Photo depicting the illustrated report cover with a Latino-presenting youth wearing a face mask swinging on a swing that is suspended from yellow text that reads "Community Provides."

Systemic Fault Lines for Undocumented Community Revealed by the Pandemic, New Report Shows

by Agueda Pacheco Flores

After raising and disbursing more than $62 million during the height of the pandemic for the state’s undocumented community last year, the Washington Dream Coalition (WDC) says there’s still more work to be done. 

A new report published early last week details the impact the organization’s COVID-19 relief fund had on the undocumented immigrant community. The grassroots effort for the relief fund was in response to most undocumented immigrants being left out of the stimulus package last year and ineligible for unemployment benefits. The report consists of qualitative demographic and employment data taken from the application process, which one of the main organizers and writers of the report called an “unprecedented” look at the community. It also highlights the voices of those who were directly impacted by the pandemic and the fund. 

“We have so much rich data that we haven’t had that can help us tell our story and do better advocacy,” said Alejandra Pérez, a WDC organizer who was part of the effort to create the fund in 2020.

According to the report, 92% of applicants were Latin American, 3% were white. Multiracial, Native American, Middle Eastern or Northern African, Black, and Asian applicants each represented around 1% of eligible applicants. An estimate by the Migration Policy Institue says there are around 229,000 undocumented immigrants in Washington State, with 75,000 in King County alone. More than 19,000 people applied for WDC’s relief fund. 

The report also collected data on employment, which found that the largest job sectors where undocumented immigrants were impacted was agriculture, construction, and the service industry which includes restaurants. 

“The report is to tell that story of what undocumented folk have been facing throughout the pandemic,” Pérez said, adding, “The systemic barriers we were facing prior to the pandemic and how it was solidified.”

Undocumented communities are not only ineligible for unemployment, they are also unable to access government health insurance. The pandemic unveiled a public health crisis that intersected with major fault lines across race, as is seen with how COVID-19 disproportionately impacted Black and Latino communities. 

Pérez has worked for WDC since 2014 and is also a beneficiary of the controversial Obama-era memorandum known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that granted people brought to the U.S. as children renewable work permits. She said as COVID-19 began to advance quickly within the U.S., her family was immediately impacted. 

“My brother used to work in a kitchen and my dad used to work in construction,” she said. “My brother ended up getting temporarily fired because of the pandemic. My dad didn’t have access to unemployment because he doesn’t have DACA like my brother did, so we saw what not going to work and not getting paid is like, and we live together because we need to support each other.”

Latinos are more likely to live in multigenerational households which is one reason why the community was disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

More than 19,000 individuals applied for WDC’s relief fund, but only around 6,000 people were eligible for funds.

Focus groups held with 34 recipients collected anecdotes about the way the fund helped them during some of those first waves of COVID-19. It also shows gaps in the ways undocumented people are assisted, including lack of affordable health care. 

“Sometimes we don’t want to go to the hospital because we are scared of the bill we will get,” says an anonymous person who received relief. 

“It’s much easier if you could with insurance because [if] I am sick I would go [to the doctor] because I know my insurance would cover it,” said another person quoted in the report. 

The grassroots fund launched at the end of March 2020, and as a result of its success, WDC was able to advocate for relief funds for the uncodumented immigrant community at city and state levels. Still, the report shows there was not enough to provide for everyone, resulting in an “unmet need across all funds’’ of more than $48 million.

Now, Pérez says WDC is moving forward with the report as a tool, using the data to convince state lawmakers that there needs to be employment and health insurance available for undocumented people in Washington State. 

“The name of the report is Community Provides for a reason,” Pérez said. “We started this based on community efforts and want it to go beyond that; we want the State to do this so it’s not only up to the community.”

Agueda Pacheco Flores is a journalist focusing on Latinx culture and Mexican American identity. Originally from Querétaro, Mexico, Pacheco is inspired by her own bicultural upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and proud Washingtonian.

📸 Featured image courtesy of the Washington Dream Coalition.

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