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2. Crisis sanitaria: Mexicanos en EUA, Europa y Centroamérica

Foto de B.McDermid/Reuters

Exposing New Vulnerabilities: The implications of the coronavirus for the Mexican community in the United States

Eric L. Olson

Wilson Center Global Fellow


April 30, 2020

Times of crisis often force us to reflect anew on our society and community. This was certainly true for Mexicans after the October 2 massacre at the Plaza de Tres Culturas, and after the 1985 earthquake.   Mexican friends have often pointed to these tragedies, as painful and difficult as they were, as critical moments in the country’s evolution and movement toward greater respect for human rights and democracy.  

So, during the despair, tragedy, anxiety, and confusion caused by the coronavirus pandemic there is a chance that our peoples will take time to reflect in new ways to address the deep-seated problems our nations confronts.   Three key elements come immediately to mind in the case of the United States – the structural and institutional nature of racism in our country, how economic inequality is widespread in this rich country, and the utter inadequacy of the current private healthcare system. These are not new challenges for our country but the current crisis forces us to examine them again now in the new light of the pandemic. 

Coronavirus is forcing us to reflect on our vulnerability as individuals.  We need to take personal responsibility to practice good hygiene, remain personally distant, and stay safe at home. Ironically, the virus and subsequent physical distancing are also teaching us a great deal about the interconnectivity of our society.  This is particularly evident in the ways segments of our populations are impacted differently.   There is a growing body of evidence that some sectors of society are much more vulnerable than others.  This is not because the virus itself is racists or sexist, but rather because we have built a society that is unequal, where racism has become institutionalized, and where inequality is increasingly laid bare by the pandemic. 

In the paragraphs that follow I will provide some information about the nature of the inequalities that the United States faces, how these inequalities are impacting vulnerable communities, especially the impact on migrant communities and Mexicans residing in the United States whether documented or undocumented. 



Methodological limitations:

Assessing how the pandemic impacts a specific segment of the population is an important step in understanding how to best combat the virus. Recent studies suggest that one-third of the victims of coronavirus are African American even though they represent approximately 13.5% of the overall population. Nevertheless, the racial breakdown of those infected by the virus and those that have died due to Covid-19 is not entirely known at this point. Only recently was a racial breakdown given and then only in some jurisdictions such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

A further breakdown of the deceased population based on national origin has been reported anecdotally.   Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City has reported that those of Latin American origins have suffered the highest rate of death (34%) in the city but it is impossible to know, at least at this time, whether those are people of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Colombian descent – some of the largest population groups in the City. 

Finally, a breakdown of the legal status of victims of Covid-19 has not been attempted, although some approximations may be possible based on an assessment of population concentration, geography and employment.

Demographic considerations:

There seems to be a broad consensus among demographers and experts that the Mexican born population in the United States is a little over 11 million.   This does not include people born in the United State but of Mexican decent, so-called Mexican Americans.  Although this number has been declining slowly since 2014, Mexicans still represent the largest group of foreign-born persons in the United States accounting for roughly 25 percent of the 44.5 million foreign born migrants as of 2017.  Of the roughly 11 million Mexicans residing in the United States, between 5.2 and 5.8 million, or roughly half of the total Mexican born population in the United States is undocumented.

According to the Pew Research Center, roughly half of all foreign born migrants in the United States in 2017 were from Latin America, and half of these (or 25% of the total migrant population) are of Mexican origins. 

How has Covid-19 effected Mexicans in the United States

On April 28th, Mexico’s Secretary for Foreign Relations, Marcelo Ebrard informed the public that a total of 615 Mexicans had died abroad and that of these 566 had died in the United States.   The deaths in the U.S. are concentrated in three places – California, Illinois, and New York with the great majority, or 488, occurring in New York. 

A closer look at the socio-economic reality of the Mexican population in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles hint at why Mexicans have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.   According to data gathered by the Migration Policy Institute, Mexican migrants are, on average, poorer than immigrants from other Latin American countries, and 2 times more likely to be poorer than native born Americans.   “In 2017, approximately 21 percent of Mexican immigrant families were living in poverty, a higher rate than for the native born (9 percent) and for immigrant families overall (14 percent),” according to MPI.

As a result of the elevated poverty rates, Mexicans are more likely than others to live in precarious situations where housing, for example, is more densely populated and individuals are less able to practice social distancing. Additionally, immigrants are more likely to be self-employed, or work for hourly wages, which means their ability to survive the economic hardships caused by the virus are much reduced.  Many are unlikely or unwilling to completely cease their work because it may result in financial ruin, homelessness, and an acute lack of food, so it is likely these factors may lead to more risky behaviors including attempting to work even when it is deemed unsafe.

