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Many Undocumented Immigrants are Frontline Workers, But Their Families Can’t Get Government Aid

Advocates say states aren’t doing enough to close the gaps in the federal stimulus bill.

(Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo by Getty Images.)

“My dad should not have to do a job where he is at risk of getting the coronavirus, but we also can’t afford to lose another income and become homeless,” Ajay said, speaking to reporters over a live stream hosted by local and statewide immigrant advocacy groups in New York. He chose not to share his real name due to immigration and privacy concerns as an undocumented immigrant.

Ajay is a high school student who used to work weekends at a roti shop in his neighborhood in Queens in New York City. Since the pandemic, both Ajay and his mother have been laid off.

Ajay and his parents are undocumented and part of the approximately 54 percent of undocumented workers in the city who have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. Ajay’s family is now dependent on the income of his father, who cleans apartments. 

Like many immigrant families in Queens, Ajay lives in a basement where it is impossible to practice social distancing and as a result, if his dad were to contract COVID-19, it would easily spread to the entire family. Despite his high risk work, his father does not receive personal protective equipment. Since they are undocumented, they do not qualify for the federal coronavirus relief package or unemployment.

Ajay is one of approximately 504,000 undocumented immigrants living in New York City. Despite the demands of community groups, neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor the City Council have set aside funds to support undocumented families. Instead the city will manage funds donated by Open Society Foundation to provide one-time payments of $400 for individuals and $1,000 for families for up to 20,000 undocumented workers and their families. The need, however, is much greater: About 666,579 noncitizens live in households at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. 

Among frontline workers in the city, about 19 percent are noncitizens. “Being called ‘essential’ doesn’t change the fact that we, as undocumented people, are having to keep this country running, but are also kept out of any government aid,” Ajay said. As a member of Desis Rising Up and Moving, an organization building the power of working-class South Asian and Indo-Caribbean youth and adults, Ajay is working with a wider coalition to ensure that New York State takes action to support undocumented families. 

As part of this effort, state Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly member Carmen De La Rosa have introduced legislation that would enable undocumented workers to receive $3,300 in monthly financial assistance, financed by taxing the capital gains of billionaires’ assets. Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a vocal critic of President Trump’s immigration policies, but when asked about creating funds to assist undocumented workers, he said it would be “irresponsible” due to budgetary concerns. Cuomo recently said that the federal government has created programs to address the issue, but there are no federal programs to support undocumented immigrants. Most families with undocumented family members were excluded from the federal coronavirus relief package.

Despite declaring itself a haven for immigrants, at both the state and city level New York is lagging behind other states and localities offering financial support to undocumented residents. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has established a $75 million Disaster Relief Fund which will be combined with private donations to provide approximately 150,000 undocumented adult residents with a one-time cash benefit of $500 per adult with a cap of up to $1,000 per household. The funds will be distributed by nonprofit organizations and will not require personal information from undocumented workers. The program is the first of its kind in the country, and conservative groups are challenging its legality. 

“While it’s a good start, the state can be doing much more,” said Javier Hernandez, director of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice in California. “This is a Band-Aid. This is not a real solution to this pandemic. This is not a long-term solution.” The coalition is distributing some of the private donations that the state and philanthropic partners fundraised for undocumented immigrants. They have created an application process with a daily cap of 200 applicants. They will provide $200 to $500 based on need. The maximum number of applicants is reached each day in three to five hours, demonstrating the huge need.

The coalition is advocating for a safety net program that helps everyone and calling on the legislature to include in the budget ongoing financial relief for individuals who do not qualify for unemployment, the creation of a permanent income replacement program (like unemployment) for those who work in the underground economy and an expansion of the California earned income tax credit to undocumented individuals. “We have to ensure [for] communities that don’t have access to federal assistance, that the state stands up and says yes where the federal government says no,” said Hernandez. 

Other cities are offering assistance to pay for utilities or rent, which undocumented residents can apply for. In Chicago, the city set aside $2 million to assist 2,000 residents, regardless of status, with rent or mortgage payments via one-time grants of $1,000. Bárbara Suarez Galeano, a member of Organized Communities Against Deportations, noted that 20 of its members applied for these grants, but one person was selected. This was the only form of assistance offered to undocumented families. “Beyond it being insufficient, having undocumented folks compete with folks who have access to other resources for this minimal support, it was essentially more like a stimulus for landlords than it was really for tenants,” said Galeano.

