For the last five years, Mercedes—not her real name—has been working as a housekeeper at the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, according to her son, who spoke to the INDY on her behalf because she does not speak English. She and her husband came to the U.S. in 2001, fleeing gang violence and poverty in El Salvador. Mercedes is undocumented, as is her son. (Her husband and daughter have temporary protected status.) 

The rehab center has become a coronavirus hot spot; as of Monday, at least 95 of its patients had confirmed cases. On April 13, Mercedes started to feel sick. She told her supervisor. He told her to get tested. 

“She did and got tested there at her job,” her son says. 

Mercedes spoke first to an on-site doctor that day, and again on April 15, when she was tested. The results came back positive on April 17. Mercedes, who doesn’t have insurance, went to a doctor to get documents to excuse her from work. 

Her supervisor “wanted her to show up [for work] anyway,” her son says. “She didn’t go. She told him she wasn’t feeling very good and that she couldn’t work in her condition.”

In a statement, the Durham Nursing and Rehabilitation Center said that “staff members that tested positive have been closely followed by the Health Department as required,” and all team members wore personal protective equipment.  

Not long after the pandemic took root in the Triangle, other unsettling stories of domestic violence, economic hardship, and health struggles began to emerge in the Latinx community. 

“It turned everything upside down. It all got very real, very quickly,” says Edgar Vergara, pastor of Iglesia La Semilla, a new faith community supported by the Asbury United Methodist Church near Duke’s East Campus.

Vergara moved to Durham from Henderson in 2018 to help start a community that would address the challenges faced by Latinx families in the Triangle. He and other members of the La Semilla team were putting together a strategic plan to address the community’s ongoing crises of economics, chronic illness, family separation, deportation, and detention. The effort kicked into overdrive with the pandemic.

They received a $10,000 grant from the North Carolina Conference of United Methodist Church and support from local businesses to feed a growing number of undocumented families in the region. Last week, they met at the Asbury church and prepared food baskets for 100 families. One of them was a woman who called the police because her husband was abusing her; the cops had taken him away, but his absence was making the family’s financial strain worse.

When they brought her food, Vergara says, “She just broke into tears. She asked, ‘How did you know I needed food?’ She was overwhelmed to know she wasn’t alone.”

Vergara spent his first year in the Bull City assessing the community’s needs. Last March, he and about a dozen Triangle residents founded La Semilla. Vergara says it was important to create a faith team that is part of the community and “immigrant leaders, many who are undocumented themselves.”

A little over a year later, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel announced a stay-at-home order that went into effect on March 29. Vergara says the challenges the Latinx community was already grappling with were magnified, particularly among undocumented families who aren’t eligible for the federal benefits available to American citizens.

Not only are undocumented immigrant families denied the $1,200 to $2,400 stimulus payments, but they are also not eligible for food stamps, medical services through the Affordable Care Act, temporary assistance to needy families, or Medicaid.

Vergara says the faith team relied on virtual meetings and instant messaging to organize a rapid response to the crisis in Latinx communities amid the pandemic.

Some Triangle leaders are mindful of how undocumented families have been denied access to public relief. Last week, Schewel, along with six Raleigh and Durham city council members and the chairwoman of Durham County’s board of commissioners, joined 157 North Carolinians contributing all or part of their stimulus checks to Siembre NC’s fund for undocumented families.

While undocumented immigrants can’t access public benefits, they do contribute toward them. 

In 2018, for instance, undocumented taxpayers in North Carolina paid an estimated $639 million in state and federal taxes. Nationally, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy reports that undocumented immigrants contribute about $11.74 billion each year to state and local economies.

La Semilla member Ivan Almonte says that however well-intentioned, the fund—known as the #ShareYourCheck Challenge—isn’t enough, and ultimately will have little impact on Durham families.

Almonte—a founding member of Alerta Migratoria, a grassroots organization that lobbied on behalf of Wildin Acosta, the Riverside High School student who was detained by ICE in 2017— says he’s talked with four families whose members have tested positive for the virus. Only two members of one family have returned to work, he adds. 

He’s also heard from an elderly couple who lived for three weeks without power after their electricity was cut off just before Governor Cooper’s executive order barred utility companies from disconnecting service. He raised money to get their electricity back on, and community members donated a stove, groceries, and hot meals. 

Almonte says there are at least 100 undocumented families in Durham with a household member who is unemployed and can’t get help. 

“I feel ashamed to live in Durham and found out these types of histories,” Almonte says. “We live in a society where we don’t know our neighbors. We, Durham, need to do better.”  

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at

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