Immigrants in Washington who have not been eligible for federal COVID-19 relief programs, despite paying taxes and working in many of the essential jobs that have kept the state running amid the pandemic, will be getting some support from a $40 million fund Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday.
The announcement makes Washington the second state, after California, to provide financial relief to undocumented workers and other immigrants whose legal status excluded them from the stimulus payments and supplemental unemployment benefits Congress provided to U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
“COVID-19 doesn’t care what your immigration status is,” Inslee said in a press release. “We must support every family affected by the virus, especially those who lack the necessary means to quarantine or isolate and prevent further spread. This is the right thing for the well-being of individuals, the health of their colleagues and the safety of our communities.”
The fund was the product of months of activism by a coalition of more than 400 immigrant rights and social services organizations that formed in April. In a press release Monday, the coalition hailed the governor’s move but said more help is needed.
The $40 million will be distributed in one-time payments of $1,000 to immigrants who have lost income because of the pandemic, far short of the $1,200 stimulus payments and extra $600-a-week jobless benefits that expired at the end of July.
Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa, one of the coalition’s lead organizers, said the fund will be a valuable lifeline for many but falls far short of the $700 million undocumented immigrants in the state would have received if they were eligible for the federal aid, citing a May estimate by the Washington State Budget and Policy Center. Organizers originally called for $100 million to be set aside for the fund.
“No one is asking their immigration status when they are being forced to show up to work,” Quiñonez said. “But their immigration status apparently does matter when asking for resources to be able to survive.”
The state’s farm workers have been hit especially hard by the virus, in part because without state or federal assistance many of them have had no choice but to work.
“Them not having any support or help is actually a danger to everybody,” said Jim Dawson, a co-founder of the Spokane Immigrant Rights Coalition, or SIRC. “If they have no money and have to work when they’re sick, it’s a terrible public health strategy, it’s a terrible way to contain the pandemic, and it’s also terribly unjust.”
Along with the $40 million “Immigrant Relief Fund,” Inslee announced a $3 million fund to pay agricultural workers to stay home when they are ill.
The fund will be administered by a nonprofit organization, yet to be selected, with the help of community organizations around the state. Quiñonez said applicants will need to prove that they don’t qualify for other support but personally identifiable information will not be shared with the state.
If all goes well, he said, the first $1,000 payments will be distributed in October.
Immigrants and their allies have not waited for the state to act. The Washington Dream Coalition, of which Quiñonez is a founder, has raised and distributed roughly $5.5 million. In Spokane, SIRC and Latinos en Spokane raised about $30,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to provide stipends to families, but Latinos en Spokane founder Jennyfer Mesa said that money didn’t go far.
“We were only able to help with one month of rent,” Mesa said. “What happens the next month? These bills keep accumulating. All of these obstacles are serious for families. They’re serious for everybody who’s facing hardship, but if you’re undocumented there’s an extra layer.”
Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii led a group of 27 Democratic senators in a July 31 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., calling for federal aid to be expanded to immigrants who pay federal taxes, including those who are undocumented.
”Immigrants are disproportionately working in essential jobs to keep Americans healthy, safe, fed, and poised for economic recovery – often at great risk to their own lives and health,” Murray and Hirono wrote. “Excluding immigrant families, many of which include U.S. citizen children and spouses, from the federal government’s economic disaster relief response will impair our Nation’s ability to not only restore our economy but also to maintain critical essential services during the pandemic.”
The stimulus checks Congress authorized in March excluded not only immigrants but also their U.S. citizen spouses if the couples filed taxes jointly. GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Thom Tillis of North Carolina introduced a bill in June to address that problem, but it has so far failed to advance in the Senate.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican whose district covers most of Central Washington, wrote a letter to House leaders in April encouraging them to find a fix. Murray and other Democrats, however, prefer a broader solution that provides financial assistance to immigrants, not just their U.S. citizen spouses.
Senate Republicans did not include Tillis and Rubio’s bill in the COVID relief proposal they unveiled in late July. Negotiations over a new coronavirus relief package, still deadlocked, appear unlikely to offer help for immigrants, leaving the burden of providing any large-scale assistance to states.
“Washington state has enjoyed a lot of the fruits of the labor of immigrants,” Mesa said. “The least we can do is keep them safe and provide some support.”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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