Minneapolis has established a similar program: $3 million in funds open to all residents. It will issue funds directly to landlords and/or utility companies on behalf of residents with funds generally not exceeding $1,500 per household. “It’s a great effort,” said Nekessa Opoti, co-founder of the Black Immigrant Collective. “[But] it’s very patronizing. The money is not actually going into the hands of undocumented immigrants.” 

Minnesota has issued a moratorium on evictions and some utility providers have suspended cutting off service for nonpayment. “Why are undocumented people being burdened to have to pay [rent and utilities] when there’s so much uncertainty right now?” said Abena Abraham, co-founder of the Black Immigrant Collective. “It almost seems like they want to help but they don’t trust that they [recipients] know how to manage the money that they give them.” 

In Washington, D.C., Events D.C., which is funded by taxes on hotels and restaurants, has allocated $5 million in one-time payments for undocumented workers. This announcement came after the City Council excluded undocumented workers from a financial assistance package. Although Chicago, Minneapolis, and D.C. have allocated some government funds or tax revenue to assist undocumented workers, other cities and states have relied on private donations. Los Angeles has distributed debit cards funded by private donors to families, and Massachusetts is raising funds to distribute to foundations to assist essential workers and vulnerable populations, including undocumented families. Austin has funded local nonprofits to provide financial assistance in the form of direct cash assistance or payment of outstanding bills to individuals who did not qualify for federal relief. 

United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led national organization, is urging states to provide cash assistance to undocumented immigrants. “Government should be providing this,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, state and local policy manager for the organization. “It shouldn’t be from millionaires and billionaires where they get tax breaks for giving money away. We very much believe that people should be paying their fair taxes, which undocumented people do. If they do, then the government should have enough money to serve the entire community.”

Organizers want state and federal governments to reallocate funds to provide financial support for undocumented immigrants. In Chicago, organizers are demanding that Mayor Lori Lightfoot redirect funds from canceled festivals and public events to supporting Black and Latinx communities, which are disproportionately represented on the frontlines of the pandemic. “These festivals, of course, happen in gentrified or white neighborhoods and typically we don’t get to see any of that,” said Galeano. 

In New York, the state with the most COVID-19 cases and deaths, the demands reflect the dire reality facing communities hit hardest by COVID-19. “Free testing and treatment for everyone, canceled rent, guaranteed housing, PPE for everyone, and massive pay increases for essential workers are the bare minimum,” said Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye, research and advocacy manager at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. “Instead of addressing the needs of undocumented immigrants, houseless people, and people held in confinement, [Governor] Cuomo and [Mayor] de Blasio are relying on fragile support from nonprofits and foundations to address massive holes in the social safety net that they either created or are actively expanding through budget cuts, increased policing, and billions in jail construction.”

At the federal level, advocates were successful in ensuring that neither ICE nor Customs and Border Patrol received increased funding for enforcement operations under the CARES Act. “We’ve had to fight tooth and nail,” Galeano said of the difficulty of securing this provision. “These organizations [ICE and CBP] that are essentially built up to kill immigrants are trying to profit from this moment.”

Remaining home during the pandemic carries additional concerns for undocumented immigrants. “The constant fear of being home all the time and ICE having a better chance of finding them is also really weighing on people’s minds,” said Abraham. Despite the pandemic ICE has continued to detain immigrants and conduct deportations, albeit with limitations. United We Dream is pushing for states to reallocate funds for ICE collaborations to instead provide cash assistance to immigrant communities fighting COVID-19. They launched a phone campaign to pressure governors. 

In addition to organizing campaigns to pressure local officials, grassroots groups have created mutual aid funds in Chicago, New York, Minnesota, and Massachusetts to assist undocumented immigrants. 

Nevertheless, Ruth Lopez Martinez, a 64-year-old Queens resident, is still struggling. Martinez helped form a cleaning cooperative, Pa’lante, consisting of eight workers. But since the pandemic began they have lost all of their clients. “All of us in the cooperative are undocumented but we pay taxes,” she said in Spanish during the advocacy groups’ live stream. “In addition to paying taxes as individuals, my business also pays taxes as a business. So we don’t get it—why don’t we have any rights?” 

Martinez’s husband also lost his job as a welder due to the pandemic. He is “a 70-year-old man who is vulnerable to this virus and he had to go outside to look for work. I wanted to die,” she said, her voice choked with tears. “My husband and I aren’t even the worst affected because we’re older. But when I think about the people with kids who woke up today like me, with nothing in their fridge, this is terrible.”