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Undocumented Immigrants in New York Get Little Financial Help

By Kay Dervishi
City & State New York

Undocumented immigrants in New York are on the front lines of combating the COVID-19 crisis. Those same communities have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic and the economic fallout it has created. They were cut out of the federal government’s initiative to give cash directly to most taxpayers and are ineligible for unemployment insurance. Undocumented immigrants are left with little to no avenues for financial relief without support from local or state governments.

One in 5 front-line workers at grocery stores, social services organizations and other essential businesses in New York City are noncitizens, according to a report from the city comptroller’s office released in late March.

“The No. 1 thing we’re seeing from everybody are questions related to economic support issues,” said Sirrah Harris, who oversees the New York Legal Assistance Group’s hotline for people impacted by the pandemic and in need of legal advice.

Undocumented immigrants and mixed-immigration status couples were omitted from the federal coronavirus relief bill that authorized checks of up to $1,200 to most taxpayers with Social Security numbers, and New York state hasn’t created an alternative initiative so far. “We’re looking into it but we have real financial problems,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in mid-April when questioned about providing aid to undocumented immigrants. But advocates for undocumented immigrants have called on the state to make it a priority despite its weak financial state, adding that California has a $125 million fund to give $500 checks to undocumented adults in the state.

“The state hasn’t done very much for immigrant communities in this moment of providing financial assistance or direct relief to immigrant families,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive vice president of advocacy and strategy for the New York Immigration Coalition. “And while the state has been remarkable in other areas of COVID relief efforts, this is one area where they’re really falling flat.”

New York City has created a $20 million fund for up to 20,000 undocumented immigrants and immigrants with legal status, thanks to a donation from billionaire investor George Soros’ private foundation, the Open Society Foundations. The New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the nonprofit Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City will use the funding to distribute direct payments of up to $400 to individuals and up to $1,000 for families through community-based organizations. Still, its reach will be limited – there are more than half a million undocumented immigrants in the city alone.

Other nonprofits and foundations, such the Mixteca Organization, have created funds to give cash directly to immigrants or otherwise offer free food and other forms of relief.

But immigrants who are eligible for various forms of public assistance can’t necessarily access them easily. “More than 90% of (our clients) have language barriers, so it’s very difficult for them to navigate the different public benefits available for them,” said Jeehae Fischer, executive director of the Korean American Family Service Center, which helps survivors of abuse.

The public charge rule, which threatens the permanent status for immigrants who utilize certain public benefits, had already caused many immigrants to forgo food stamps and other programs before the pandemic. Doctors and hospitals are now reporting many are now even too scared to get tested and treated for COVID-19 because of the public charge rule, although the federal government has carved out exceptions to the rule for medical treatment or preventive services related to possible coronavirus cases.

“There’s a lot of confusion over how accessing benefits affects that rule, and whether that will harm them in the future,” Harris said. “Even just during this crisis, there have been a series of policy changes and executive orders that have come out from the federal government regarding immigration that have only heightened that fear and confusion.”

Originally published in City and State New York on May 6, 2020.

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