Washington Earmarks $40M for Undocumented Workers Excluded From Federal Aid

by Ben Adlin

Washington is set to become just the second U.S. state to send coronavirus aid to undocumented residents, who so far have been excluded from federal relief packages. Advocates announced on Monday that the state will soon launch a $40 million worker relief fund to send one-time cash payments directly to undocumented workers.

The funding is less than half of the $100 million relief package requested in recent months by a coalition of more than 230 local organizations. Leaders on Monday described the new fund as a major victory but added that more relief will be necessary to help stabilize Washington’s undocumented population of nearly 230,000 people.

“The fund is something that we’re going to celebrate even though it’s not enough,” Monserrat Padilla, Western Washington network coordinator for the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN), told the South Seattle Emerald. “As a community we’re accepting this as an initial installment, and we will continue fighting for more.”

WAISN announced the fund’s launch in a press release on Monday. A Spanish-language version of the group’s announcement is available online.

Gov. Jay Inslee said in May that he would consider establishing a relief fund for undocumented workers in response to a coordinated push by workers and advocates. As of mid-July, however, the project’s status was still unclear. This week’s announcement provides a better sense of the fund’s timeline — and how long families may have to wait to see relief. 

The answer? Likely months. Applications for assistance aren’t expected to be available until fall.

The next step in the process is for state officials to select a nonprofit organization to administer the program, overseeing distribution of the funds and ensuring payments make their way to qualifying workers. The request for proposal was published Monday afternoon and can be found here.

Once a lead organization is selected, that group will work with local community leaders across the state to direct funds to those most in need of assistance. Workers will need to file an application to receive a cash payment. Padilla said she expected those applications to be available “sometime this fall.” 

Workers can sign up to receive updates from WAISN. 

In the meantime, WAISN and its partner organizations are working to raise tens of millions of dollars in additional funding in order to address unmet need. A grassroots fundraising effort, the Washington Dream Coalition, has already gathered $6 million, Padilla said, and the groups are reaching out to local agencies, philanthropic organizations, and other potential donors to secure more. 

The original funding goal of $100 million was meant to provide about 100,000 families each with a one-time payment of $1,000. Even that, Padilla added, would be “nowhere near enough.” Undocumented Americans didn’t receive the $1,200 payments approved by Congress earlier this year, nor are they eligible for unemployment or a host of other state and federal benefits available to documented residents, including Washington’s first public health care option set to begin next year.

“Undocumented communities have historically [been] left behind,” Padilla said. “Policies and systems have excluded undocumented communities historically from any social safety net,” including assistance with food, housing, and legal counsel.

The worker relief fund is the direct result of advocacy and undocumented workers and refugees, she added, including people of color and LGBTQ people, whose vulnerability is compounded by underlying racism and bigotry.

“Something that in this campaign that should be highlighted is that those who were closest to the pain were closest to the solution,” Padilla said. “Femme, LGBT folks led this.”

Other advocates noted that undocumented communities pay millions of dollars in taxes to the state each year only to be excluded from key benefits. According to a 2017 report by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented communities paid $316 million in taxes to the state in 2014, the most recent year for which data were available.

“We are trying to survive and it is frustrating, sad, and unfair that time and time again we are not supported by the government we pay taxes to every year,” Corina, an immigrant leader in King County, said in a statement provided by WAISN. “We contribute to a system that we are not benefitting from. We deserve support — we are also on the front lines of this pandemic.”

Undocumented workers, who are disproportionately low-income and people of color, have been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Their immigration status has made it harder to seek health care, assert housing rights, or report workplace violations. 

Employees are encouraged to report dangerous work conditions to the state Department of Labor and Industries, but undocumented workers say they’re unable to do so without putting themselves and their families at risk.

“I was without work for 4 months accumulating debt and struggling to pay for my medication,” said Maria, an immigrant who has worked as a housekeeper for 19 years in the Tri-Cities. “When I did go back to work, my boss chose profit over our health and allowed workers who were COVID-19 positive to come back to work which exposed us all, and I contracted the virus.” 

Maria’s husband, Marco Antonio, works as a tractor driver. “Not having access to any help forced us to continue working and it resulted in both of us getting sick,” he said. “I’ve been fighting for my life for a month and this whole time I have been unemployed.”

The worker relief fund, Marco Antonio added, “will finally give families like ours the power to choose to stay home and prioritize our health without stressing about making ends meet.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist.

Featured image labeled for reuse from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Flickr.