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Worthington's immigrant community networks, business leadership crucial to COVID response, report finds

The Migration Policy Institute report, published in July, focused on the community response to the pandemic in Worthington and Houston, Texas.

FILE PHOTO: JBS employees join the line for COVID-19 testing at the Nobles County Fairgrounds in this April 23, 2020 photo. The line began near the horse barn and continued through the grounds and into the hockey arena, where the drive-thru testing was conducted. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)
FILE PHOTO: JBS employees join the line for COVID-19 testing at the Nobles County Fairgrounds in this April 23, 2020 photo. The line began near the horse barn and continued through the grounds and into the hockey arena, where the drive-thru testing was conducted. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)
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WORTHINGTON — Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Migration Policy Institute identified immigrants and other minorities to be disproportionally affected by the pandemic. However, in studying the coronavirus relief and recovery plans right here in Worthington, MPI was able to identify innovative strategies for providing public health and economic support to immigrant families.

During the last three years, much of senior fellow and researcher Michael Fix and co-author Randy Capps’ focus has been on the overarching theme of immigrants as essential workers.

While some immigrant families were unable to access government aid due to their status as non-citizens, close housing conditions, lack of access to healthcare, and working in industries with high exposure rates all contributed to making them more vulnerable during the height of the pandemic.

“Those workers had to keep working in person at the height of the pandemic and, therefore, were more likely to be exposed than the rest of the population, and many of those jobs were in processing work,” Fix noted. “What brought Worthington to our attention was, it has a very high percentage of what you might think of as essential agricultural and food processing jobs.”

Given the city’s diverse population, Worthington was identified as an opportunity for a case study in pandemic response, through the lens of essential workers and immigrant families. At two separate points during the first 18 months of the pandemic, researchers with MPI conducted interviews, looking at the leadership, resources, networks and individuals who were connected to outreach efforts during the pandemic and the effectiveness of their methods.

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While Worthington was an early COVID-19 hotspot in 2020, following an outbreak at the local JBS processing plant, the MPI report found that waves of infections and deaths actually declined in the following months. In large part, this result was attributed to the efforts of JBS — identified in the report as Worthington's largest employer — in partnership with strong community networks that were essential in outreach efforts.

While Houston, Texas, and Worthington are markedly different communities in terms of location, population density and economic makeup, it was several key similarities that drew MPI researchers to analyze the communities. Both Houston and Worthington are home to diverse populations, with a significant number of immigrant families. What became crucial to both communities’ pandemic responses, however, was the well-established networks focused on connecting immigrant families that had emerged after prior community crises.

“Both sites had had some kind of an infrastructure organized — set of actors and institutions in place — that was prepared for a different kind of emergency, which wound up adapting (to) the pandemic,” said Fix. “These responses were really built out of (Houston and Worthington’s) past experiences.”

For Houston, previous natural disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017, had helped shape the city’s response networks. In Worthington, a 2006 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation that resulted in the arrest of hundreds of unauthorized immigrants was identified as a critical point in establishing the largely faith-based networks that have come to connect Worthington’s diverse immigrant population today.

“The connections that were forged between (JBS) and their workers and family and workers’ family via these intermediary organizations that were already a pretty tight network…was really important,” said Fix. “But that's not to underestimate how important it was for JBS, the largest employer in the city, to take the lead in vaccinations, which it did.”

Further down the line, JBS became a vaccination site and offered incentives to employees to get vaccinated, while also continuing to work with local organizations to spread information and help reduce vaccination hesitancy.

For other communities, identifying the pre-existing networks who are able to make a difference in connecting vulnerable populations to resources is crucial going forward, Fix thinks. As for places like Worthington and Houston, maintaining and supporting those networks during non-crisis times can go a long way for future disaster prevention.

“It’s all about who comes to the table,” said Fix, “and making sure immigrants are a part of the conversation.”

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Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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