Hunger Strikers Win Historic Relief Fund for Undocumented New York Workers — With Strings Attached

The $2.1 billion relief package was a major win for organizers, but some undocumented workers worry they'll be left behind.

New York Cares volunteers in partnership with Together We Can local non-profit organization and Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz distribute holidays toys and winter coats in Corona, Queens in New York on December 19, 2020. Line of people stretched for 7 blocks around office of Assemblywoman. (Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Volunteers and New York State Assembly Member Catalina Cruz distribute holidays toys and winter coats in Queens, New York, on Dec. 19, 2020. Photo: Lev Radin/Sipa USA via AP

Ana Patricia, a 46-year-old woman originally from Mexico, had been working for years as a bathroom attendant at a restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy when, last March, Covid-19 cases began to soar and hospitals filled up with the dying and the dead. The owner told the staff that they were going to be taking two weeks off. The restaurant never reopened. Though she has been able to rely on a food pantry and has set up her own makeshift business selling Mexican trinkets, she hasn’t found steady work in over a year. During that time, she’s struggled to feed her 5-year-old son and has gone months without being able to pay rent.

She is exactly the type of worker contemplated by New York’s $2.1 billion fund for undocumented essential workers who lost their jobs because of the Covid-19 pandemic, included in the state’s historic $212 billion budget that is poised to pass today. The so-called excluded workers fund amounts to about 1 percent of a budget that also raises taxes on the state’s top earners with $4 billion in tax hikes, funds universal pre-K, and prepares a pathway for a casino to come to New York City. The relief fund for the undocumented is the most generous of any state and the largest such fund in the history of the country — making up for a lack of federal assistance to excluded workers — yet a last-minute change may sharply limit who can qualify for relief.

Video by P. Nick Curran

Last weekend, lawmakers, working behind closed doors with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, introduced a “tier system” that requires an undocumented person to prove that they lost their job because of the pandemic, otherwise limiting the amount of relief funds they would receive.

Workers can qualify for Tier 1 of the relief fund, which provides up to $15,600, by presenting Individual Tax Identification Numbers — known as ITINs, these numbers permit undocumented migrants or other nonresident migrants to pay federal taxes — or other official forms that attest to employment. Tier 2 would be for anyone who cannot provide proof of employment prior to the pandemic; those workers would receive only $3,200.

Ana Patricia, who didn’t want to give her last name for fear of retaliation from the government, is left wondering what funds she may be able to access. “I’m not sure if I’m going to qualify or not. I hope so, but I don’t know,” she said. She received no unemployment benefits after she was laid off last March, has no health insurance, and received no stimulus payments even though her son is a U.S. citizen.

Asked how she felt about having to provide documentation to qualify for Tier 1, she said, “I’m nervous, of course.”

The burdensome paradox of demanding documents from the undocumented is not lost on New York State Assembly Member Catalina Cruz, who represents heavily immigrant neighborhoods in Queens. Cruz was born in Colombia and was formerly undocumented. “I’m probably the member who represents the most undocumented workers in the state,” Cruz told The Intercept. (Ana Patricia lives in her district.) She hopes that with enough outreach, only “very few” people won’t qualify for Tier 1.

Murad Awawdeh, interim co-executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, acknowledged that the tier system wasn’t ideal, but NYIC and other advocacy groups will be pushing to secure data protection and data privacy for all applicants. Lamenting the need for a tier system, Awawdeh commented, “Our community tends to be defrauded; we’re not committing the fraud.”

Assembly member Catalina Cruz speaks as hundreds of restaurant owners and workers rally in Times Square in New York on December 15, 2020 to protest Governor Andrew Cuomo's closure of indoor dining and demand a bailout that'll save their livelihoods. (Photo by Lev Radin/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

New York State Assembly Member Catalina Cruz speaks as hundreds of restaurant owners and workers rally in Times Square on Dec. 15, 2020, in New York.

