ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Raul Castaneda, 48, didn’t feel well, with fluctuating fevers and fatigue, in the two weeks before he died of COVID-19 in April. But he didn’t want to seek medical attention.
He and his family lacked health insurance for one thing, his loved ones and friends said. But being an immigrant in the country illegally who was afraid of arrest and removal from the country undoubtedly was another factor.
“In every moment he was aware of the danger that he could be arrested,” said Carlos Urrutia, an immigrant like Castaneda who advocates for economic and racial justice through ISAIAH, a St. Paul-based coalition of faith communities. “Why would he not think if he goes to the hospital — in addition to the money — why would he not think that he is a person ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) could arrest?”
Urrutia, 46, and Richard Podvin, both members with Castaneda of St. Odilia Parish in Shoreview, said they fear Castaneda’s predicament is shared by many undocumented immigrants, who might suffer with the novel coronavirus at the risk of their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.
“Undocumented immigrants often do not have insurance, don’t have financial resources to pay emergency room costs, and feel pressure to go to work no matter how they feel, to support their families,” Podvin said. “In addition, they are fearful of being a ‘public charge’ and later being denied consideration” for permanent residency.
However, Podvin said, the federal government has stated that it won’t consider immigrants seeking medical care for COVID-19 or other communicable diseases to be a factor in “public charge” determinations, which are made by the federal government as it tries to ensure immigrants entering the country or seeking permanent residency can support themselves.
But for many immigrants, that message of hope has been drowned out by the Trump administration in February broadening its definition of public charge — from someone who might be dependent on income assistance or long-term, institutionalized care from the government — to also include immigrants receiving public assistance such as Medicaid, housing vouchers, rental assistance or food stamps, Podvin said.
That broader definition has prompted fears among immigrants about drawing attention to themselves, he said.
Podvin, 78, a retired psychiatric social worker, is fluent in Spanish and active in the Latino community of St. Odilia, where he met Castaneda and Castaneda’s partner, Enedelia Martinez, 47, and their two children, 14-year-old Elena and 9-year-old Paolo, who attend public schools in Roseville and Little Canada.
Podvin contacted The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, to draw attention to Castaneda’s death and the plight of immigrants in the country without papers who are afraid to seek medical care in the midst of the pandemic.
It’s important for people in the community to know about their fears and the protection afforded by the federal government, so they can share those facts and encourage undocumented immigrants to seek help when they need it, Podvin said. Seeking proper medical care also protects the broader community, he said.
With Urrutia and Podvin acting as interpreters, Martinez said that although she is an undocumented immigrant, she wants to tell her family’s story to help others. She feels relatively comfortable sharing her name because she doesn’t believe she will be a high priority target for ICE officials, she said. Still, she and Castaneda, who came to the United States from Mexico nearly 20 years ago and had their children in this country, have always been aware of the risk of deportation. If they were deported, that could separate them from their children, who are U.S. citizens by birth, Martinez said.
“The fear has always been in our lives,” she said. “But when the illness came, we never thought it would get this bad.”
They took great care to avoid contracting the coronavirus, Martinez said. At their weekly prayer group of about 10 families at St. Odilia, which was held in people’s homes and gave them time and fellowship to pray the rosary, and pray for one another, Martinez made sure that everyone stayed 6 feet apart from one another, wore masks and washed their hands.
As the coronavirus pandemic deepened in Minnesota, that prayer group went to virtual meetings on Zoom, and it has grown to about 30 families, including people’s relatives and friends in El Salvador, Mexico and other countries, Podvin said.
Castaneda and Martinez made their living cooking, washing dishes and cleaning at restaurants in Shoreview and Roseville.
When Gov. Tim Walz closed restaurants, bars, salons, churches and other gathering places statewide March 18, the couple’s hours were greatly reduced. But they continued to help clean the two restaurants where they worked, as the restaurant owners anticipated opening again at a later date, she said.
On April 4, after helping clean a restaurant on two different workdays, Castaneda came home feeling sick and unusually tired, Martinez said.
But he began to feel better, and the next week worked two more days. But by April 18 he had a high fever and felt quite ill, said Martinez, adding that she felt ill as well.
Symptoms for each of them rose and fell, and didn’t reach a point of emergency until April 25, when another family member determined it was time to go the hospital. Castaneda showered and combed his hair, but that took all of his energy, and he “just wanted to lay down again,” Martinez said.
When he rose to try to get out the door, he had difficulty breathing and started trembling. Martinez said she grabbed him, crying out, “No, don’t leave me now, don’t leave me now, Raul.”
They called an ambulance and Martinez applied CPR, but could not feel his pulse.
Paramedics put Castaneda on oxygen and hooked him to a defibrillator, but they couldn’t bring him back, she said.
An autopsy showed Castaneda had contracted the novel coronavirus, and Martinez tested positive for it as well. Medical officials didn’t test their children because they were not showing symptoms, Martinez said, in what she views as a mistake. One of them later developed a fever but recovered, she said.
“It’s really wrong that they didn’t test the children,” she said. “So then, how do we know they aren’t giving the contagion to other people?”
Castaneda’s brother, who lives in Wisconsin, took the family in. They practiced social distancing and wore masks while staying with him. Now, the family is back in Roseville, living at a mobile home complex. Martinez is trying to scrape by with the help of family and friends.
That has included help from a GoFundMe campaign mounted by friends that raised more than $20,000 to help pay for Castaneda’s funeral and help Martinez with rent and other immediate needs.
“That alone tells you how this family is loved not only by his friends, but the community,” Urrutia said. “Because they are always giving.”
Martinez said some people might argue that she and Castaneda and their children should not even be in the United States without proper documentation. But people have the right to better their families through immigration, and the United States has made it extremely difficult, and in some cases nearly impossible, to obtain visas, green cards and citizenship, she said.
Grieving over the loss of Castaneda and facing an uncertain future, Martinez said she remains glad that her family is in the United States.
“This is a country that gives us a lot of opportunity, and I don’t want to take that away from my children,” she said.
Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.