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Area groups come to aid of immigrant families left out of federal stimulus program

Jennyfer Mesa, shown speaking on July 12, 2019, at Riverfront Park, is the founder of Latinos en Spokane and among area community organizers helping assist immigrant families affected by the recent economic downturn. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

As COVID-19 stimulus checks flow in to help bolster the finances of families across the U.S., many immigrant families that include members without legal status and without Social Security numbers won’t be getting them, even if they work essential jobs.

But some private, nonprofit groups are working to provide these families aid during the sharp economic downturn.

Spokane-area community organizations have joined forces and collectively raised nearly $25,000 through online fundraisers and grants to help local immigrant families and families with mixed legal status.

Organizations began to hear about the growing need for rent assistance undocumented immigrant families faced a couple of weeks after the shutdown, said Jim Dawson, co-founder of the Spokane Immigrant Rights Coalition, which contributed to the effort.

Many of these families don’t have access to unemployment benefits or can’t access some of the money raised locally because they’ll ask for Social Security numbers even if they aren’t required to do so, he said.

“We’re trying to put pressure on the state government and local government to provide aid that’s open to undocumented, mixed-document-status families,” Dawson said.

Families can receive financial assistance through local organizations that have already been working with these families in the Spokane area, including the Spokane Immigrant Rights Coalition, the Hispanic Business Professional Association, Latinos en Spokane and Mujeres In Action, he said.

Other organizations advocating for immigrants across the state have partnered with Scholarship Junkies to establish a statewide fund, he said. They’ve collected a total of over $1 million in donations, and individuals can expect to receive an amount between $500 or $1,000 when they apply for financial assistance from the state fund.

“We’re encouraging families to fill out the form on the Scholarship Junkies website so that we can catch families that we might be able to help that the Scholarship Junkies can’t help,” Dawson said.

Many barriers exist for undocumented immigrant families due to pervasive distrust of the officials who are tasked to helping people access assistance, said Jennyfer Mesa, founder of Latinos en Spokane.

The organization has seen an increase in requests for support from families who reported that their landlords were asking them to pay rent or leave despite the halt on foreclosures and evictions, she said. Many were women.

“It seems like they were almost targeted because we saw families who had always paid their rent on time,” Mesa said.

And this distrust extends beyond housing and into the health care sector, she said.

Fernanda Mazcot works to address those barriers as a Raíz organizer for Planned Parenthood. Raíz is a program dedicated to improving access to health care for the Latino and Latina community.

The program refers Spanish-speakers who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who did to Mazcot, so she can monitor their symptoms and provide them with information on rental assistance, food assistance or domestic violence resources.

“It’s a very scary situation, especially if you don’t know the language and if you don’t have a primary doctor or if you don’t have insurance,” Mazcot said.

Hanncel Sanchez, director of Mujeres In Action, said her group has applied for grants to help domestic violence survivors with housing. They’ve been working to increase funding opportunities to help people with rent payments as a way to help relieve some of the stress.

Housing continues to be the biggest financial need for undocumented immigrant families, and providing housing assistance is a way for the organization to prevent domestic violence, especially with a recent uptick in such abuse, she said.

“People still have the right to feel safe and people should be free to seek help,” Sanchez said. “We’re here to support them with certified domestic violence advocates and with confidentiality, and their (immigration) status isn’t going to matter, “ Sanchez said.

Mazcot is also a board member for the Hispanic Business Professionals Association. Some of the association’s members don’t qualify for relief packages or federal financial assistance offered to small business owners, she said.

If their business is shut down, they too are worried about paying rent and providing food for their families, Mazcot said. To ease some of the effects on business owners, the Hispanic Business Professionals Association has created a collective relief fund, Mazcot said.

Many immigrant families are working low-wage jobs or worked for businesses that weren’t deemed essential but cannot access financial assistance from the state or federal government, Mesa said.

“There isn’t enough attention on essential workers and the undocumented families that have to put themselves in the front lines to work,” she said.

Immigration advocates have also pushed for the state of Washington to set aside $100 million to aid undocumented workers who don’t have legal status and can’t take advantage of federal relief packages or state unemployment insurance. California Gov. Gavin Newsom established a $125 million relief package in that state for undocumented workers without legal status.

The Washington Dream Coalition, a nonprofit advocating for undocumented youth in the state who lack legal status, has been raising private money for a fund to assist those in Washington state without documentation who need financial assistance. The effort has raised $1 million in a month, but needs $14 million to meet the needs of its applicants, said Paul Quiñonez, an organizer with the Dream Coalition.

“We know there are even more households that have not applied,” Quiñonez said. “Only the government has sufficient funds to do this.”

Those interested in applying for aid can do so through a COVID-19 Relief Fund for Undocumented Individuals in Washington State website, or call (844) -724-3737 between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, Quiñonez said.

Spokesman-Review reported Kip Hill contributed to this article.