Photo: Lev Radin/Sipa via AP

To date, undocumented immigrants have been shut out of almost all unemployment relief, both nationally and on the state level. Mixed-status families (which include some undocumented and some documented members) have been able to obtain some relief from the third round of stimulus checks, which were distributed last month. But despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan, President Joe Biden’s coronavirus stimulus package of $1.9 trillion, hundreds of thousands of people just in New York state were left out of any relief. The virus tore through those communities in disproportionate numbers: A recent epidemiological study conducted in California found that Hispanic immigrants between 20 and 54 years old are up to 11 times more likely to die of Covid-19.

While “the federal government is catching up, but still falling short,” as Awawdeh put it, New York is now taking the lead. Months of advocacy, a weekslong hunger strike, and organizing from nongovernmental organizations and excluded workers resulted in the largest relief package for undocumented workers this country has ever seen. (In February, California passed a bill offering a one-time $600 stimulus payment to undocumented workers, with an extra $600 going to those making less than $75,000.)

While the fund is a welcome relief, in the end, it’s “a tiny little Band-Aid for a gigantic gash.”

The coalition of organizations had originally requested a $3.5 billion fund. They also proposed for it to include relief for people who have been recently incarcerated, but lawmakers crossed that off in eleventh hour negotiation sessions. In total, there are about half a million workers in New York who have been excluded from obtaining any unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic. And while the fund is a welcome relief, in the end, as Cruz put it, it’s “a tiny little Band-Aid for a gigantic gash.”

Victor, a dairy farm worker and a member of the organization Alianza Agrícola (“a group of workers that decided we wanted to be heard by society,” as he described it) has been working without papers in upstate New York for 16 years. He asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of being picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While he has an ITIN number and counts as a win any financial help offered to the undocumented, he’s concerned about how the money will be distributed. “They should be flexible. A lot of people lost their jobs and don’t have the paperwork,” he told The Intercept. Asked how he feels about sharing detailed personal information with the government, he said, “We’re always alert to danger. Until migration reform happens, we can never be calm. We have to be vigilant.”

Despite the coming financial relief, undocumented workers in New York will still not have access to health care. Advocates attempted to offer some pointed, though limited, help in that regard in this year’s proposed budget: $20 million to create a temporary state-funded plan for financially struggling New Yorkers who have had Covid-19 and are excluded from health coverage programs because of their immigration status. But that $20 million, which would have been about 0.01 percent of the final budget, was axed.

In Queens, which was “the epicenter of the epicenter” in the early months of the pandemic, the need is particularly pronounced. The virus ravaged that community in part due to the lack of accessible health care and affordable housing, forcing people to both live in crowded apartments and to work through quarantines, Cruz said.

A recent study found that gaps in insurance coverage accelerate the spread of epidemics. The study linked an extra 58,000 Covid-19 deaths across the country (including over 8,000 just in New York) to people not having health insurance.

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The challenges posed by limited access to health care extend beyond the pandemic. Around the same time that Ana Patricia was let go from her job last March, she started feeling a pain in her breast. She didn’t have money and was nervous about going to the hospital, but the swelling and the pain finally got so bad that, with Cruz’s help, she was seen at Queens’ Elmhurst Hospital, which serves patients of diverse backgrounds, including many migrants. She was glad to get basic treatment but said that she was poorly received: “A nurse told me I was sick because I was Mexican,” she said, calling out the ignorant racism. Meanwhile, she still wasn’t working.

“We still had to eat, and I had used up all of my money,” Ana Patricia said. “It hurts to say, it hurts to remember, but I didn’t even have money to buy milk for my son. He asked for milk, and I couldn’t give it to him.”

Cruz understands Ana Patricia’s position. “We have to prove that we’re worth it. Me, my people, my family, we have to prove that we’re worthy,” she told The Intercept. She has been pushing to extend rights — including the right to counsel in immigration court proceedings and access to state public benefits regardless of immigration status — to undocumented communities since taking office in 2019 and currently leads the New York State Assembly’s Task Force on New Americans. Despite some wins, including in this year’s budget, it’s been an uphill battle.

“We’ve been good enough for you to take care of your children,” Cruz said. “We’ve been good enough for you to clean your house, to harvest your fields, to deliver your food in the midst of a pandemic, and we’ve been paying into the system, but when it came time to treat us like humans and help us survive, there was opposition.”

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