Researching the Needs of a Region's Immigrant Communities During COVID-19


A team of students in MIT's USA Lab class this past spring collaborated remotely with staff from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque to conduct research on the experience of immigrants in northeast Iowa.


The rapid spread of COVID-19 this year has upended the lives of people across the world in profound ways. As students in the Spring 2020 USA Lab class offered by the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, we observed one small example of this disruption through research we conducted in partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque.

As part of USA Lab, teams of MIT graduate students work with community organizations around the country to study pressing local issues. Our team of four—the three authors of this article plus our fourth team member, Sade Nabahe—undertook a semester-long effort to understand and strengthen the relationship between northeast Iowa’s immigrant communities and the local labor market. The coronavirus pandemic substantially changed our project scope—both in terms of what we studied and how we conducted our research.

Why We Each Chose This Project

Our team included various cultural backgrounds and identities: immigrants and children of immigrants, Midwesterners, and students of policy, planning, and business who shared an interest in understanding the challenges that immigrant communities faced in northeast Iowa.

Nikhil recalls:

 “Growing up as the child of immigrants in a predominantly white region in northwest Indiana, I have always had a complicated view on what it means to be an American and the American experience. I always had a sense of unease as to my position, and the position of other people of color, in American society, but because of my own sources of privilege, I was able to establish a successful career as a consultant and to work abroad. Prior to graduate school I worked at a venture philanthropy fund seeking justice for Chicago’s youth. It became clear to me that understanding and addressing this country’s inequities is the only way for us all to prosper. USA Lab and the promise of addressing these inequities was one of the reasons I applied to MIT Sloan and was one of the highlights of my year.”

Nathan says:
“I feel a strong connection to the upper Midwest, having grown up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a city about 250 miles upriver of Dubuque on the Mississippi. Before coming to MIT, I studied cities across the United States at the Brookings Institution, and came to recognize the important role that civic institutions like community foundations played in facilitating local efforts to advance economic inclusion. I took USA Lab in order to dive deep into a research project in partnership with an organization that could put our work to use, and these personal and professional connections made the project with the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque my top choice.”

From Dana’s perspective:
“As an immigrant to this country, I have always sought to work with and learn from the experience of other immigrant communities, so I was immediately drawn to the work that the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque was leading. I took USA Lab to continue expanding on my knowledge of the different experiences that make America the country it is today. My background in education and social innovation has taught me that community organizations play an essential role in weaving the social fabric that allows people traditionally kept at the margins to thrive. I was also interested in diving deeper into the structural systems that put immigrant communities in a vulnerable place.”

How COVID-19 Transformed Our Project

Less than a week before our planned travel to Dubuque to conduct our fieldwork, we learned that the in-person component of our research project would need to be scrapped because of the impending pandemic. Not yet grasping the extent of the effects of COVID-19, we at first focused on how we would conduct our research remotely but kept our project scope largely intact. All that changed about two days into our field interviews.

Fundamentally, the ground had shifted beneath us over the span of a few days: Northeast Iowa had gone from a region with a strong economy, very low unemployment, and a need for workers, to one that was profoundly destabilized by a public health crisis and a sudden economic downturn. Over the span of a day, our team reassessed our project, resolving to focus on understanding how COVID-19 was reshaping the needs of immigrant communities in northeast Iowa and their connection to local employers.

COVID-19 Exacerbated the Challenges Immigrant Communities Faced

After shifting our scope, we moved our in-person interviews and site visits to virtual conversations and followed news coverage of the pandemic in The Telegraph-Herald, Dubuque’s daily newspaper. We learned how the vulnerabilities and isolation many immigrant communities faced had worsened rapidly because of the pandemic. The Dubuque region has a substantial portion of immigrants from the Marshall Islands, and members of this community, many of whom suffer from widespread preexisting health conditions and live in high-density housing, faced some of the greatest risks from the virus. Similarly, Guatemalan and Mexican families were living in poverty, some fearing detention and deportation, and losing the service-sector jobs they had relied on.

Prior to COVID-19, immigrant communities had been tenuously connected to many of Dubuque’s institutions through a small network of volunteers and staff, and as the shutdown took effect, opportunities for the in-person interactions that this volunteer network relied on dwindled dramatically. Our research revealed a fragmented system that could not meet immigrants’ needs. Accordingly, our recommendations centered around what the Community Foundation and its partners could do to close gaps and better connect existing volunteers and nonprofits with immigrant communities. We made the case for investing in four interventions: a regional immigrant service center to consolidate current offerings; universal broadband subscription across the region so that immigrant families could stay digitally connected during the pandemic; the creation of a cohort of trained ‘job connectors’ with deep roots in immigrant communities to help match immigrant workers with local employers; and an invitation for local leaders to work to make Dubuque a more welcoming place for all residents, regardless of race and immigration status. At the Community Foundation’s request, we have shared these reflections with its staff and board of directors, local media, and a group of regional CEOs and civic leaders.

What We Learned From This Work

As individuals, what we learned in our research informed our own thinking.

Nikhil says:
We saw in real time as the impact of COVID-19 began to be felt in Dubuque. From the lens of systems supporting immigrant communities, it meant the breakdown of many of the informal networks that had been created. Suddenly the one person in charge of driving young Guatemalan immigrants around to work and to appointments could no longer leave his house given his age and risk. Many were laid off or saw their hours cut. Others continued working but were terrified of getting sick or infecting their families. This response highlighted the precariousness of the immigrant communities in Dubuque and across the US. On a personal level, it revealed my privilege and the privilege of my own Indian community. My friends and family back home can work from home and are not at risk of losing access to basic services. That is not the case for most of the families we spoke to in Dubuque. It highlights the unfair and broken systems in which these communities have been living for years. It made our work more urgent and, in some ways, easier—it’s easier to spot a broken system when it shatters in front of you. But it’s all the more heartbreaking as well.”

Nathan recalls:
“This project was my first attempt to do experiential learning entirely online, and I was surprised that it felt far more straightforward than I’d expected. I came to recognize that I’ve been inadvertently training for a digital existence for much of my life.

“But the conversations we had with immigrants in Dubuque underscored that some people’s lives were almost unimaginably different from my own. One Guatemalan mother of three told us over the phone, in broken Spanish spoken so softly and tentatively that it was hard to understand, that she didn’t know how to read or write. She’d endured difficulties that I’d never faced, and was struggling to just meet her family’s basic needs in an unfamiliar and often unwelcoming society. It felt jarring, to say the least, to end such a call and find myself fully present again in my own living room, with my basic needs unthinkingly met, in a country I unhesitatingly consider to be home, with a lifetime of experiences to help me understand the world around me and feel, for the most part, that I belong. Technology connected the two of us, but it also revealed to me how far apart our lived experiences really are.”

Dana states:
“Through this project, I have seen firsthand the urgency of the work our community partners are implementing, and the need for bold leadership that transcends partisan lines and defends values of democracy and humanity. I was particularly struck by those community members that recognized their fortunate position despite the uneasiness of their future, and still decided to put the well-being of the less privileged before their own. The path forward is blurry and uncertain for the population that the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque serves, for their own staff, and also for ourselves, as we navigate our responsibility towards others and the world.”

All in all, our experience was nothing like what we anticipated at the start of this year. But it is one that we will not soon forget.

Dana Mekler and Nikhil Bhagwat are MBA students at the MIT Sloan School who are also pursuing master’s degrees at the Harvard Kennedy School. Nathan Arnosti is a graduate student in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning.