As friends and colleagues watched their bank accounts inflate by $1,200 (or more, depending on the size of their family) in mid-April, my husband and I knew we wouldn’t get to share in the same sense of relief.
As a mixed-status family who files taxes jointly — me an American citizen with a Social Security number, my husband an undocumented worker with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) — we’re ineligible for any cash assistance from the nearly $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package known as the CARES Act.
We’re far from alone.
The Center for American Progress reports that around the country nearly 17 million people live with at least one “unauthorized” family member as of 2017. In Colorado, that translates to 276,589 people, or 5% of the state’s population. Many of the U.S. citizens in mixed-status households are children. The vast majority of these families will receive no federal stimulus money, not even the $500 allocated for each child.
“Undeniably, there is no way to separate immigrants out from the U.S.-born population,” Silva Mathema wrote for the Center for American Progress in 2017. “There can be no us versus them.”
As always, nonprofit groups have rushed in to protect immigrants and their families from this most recent punitive federal action. Even before the stimulus checks began to hit bank accounts, Google Sheets with state- and city-specific resources began to circulate on social media, where ineligible families could begin to find much needed help: Disaster Relief for Sonoma County, California; COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for Washington, D.C. area families; Ayuda Mutua in Wisconsin; Somos Seattle in Washington state. Across the country, advocates are seeking to find an answer to the injustice.
Here in Boulder County, a new collective of immigrant-led nonprofits has formed to fill the gap created by the federal government, pooling resources and creating funds to help families, regardless of status, during a time when many have lost income due to coronavirus-related closures.
Voces Unidas combines the on-the-ground advocacy power of El Centro Amistad (Boulder), El Comité de Longmont and ELPASO Movement (Lafayette). Partnering with the nonprofit Philanthropiece Foundation, Voces Unidas is currently accepting donations for the COVID-19 Undocu-Relief Fund to help immigrants in and around Boulder County cover essential needs during the pandemic.
Jake Matlak, director of programs at Philanthropiece, says “the huge push” right now is to garner more donations, from larger foundations, banks, businesses and private donors — anyone who can help.
As of April 21, Matlak says the relief fund has raised about $35,000 since April 8. The three local partnering nonprofits are helping to find families in need and coordinate distribution, but for now the program is entering a “pilot round,” with approximately 70 families receiving $500 each.
“That money is going to disappear in a blink,” Matlak says. “There’s a lot more families that definitely would qualify and need the support. The huge push right now is to get more resources into the fund or to at least locate other funds that people can access.”
Behind the scenes there’s an even broader network of advocates working to protect families who are ineligible for government assistance (or afraid to access programs, like unemployment, for fear of endangering pending immigration cases since Trump implemented the so-called “public charge” rule in August of last year). The Emergency Family Assistance Association in Boulder, Sister Carmen Community Center in Lafayette and OUR Center in Longmont all help families in need of rent assistance and other essential needs year-round (for those looking for rent assistance, please contact these organizations first), and continue to do so throughout the pandemic.
Guillermo Estrada-Rivera is the program coordinator for Boulder County’s recently created (official since February) Cultural Brokers Resilience Program. As a “cultural broker,” Estrada-Rivera is a bi-cultural mediator, “a resource navigator” as he terms it, helping underserved populations, like undocumented immigrants, find help in a system that often locks them out.
For the COVID-19 Undocu-Relief Fund, Estrada-Rivera has worked with all participating organizations to not only find much needed resources, but also to get those resources into the right hands. Estrada-Rivera, Matlak and other community advocates and organizers have put together a Google Sheet with resources that cultural brokers can access to better help overwhelmed and underserved undocumented community members.
“We recognize that there’s a huge influx of need, and people are getting stressed,” Estrada-Rivera says. “People are being faced with the reality that they need to reach out to services that they have never reached out to before in some cases. We’re trying to summarize everything that’s out there, putting it in a meeting place for the actual cultural brokers, resource navigators and even allies to share with the communities they serve. So instead of a community member having to navigate 60 different pages looking for help, they can call a cultural broker that they know, a person that they trust, who can look at this resources list and say, ‘These are your options.’”
But, as the pilot run of the COVID-19 Undocu-Relief Fund shows, it’s a work-in-progress.
“The resources are still being built,” Estrada-Rivera says. “Like people say, there’s too many cooks in the kitchen right now. But that’s a good thing because it has the potential to [lead to] even more resources available for the community. But the conversations are still taking place.”
Immigrants looking for assistance can reach out to the Boulder County Suma Project (firstname.lastname@example.org) — part of Estrada-Rivera’s cultural broker program — to connect with a cultural broker who can provide general information about how and when services will be available for access.
Outside of Boulder County, other nonprofits are working to the same end. Josh Stallings, the north regional coordinator for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, has worked with Voces Unidas in Boulder, and also with the interfaith nonprofit group ISAAC in Fort Collins, as well as with the Immigrant and Refugee Center of North Colorado in Greeley. Both organizations are providing micro-grants to families in need.
Stallings is “moved and inspired’’ by what nonprofits are providing for immigrant communities during the pandemic, but he says the effort has to expand beyond the nonprofit world.
“One, nonprofits aren’t going to be able to have the same reach, the same quantity of support that the federal government or local government could help provide,” he says. “Two, I don’t think a lot of our elected officials realize how much strain these nonprofits are under. I know a lot of people in these nonprofits right now that are working a lot more than they normally would because we have community members that are calling us at all hours of the day, not knowing how they’re going to pay rent, not knowing how to put food on the table. … I think that we really need our local, state and federal elected officials to step up more.”
California has become a prime example of state leadership, with a joint public-private $125 million coronavirus disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants living in the state. The fund provides $500 per individual, with a $1,000 limit per household. It’s estimated to help some 150,000 immigrants.
“I’m not here to suggest that $125 million is enough,” California governor Gavin Newsom said in a press event announcing the fund. “But I am here to suggest it’s a good start, and I’m very proud it’s starting here in the state of California.”
But there’s little hope for such a move at the state level in Colorado because of House Bill 1023, passed during a special legislative session in 2006, which prohibits the state, with some exceptions, from providing federal, state and local public benefits to immigrants who do not have legal status.
Over the course of his eight years in office, Jonathan Singer, a state representative for District 11, has worked with other legislative members to get HB 1023 “off the books.” When the legislation was enacted in 2006, it created a “show me your papers” law even before Arizona. That component of the legislation has been removed, but the overreaching power of the bill has continued to create obstacles to equality for immigrants in Colorado.
“House Bill 1023, sadly, is still on the books,” says Singer, who has been an ally to the local organizations running the COVID Undocu-Relief Fund. “The intent behind House Bill 1023 — which was to mirror what already existed in federal law — was not the same as the actual effect.
“It’s a crisis now,” Singer says. “It affects everyone. It doesn’t just affect immigrants. It literally affects everyone. And so it needs to go.”
With that unlikely to happen any time soon, the work of keeping undocumented immigrant families afloat in Colorado will continue to fall to local nonprofit organizations like the ones at the helm of Voces Unidas.
Organizers within the collective say there’s a chance that the Undocu-Relief Fund will end up merging with another fund, or funds, in Colorado in order to help more people.
“There’s no sense in competing or duplicating,” Matlak, from Philanthropiece, says. “But right now everybody’s just trying to get money into the hands of people who need it.”
Raquel Lane-Arellano, political manager for Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, says the coronavirus has “exacerbated the gaps in resources and access that had already existed” for immigrants.
“I think the underlying story for me is that undocumented immigrants have to face all these obstacles all the time, like being afraid to go out and economic hardship, and what we’re seeing is that this virus doesn’t impact people differently based on a Social Security [number],” she says. “It clearly shows how our government structures do and always have discriminated against folks based on citizenship status, on race.”
Estrada-Rivera says it’s clear we cannot depend on our government in times of crisis.
“The future for our community, the future of our survival, is depending on collaboration,” he says. “The federal government has proven it’s more concerned with the narrative than the wellbeing of our people.”
As for my husband and me, we could choose to file our 2019 taxes separately to get my $1,200, but since we’re still trying to obtain permanent residency for him, filing separately could hurt our case (jointly filed taxes are one of the ways the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, USCIS, determines a marriage to be valid). And our situation is irrelevant in the face of the larger injustice the CARES Act doles out to immigrants living in this country. We’re just one story. There are millions more.