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As Las Vegas shuttered, many immigrants found no social safety net

COVID Chronicles: How casinos are adapting
COVID Chronicles: How casinos are adapting amid coronavirus pandemic 08:06

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of residents of some of the biggest battleground states in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Casinos across Nevada roared back to life earlier this month, bringing some of their employees back to work greeting guests for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic crippled the tourism-driven state.
The outbreak drove unemployment to a record high in the state. In April, Nevada posted the worst unemployment rate in the country and the nation's largest surge in unemployment, with nearly 1 in 3 workers left jobless.
But the already dire unemployment statistics leave out a significant share of Nevada's labor force that has also struggled for months: Undocumented workers, who are barred from collecting federal and state stopgaps afforded to millions of other furloughed Nevadans, are not reflected in the official jobless figures.

"So while some ordinary Nevadans still haven't received financial support from unemployment they need, undocumented people are not going to ever. There is no state fund to save them, to save undocumented families," says Leo Murietta, director of Make the Road Nevada.

Bellagio Resort In Las Vegas Demonstrates Coronavirus Safety Protocols Ahead Of Reopening
A roulette table is shown at Bellagio Resort & Casino as the Las Vegas Strip property prepares to reopen on June 1, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Ethan Miller / Getty Images

More than 1 in 10 of Nevada's workers are unauthorized immigrants, the largest share of any state, according to a Pew Research Center estimate in 2016. Most work in the leisure and hospitality industry that had powered state's economy. 

Many in Nevada also live in mixed-status families, meaning not all members of the family are U.S. citizens. An analysis by the University of Southern California and the Center for American Progress in 2017 estimated the rate of U.S.-born citizens in Nevada with at least one unauthorized family member in their household was the third- largest in the country, behind only California and Texas.

Thousands more live in the state under programs such as temporary protected status, which authorizes those enrolled to work in the U.S. but are ineligible to collect many benefits that have buoyed American families through the pandemic.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding in this country about us. They think because we're here we can collect all the benefits of the government but it's not true. We can't get Medicaid, we cannot get food stamps, you have to be a citizen to get all those benefits," says Nery Martinez, who lives in Southern Nevada with temporary protected status.

Martinez, a member of the Culinary Workers Union who had worked as a bartender in Caesars Palace, was one of 90% of the company who was furloughed earlier this year.

"All of us were laid off, including me, my wife, all my relatives, my friends, everybody in this thing. How are we going to keep it up with the bills? How are going to keep food for our kids?" said Martinez. 
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was sued in May over the "discriminatory denial" of coronavirus relief checks for U.S. citizen children with one or more non-citizen parents.
"This disparate treatment - which punishes children for their parents' status - lacks any substantial relation to an important government interest and, consequently, violates the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment," attorneys for the Georgetown University Law Center argued in a filing late last month.
The Trump administration is also facing lawsuits over denying coronavirus relief checks to some U.S. citizens married to non-citizens who lack a social security number.
For some, private charity — from informal neighborhood food deliveries to assistance doled out by churches and other nonprofits — have filled some of the gap for these families. However, organizations serving these communities have long complained a disproportionately small share of philanthropic giving finds its way to their coffers.

"We've been working with other nonprofits to expand their services to undocumented people. Don't ask things that can make people feel unwanted or make them feel alienated, having bilingual volunteers, you're translating the materials," says Murrieta.

"The nonprofit sector has failed in this moment, because they've overlooked immigrants and undocumented people almost entirely," he added.

As the state reopens, the pandemic continues to take a disproportionate physical toll on the mostly Hispanic and Latino communities who make up most of Nevada's non-citizen and mixed status families. In Southern Nevada, 35.8% of COVID-19 cases are Hispanic — more than any other race or ethnicity.

"We have seen the horrible consequences on the ground in the Latino community that has been the one most affected by COVID. We are overrepresented in jobs that have the most exposure and risk," says Héctor Sánchez Barba, head of Mi Familia Vota.

Though much of the famed Las Vegas Strip reopened their doors earlier this month, properties are limited to operating at up to 50% of their occupancy over coronavirus concerns. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said visitor volume in April was down 97% from the previous year, with a mere 107,000 visitors.

"They haven't called me back yet to work and there is no date for me. Every time we check, it's 'give us a couple weeks.' So pretty much we don't know when we're going to get called," said Martinez.

While eager to return to work, he said he worried about the "scary" possibility his job might result in him bringing the virus home to his mother-in-law or children.

"I don't want to bring anything home to make them not safe. I don't want to put their lives in danger. I think it is very important that companies take that seriously," Martinez said.

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