Furthermore, many of the self-employed and those working in the informal economy do not have access to healthcare, which in the United States is primarily a costly private system available only to those who can purchase insurance plans or have an employer who is willing to share the cost.  According to MPI, “A greater share of Mexican immigrants is uninsured compared to both the overall foreign- and U.S.-born populations. In 2017, 37 percent of Mexican immigrants were uninsured, versus 7 percent of the native born and 20 percent of all immigrants.”  As a result, migrants generally are less likely to seek medical attention until the illness becomes acute, putting them at greater risk.  

Given the poverty and social vulnerability that Mexicans face in the United States it is not surprising that the virus would impact this community particularly hard.  These factors are particularly acute among the undocumented populations that fear that any use of limited public services could result in their deportation or disqualification from future immigration status adjustment.

Effects of coronavirus on sectors of the economy where Latinx population is concentrated

A breakdown of the Mexican labor force in the United States also provides some interesting insights into vulnerability.  As described by the table below, Mexican immigrants are particularly well represented in sectors of the economy such as service occupations; natural resources, construction, and maintenance; and production, transportation, and material moving occupations. These sectors tend to be vulnerable to significant seasonal fluctuations, lower wages, and employment without healthcare benefits.


Employed Workers in the Civilian Labor Force (ages 16 and older) by Occupation and Origin, 2017


Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 ACS.



According to a report by Farmwork Justice, a NGO devoted to improving the lives of farmworkers, there “are an estimated 2.4 million farmworkers laboring on our nation’s farms and ranches, cultivating and harvesting crops and raising and tending to livestock… [with] approximately 73% of farmworkers being  immigrants, the overwhelming majority from Mexico.”  Estimates vary widely (from 47% to 70%) on the number of immigrant farmworkers who lack work authorization, but it is safe to assume that many of these workers are also of Mexican origin.

Even though their work is essential to the health of the nation, it is estimated that thirty percent of all farmworkers had a family income below the federal poverty line. Furthermore, only 35% of farmworkers are believed to have access to health insurance, and among the lucky few with insurance, 31% received employer-provided health insurance and 37% received health insurance through a government program (likely Medicaid). Only 14% of farm employers offer health insurance to their workers. Eighty nine percent of workers’ children were insured, the vast majority (82%) through Medicaid/government programs.  Bottom line, farm work is considered essential work but those who work in the sector, including tens of thousands of Mexicans, are economically vulnerable and thus run a greater risk of contracting serious illnesses such as Covid-19 without receiving proper medical attention.

Attempts to control migration may undermine front line labor force

On April 22nd, President Trump signed an Executive Order that he claims will freeze migration into the United States for 60 days.   While it is not entirely clear whether this order will withstand judicial challenges, its effects may be to weaken the very work force that is needed to combat the pandemic and keep the country healthy. 

For instance, according to data from the United States Census Bureau and compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, “6.3 million migrants hold jobs that are key to fighting coronavirus.”  Of these, roughly 1 in 6 physicians in the United States are foreign born as well as 38% of home healthcare workers aiding the populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus such as the elderly, disabled, and chronically ill.   With Mexican immigrants representing roughly 14 percent, or 115,000, of immigrants working in the health industry the impact of freezing migration could be devastating both to employment opportunities for Mexicans as well as the very health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations in the United States. 

On  April 26th, one of the largest meat packing companies in the country, Tyson Foods, purchased a full page campo pagado in the New York Times in which it stated, “The food chain is breaking.”  Two days later President Trump announced that he would invoke the Defense Production Act, a federal law that allows the president to commandeer industry to ensure they maintain production of items deemed essential to the national defense.   In this case, Trump is invoking the federal law to compel food processing and meat packing plants to remain open, despite the risks to public health and that of workers, to ensure the continuity of the nation’s food supply chain. 

Until recently, occasional shortages in the country’s supermarkets have occurred but this is the first time that a major food company has suggested that food processing and distribution may be at risk as we progress through the pandemic.  And If maintaining an adequate supply of food to the U.S. population is necessary to keeping people healthy, then migrants play and especially important role in that process.   Twenty-two percent of the nation’s food industry workers are migrants, and 38% of these work in the meat-packing industry.  Some of the nation’s largest agribusinesses, including meat packing companies such as Tysons Foods, Smithfield, and JBS, as well as food processing companies such as Cargill, Kraft, and Heinz are being hard hit by the coronavirus.  

Several plants, often located in smaller cities and rural communities, have experienced exceptionally high levels of infection and been forced to shut down.   One such plant owned by Brazilian JBS was forced to shut down in Green Bay, Wisconsin after 147 cases were reported.   While its uncertain why this industry has been hit so hard, it is believed that the pressure to keep producing food, and the tight working condition within the plants all contributed to the rate of infection believed to be among the highest in the country.   So the high concentration of migrant workers, including many Mexicans, in this critical industry will not only effect the workers but the entire nation’s access to food.

