An injury, lost work, and thousands of dollars in overdue rent left one Lake City family of five in a precarious situation, until a check from the state — pandemic relief funds designated specifically for immigrants — provided a needed safety net.

Two separate grants offered by the city and the state have provided cash assistance of up to $3,000 per household to immigrants ineligible for federal stimulus money from the CARES Act.

The check allowed Maria, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, to pay some of the $7,000 in rent that had accumulated after her husband — the family’s sole wage-earner — lost work after an injury at the beginning of the pandemic.

The family had been ineligible for federal pandemic assistance due to Maria’s immigration status. At a loss, she applied for grants with the help of her English-speaking daughter and has since received $4,000 in city and state funding.

“Now I can be more relaxed knowing that I have something to support us,” Maria said in Spanish. She asked not to use her last name because of her immigration status.

Over the next week, thousands of immigrants throughout Washington who applied by the Dec. 6 deadline will receive the remainder of statewide funding. But the future remains uncertain for many in the new year. While the money helped recipients cover their basic needs, advocates worry the one-time payments won’t be enough.

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“All of these folks who are getting assistance are people who are contributing to our community and paying taxes, but they’re often shut out from support when they need it,” said Jorge Baron, executive director of nonprofit Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which provided legal advice to the applicants.

Undocumented immigrants have been hit hard during the pandemic. They were ineligible for the federal stimulus check, as well as unemployment benefits and the Paycheck Protection Program. Additionally, spouses and U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants were denied federal stimulus checks. In Washington, that affected an estimated 240,000 undocumented immigrants.

More help may be on the way. While there are currently no plans to offer additional grants to immigrants at the city level, Seattle officials might consider another round of funding if federal legislation passes that helps vulnerable residents in local municipalities, said Joaquin Uy, external affairs manager and policy advisor at Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee announced additional funds of $22.6 million and $10 million in the state supplemental budget to continue supporting immigrant communities, according to Alejandro Sanchez, a special assistant to the governor.

At the federal level, the $900 billion COVID relief bill passed by Congress on Monday would allow mixed-status households with undocumented family members to receive $600 per adult, as well as $600 for dependent children under age 17. The bill awaits the president’s signature.

“While an important step forward, this bill is still deeply inadequate to meet the unprecedented economic needs of the moment,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said in a statement. “Moving forward, Congress must recognize that immigrants continue to play essential roles during the pandemic and beyond. All of us deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity no matter how much money we make, or where we were born.”

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The Need

The city’s $7.94 million grant from Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs provided cash assistance to over 3,700 people. Applications were open from Oct. 15 to Nov. 5, and eligible Seattle applicants received money by Dec. 2. The disaster relief funding came from the city’s $45 million COVID relief bill passed last summer.

Meanwhile, the state’s $40 million in relief funding for immigrants originated from federal CARES Act money that had no restrictions on immigration status. Over the remaining days of 2020, the rest of the $38 million from the Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund will be distributed to 5,000 immigrants. So far, around 33,000 people have received grants. 

Additionally, the newly passed federal COVID relief bill would retroactively make mixed-status families eligible for the $1,200 per household check from the CARES Act, from which they were excluded earlier this year. 

Both funds were open to immigrants at least 18 years old who were ineligible for unemployment insurance or federal financial relief. Applications that met the minimum criteria for the statewide fund were prioritized based on need, such as losing employment during the pandemic, Sanchez said. Additionally, eligible applicants of the citywide fund were required to earn under 50% of Seattle’s median household income. For example, a household of one would need to make under $29,063.

Dozens of nonprofits were contracted by the state or city to conduct outreach and to educate residents about the separate funds. Asian Counseling and Referral Service was hired to inform program participants about the statewide fund. The Seattle-based nonprofit also worked with community partners to spread the word.

While online applications were available in multiple languages, including in Spanish and Mandarin, language barriers remained an issue. Maria’s daughter, for example, translated the application questions into Spanish, and recorded the responses in English.

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“If my daughter hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been able to fill it out. I’m not very good with technology,” Maria said.

In addition, participants voiced concern about their safety, said Michael Byun, executive director of the counseling agency.

“Due to their immigration status and the current political climate, these communities have difficulty trusting they will be able to access economic relief programs without repercussions that could hurt them and their families,” Byun said.

Under the Trump administration’s public charge rule, the federal Department of Homeland Security may reject immigrants’ visa or green card applications if the applicants are considered likely to use some housing programs or public benefits such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project informed concerned participants that their applications would not fall under the public charge rule. Its team also helped applicants fill out the statewide application.

“One of the early challenges was that the need for assistance was so high that it was difficult for the fund to immediately respond to all the requests for assistance,” Baron said.       

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To meet the need for additional help, nonprofit Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network transformed a hotline customarily used to field immigration questions to respond to pandemic-related needs. The hotline also became an application assistance portal.      

The Seattle Credit Union, on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle, disbursed funds from the state’s COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Nonprofits with direct community relations were also tapped to assuage any distrust participants have toward public agencies. Seattle Credit Union, at no cost to the state, served as the sole distributor of the Washington COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund and sent recipients checks or gift cards. Some of the recipients did not have bank accounts, so the credit union encouraged them to create those.

“This population is highly affected by COVID and unemployment and they didn’t have a lot of resources to get help,” credit union CEO Richard Romero said.

The coalition of immigrant-led organizations collectively advocated for additional funding, citing the increased need of vulnerable populations to have support. 

“For these communities, this has shown that advocacy efforts can result in meaningful relief resources, and that we should continue to push for economic relief that helps all Washingtonians, regardless of their immigration status,” said Byun from Asian Counseling and Referral Service.