Undocumented Immigrants in Need Finally Get Promised Pandemic Cash Assistance

Posted on July 9, 2020 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

The line of people outside the Catholic Charities' Immigrant and Refugee Services, waiting to get their cash cards. BETH FERTIG / GOTHAMIST / WNYC

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JULY 9, 2020 8:17 A.M.

In the ghost town of Lower Manhattan, where many companies still rely on a virtual workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s striking to see a line of people outside an office building. Yet it’s not unusual to see dozens waiting outside the building that’s home to Catholic Charities’ Immigrant and Refugee Services, on the few days a week when it’s distributing cash assistance to those who lost income during the coronvirus crisis but can’t get government assistance.

Most workers who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic started receiving unemployment and federal stimulus checks in March and April. But undocumented immigrants don’t qualify, even though the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found more than half pay taxes (including over $1 billion in New York alone). U.S. citizens married to undocumented immigrants also can’t get government aid.

In April, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations announced a $20 million donation to New York City specifically for immigrants who can’t get government assistance. City Hall wanted community groups who work with immigrants to do all the screening and to set up systems to protect the privacy of the recipients, which took a while to set up. Thirty groups were selected and money is finally being distributed in the form of pre-paid cash cards.

At Catholic Charities’ Immigrant and Refugee Services, director Mario Russell said there were a lot of worthy candidates and his organization had to triage for those most in need. He said 950 households had received cash assistance as of July 8th, comprising about 3,325 family members.

“The people that we are working with now are people that are families, individuals that we’ve had either legal cases with, resettlement cases with, who come to our ESL classes,” he explained. They also include about 1,800 day laborers in the Bronx, alone, as well as restaurant and healthcare workers.

In other words, essential workers who were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic, and were disproportionately sickened by the novel coronavirus.

The funds are given out on pre-paid cards worth up to $1,000, depending on family size and whether the recipient ever received other financial assistance since March from community groups. To receive their cards while maintaining social distancing rules, only a few clients at a time were allowed upstairs to wait in the elevator lobby outside the glass doors of Catholic Charities, all wearing masks. Most came by appointment.

Community engagement manager Lucia Goyen showing a pre-paid cash card at Catholic Charities' Immigrant and Refugee Services
Community engagement manager Lucia Goyen showing a pre-paid cash card at Catholic Charities' Immigrant and Refugee Services BETH FERTIG / GOTHAMIST / WNYC

Community engagement manager Lucia Goyen checked-in with arrivals, and explained how the cash cards are activated with a phone call. She also encouraged clients to participate in the U.S. Census and to take bags of canned goods assembled on one side of the hallway.

Nydia, 44, had been among the first in line outside the building that morning and received a card worth $500. She said she’s a single mother of two and had brought along her three-year daughter, who drew smiles from adults and seemed very cheerful about her outing.

Like most of the other clients I spoke with, Nydia declined to give her full name because of her immigration status. She said she came from Honduras four years ago and was working as a home health attendant with older people when the pandemic started, and her job became too risky. She said she just went back to work part-time.

During the three months without income, she said she relied on school lunches for her children (which could still be picked up) and donations from food banks. She was planning to use the new cash for milk and other basics, and expressed no disappointment about having to wait.

“God knows the right time to give,” she said, in Spanish.

Nydia and all the clients I met said they relied on food banks. All had fallen behind on their rent.

Clara, a 61-year-old asylum seeker from Colombia who used to clean houses, said she was grateful to get $500 dollars in cash and planned to give some of it to her landlord. She said he had been very understanding and that she felt fortunate despite the pandemic, adding, “We are a lot better here than back in Colombia.”

A 29-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant named Elena was also planning to spend some of her new cash on rent, plus utilities. She said she hadn’t paid her electricity or gas in months and doesn’t know when she’ll go back to work.

“I used to work cleaning a restaurant but the restaurant isn't sure it will reopen because there is no space to put tables outside,” she explained.

Utilities still can’t be shut off during the pandemic. But the moratorium on evictions ended last month for anyone who can’t prove they suffered financial hardship because of COVID-19, a high bar for undocumented immigrants. Recent data from the City Comptroller also shows how unemployment continues to be especially high among immigrants.

As she left Catholic Charities, 44 year-old Olivia Waynan held a blue bag full of canned fruit, chicken and vegetables donated by the organization. A few more bags of food were stuffed into her rolling suitcase. She said half of her $500 cash card would go to the rent and the rest to necessities.

“Pampers, wipes for the girls, I still have a toddler and eight months, I got two babies home,” she said.

Waynan said she was born in Honduras but came to the U.S. as a baby. She said she only applied for a green card two years ago because she didn’t have enough money, and is now waiting for approval. She said she has a total of four children at home and that she lost her job at a movie theater in March and has no idea when she’ll go back. Her partner is still working but they don’t know what’s next.

There should be other programs that are willing to help the immigrants because, you know, the city’s based on immigrants,” she said. “Everybody’s equal as one and we should help one among each other’s. Today for me, tomorrow for you -- you never know.”

As of July 6th, the city said almost 8,600 immigrants have been screened for eligibility for the OSF money, 96 percent of whom were eligible. It said those individuals come from 170 ZIP codes and 101 countries of origin, the top 10 of which include Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia and China.

The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs expects the $20 million donation to be spent by the end of July, reaching about 20,000 families. Earlier this year, it estimated about 100,000 undocumented immigrants lost their jobs because of the pandemic. But the Center for an Urban Future said that figure may be closer to 200,000.

“We are actively engaged with partners, including other philanthropic leaders, about supporting other groups with close ties to immigrant families that could also do this work,” said spokeswoman Esther Rosario Fiebig. “Our intention is to build on this program and recognize that it is limited.”

Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering immigration, courts, and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.