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United States / Immigration

The Cost of Immunity

On the last day of Bowdoin’s fall break, each student was requested to pick up an at-home test from Coles tower to administer themselves before classes picked back up. When I removed my testing kit from its cardboard “do not tamper” sleeve, I noticed, in a moment of solemn revelation, that the test had been sent from Abbott, a manufacturing company based in Southern Maine.

In June of 2021, following a sudden drop in demand for COVID testing kits, Maine’s Abbott Laboratories laid off a total of about four hundred of their employees. Having worked closely with asylum seekers in Portland, Maine for three years now, I am sure I know some of these fired employees personally. Almost everyone I worked with at Hope Acts, the resource center for new immigrants, was an Abbott employee, a former Abbott employee, or an aspiring Abbott employee. Their team is composed almost entirely of new Maine immigrants. 

Alongside the firings, claims were made that Abbott was forcing their workers—most of whom have families back in Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo without access to COVID tests—to destroy the surplus of testing kits that were no longer being bought up. The New York Times reported an alleged 8.6 million tests months away from expiration having been destroyed. Now, as the United States’ vaccination rates have halted and even the fully vaccinated have proven fallible, Abbott’s need for workers has returned. Abbott, being one of the only consistent employers of newly work-permitted asylum seekers, has replenished their workforce with ease. Workers have returned to gruesome hours and a wage that stands at thirty-five cents over Maine’s minimum. This time, the employees will be manufacturing tests instead of destroying them.

At first blush, the Abbott firings are almost understandable in terms of the unpredictability of the pandemic. But contextually, letting their employees go after having forced them to destroy remaining tests comes off as careless. Late last summer, the Trump administration drastically changed the process of applying for work permit authorization. Before this, asylum seekers had to wait 180 days; now, the wait period is only 365 days, and applicants are immediately refused authorization if they digress from the strictly regulated process even slightly (illegal entry into the United States, a single missed biometrics appointment, etc). The switch means that asylum seekers will rely on General Assistance from the city for considerably longer than they used to. In essence, extending the wait period for work permit applications was a very poorly veiled, last-ditch effort that evidently further fuelled the rhetoric that new immigrants relied too heavily on federal financial assistance. 

Since my sophomore year, I have worked at Hope Acts nearly every month that I have been on break from Bowdoin. This past holiday season, in the thick of the pandemic, my roommate and I baked a Congolese-American stuffing to be delivered to the doors of each resident of the Hope Acts residential building. We enjoyed our meal and celebration over Zoom. I wanted to hear what the residents thought of the stuffing, but most were working and couldn’t make the celebration. Presumably, some were working the holiday at Abbott. I don’t know whether those same residents were laid off six months later, but I can assume that Hope Acts was the only support system those workers had in the wake of the firings.

At Hope Acts, there is not much that can be done for those who have received their work permits but aren’t yet employed—that is, aside from Hannaford gift cards and job applications sent to employers that are known not to hire non-citizens. The truth is, these grassroots organizations, composed largely of retired white Mainers, are the backbone of immigrant support in Maine, and they shouldn’t be. With each new drastic increase in the asylum seeking population, shelters become increasingly overrun, churches fall short of the demand for food, and Hope Acts must refuse more desperate housing applicants day after day. 

Enter rich, private institutions: namely colleges, who tout strong relationships with their surrounding communities. It would stand to reason that colleges like Bowdoin would make tangible efforts to serve asylum seekers during periods of massive influx, but they don’t. Mid-summer in 2019, my boss told me excitedly that she had heard Bowdoin being asked to house some new Brunswick immigrants, as the emergency housing in Portland was closing. At the end of July, I read that instead, the newcomers had relocated to a complex in Brunswick landing. 

Throughout the pandemic, what once was a crumbling support network has become a glaringly insufficient one. Organizations like Hope Acts can’t do much for asylum seeking workers who continue to be subject to COVID outbreaks, are fired and rehired along with COVID surges, and are just generally treated as fully interchangeable by employers who know they have no option but to return to the factory when called upon. 

The impossibility of being a new asylum seeker in Maine far exceeds issues of workplace conditions and treatment. In fact, a position at Abbott is what many of my clients have aspired towards as a far-down-the-road position. In Portland, the housing crisis is more rampant than it ever has been, with city officials neglecting to create long term solutions for emergency housing, instead sequestering newcomers to motels to fend for themselves, sometimes for months on end. In these strip-mall adjacent motels, asylum seekers have no translator, and oftentimes no phone. They have no bus fare. Even if they did, they would have no way of knowing how the Portland metro works and no knowledge of where to go. 

Nonprofit groups, sometimes church organizations, bring food to those who live in the motels. These asylum seekers can’t work, because the wait time to apply for a work permit doubled during the Trump administration and hasn’t been upturned yet. And because they can’t work, they can’t make deposits on apartments, leaving it up to nonprofits, once again, to fundraise money for the deposit and to serve as liaisons between housing applicants and landlords who refuse to house asylum seekers. 

The climb towards livability for asylum seekers in Maine is as treacherous as it is lonesome, and a job manufacturing at Abbott is oftentimes the pinnacle of the journey rather than a step along the way to more favorable employment. When I opened my neatly-packaged at-home test kit to reveal that it was an Abbott test, my heart sank in remembering having heard of the layoffs and all the times I congratulated clients on their new jobs at Abbott, knowing how long it must have taken them to secure a job, a place to live, a means of transportation. 

It is unlikely that institutions like Bowdoin will ever thoroughly examine the relationships it has with the asylum seekers and asylees that have proved the backbone of their COVID testing initiatives.  It is hard to say if colleges are responsible for community-building and for advancing more robust storefronts on the dwindling main streets of their college towns. These immigrants often eventually find employment at the schools and have continued to support our COVID protocols throughout the pandemic—at times, at their own risk. There are countless avenues through which to examine the one-sidedness of the relationship between new immigrants and private institutions like Bowdoin, but Bowdoin’s use of Abbott tests perfectly exemplifies the glaring inequalities present in corporatization of pandemic health and safety. 

Abbott will continue to attempt to desensitize Maine immigrants to the pandemic that has categorically affected their demographic the most; tiny non profit organizations will continue to bandage the gaping wound that is a severe lacking in housing and resources for new Mainers, as it is all that they can do; colleges like Bowdoin will continue to supply students with tests made by workers who don’t have access to the same tests, who were paid to destroy tests rather than use them in vulnerable communities, and who face inevitable relocation or firing during Abbott’s next downswing. Once we stop ignoring the pandemic altogether, I imagine the cycle will take new form: a corporation, either Abbott or one that hasn’t yet entered play in Maine’s employment field, will utilize Maine immigrants—those who know Maine as more than just Vacationland—to make life for rich Mainers and out-of-staters more comfortable.