Health disparities

As previously mentioned, high rates of poverty are often closely related to lack of adequate healthcare coverage, and lack of healthcare coverage increases mortality rates across the board in the United States.   One of the nation’s great tragedies is that the richest country in the world does not guarantee healthcare to all.   Health care is not considered a basic human right and thus the number of people with no or little access to healthcare is quite large.   According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “In 2018, 8.5 percent of people, or 27.5 million, did not have health insurance at any point during the year.”[1]  This was an increase of just over 2 million people compared to 2017.  About 4.3 million of the uninsured in 2018 were children.  Additionally, roughly 17% of the nation’s foreign-born population had no health insurance coverage in 2018. “Hispanics and Blacks have significantly higher uninsured rates (19% and 11%, respectively) than Whites (8%). However, Asians have the lowest uninsured rate at 7%,” according to the Census Bureau.

Uninsured Rates among the Nonelderly Population by Selected Characteristics, 2018


Give high rates of poverty and lack of healthcare coverage among Hispanics in the United States, it is not a stretch to assume that Hispanics, including Mexicans, suffer serious health consequences in ordinary times and made much worse during the current pandemic.   According to the Census Bureau, “One in five uninsured adults in 2018 went without needed medical care due to cost. Studies repeatedly demonstrate that uninsured people are less likely than those with insurance to receive preventive care and services for major health conditions and chronic diseases.”   Little wonder then that African American and Hispanics communities have seen high rates of Covid infections and deaths over the last two months.

Finally, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Hispanics in the United States present particular health risk factors including heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries (accidents), stroke, and diabetes. “Other health conditions and risk factors that significantly affect Hispanics are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV/AIDS, and liver disease.  Additionally, Hispanics have higher rates of obesity than non-Hispanic whites.  Mexican Americans suffer disproportionately from diabetes.”

Most of the risk factors prevalent among Hispanics in the U.S. are also considered complicating factors that increase the mortality rate of Covid-19.  According to the CDC, “Based on preliminary U.S. data, persons with underlying health conditions such as diabetes mellitus, chronic lung disease, and cardiovascular disease, appear to be at higher risk for severe COVID-19–associated disease than persons without these conditions.” 

It is not surprising, then, that Mexicans in the United States with high rates of poverty, limited access to healthcare, and significant underlying health risk factors would be especially vulnerable to Covid-19 death.

How will coronavirus in the United States impact families in Mexico: remittances

One additional impact on Mexicans in the United States and their families and communities in Mexico will be the predicted downward trend in remittances flowing back to Mexico.   According to an estimate by BBVA Research, “remittances to Mexico could fall 17% in 2020” and not recover until 2023 or later.   The report also speculates that Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Zacatecas will be the hardest hit by the downturn in remittances since these represent more that 10% of their state’s GDP.


With over a million confirmed Covid cases and evidence that the number of deaths is much higher than the official count, the outbreak is exposing not just the lack of global preparation for this pandemic, but that of world’s richest country is also unprepared.  Here in the United States it is also raising many nagging and persistent questions that the country has not fully addressed despite decades of existence.   The coronavirus is not only exposing the racism that has existed almost since the country’s origins, but how that racism has become institutionalized through a mostly private healthcare system that disadvantages those living in poverty, the unemployed, self-employed, and underemployed.

The fact that poor people have less access to healthcare and suffer from important health risks at a higher rate than the general population helps explain why Covid-19 has been especially deadly for that population.  And the fact that immigrants generally, and Mexican immigrants, in particular, are highly represented among the poor suggest that they face special vulnerabilities as well in the time of Covid-19.  

The concentration of Covid-19 among poor and immigrant populations does not ensure that others easily avoid the deadly virus.   The traditional way of dealing with these treats is to segregate ourselves in our private homes, attend private schools, seek the best private medical attention, and avoid contact with the infected masses.   Nevertheless, it is now evident that segregation only exacerbates societies disparities and the virus does not respect societal attempts to segregate.   While important, social distancing does not ensure the virus will not spread to more privileged society.  

Likewise, one must reexamine assumptions about borders and border control.  They may be necessary to regulate commerce and migration, but borders are not good at stopping a virus, drugs, or pollution to name a few.

This all serves to remind us of our human interconnectivity something that Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a jail cell in Birmingham Alabama in 1963, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

― Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail



[1] It should be noted that while this number is high it is down significantly from a high of 46.5 million in 2010 when the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, went into effect.   The fact that the numbers of uninsured have begun to creep up again in recent years is the byproduct of decisions taken by the Trump Administration.

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