans for other Latin communities. We’ve recently opened a Colombian community in part because Colombians stuck in the U.S. were using the app. Colombia stopped all international flights in March. Many of the people stuck here are not immigrants; they’re tourists or students trying to get home. Visa extensions are expensive and many of these people just don’t have the money. 

They came to Homeis looking for information. Through the app, users joined forces and worked with the Colombian consulate to coordinate humanitarian flights for Colombians citizens stranded in the U.S.

“So many immigrants are essential workers. Many are doing the jobs that are helping the American economy stay alive.”

Another small example: Homeis helped an undocumented user in Phoenix who got infected by the coronavirus. While he was in the hospital, his landlord kicked him out of his apartment and. threw away his belongings. Although this is illegal according to Arizona law, the fact that he was undocumented left him in a very vulnerable position. He reached out to me for help. He was not looking for monetary assistance. Rather he just wanted help finding someone willing to stand in line at the food pantry for him because he was still contagious and didn’t want to infect others. Someone responded to the post on Homeis, went to the supermarket, bought food for him, and delivered it to his home. These acts of kindness make me so proud and grateful. 

So many immigrants are essential workers. Many are doing the jobs that are helping the American economy stay alive. They’re making deliveries and working in grocery stores. They’re on the front lines, the same as doctors and nurses. They are literally the most vulnerable to the pandemic but also the bravest of the brave, continuing to work with a smile on their faces. 

On the app, I see solidarity flourish. In the broader American public, I think it’s beginning to dawn on people that many essential workers keeping these businesses operating right now are immigrants who are putting their health on the line. Once this is over, I hope the public’s perception about immigration shifts. Immigrants, like all Americans, very much feel that this is their country. 

Department: Feature