After months of talks with immigrant advocates, Gov. Jay Inslee is setting up a $40 million relief fund for people who can’t access federal stimulus programs because of their immigration status.
The fund will make Washington one of only a few states, including California and Oregon, to use government funds to provide financial assistance to undocumented immigrants harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Inslee is starting another $3 million fund for food-production workers — whether undocumented immigrants or not — who become ill and are staying home.
This governor’s announcement of the funds comes as COVID-19 surges through Washington’s Latino population, including documented and undocumented immigrant farmworkers who have continued working throughout the pandemic. Among Washingtonians testing positive for the novel coronavirus as of Aug. 9, 43% were Latinos, who represent only 13% of the state’s population.
Also, many undocumented immigrants, like millions of others in the U.S., were thrown out of work. But federal restrictions rendered them ineligible for $1,200 stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, including the extra $600 a week that just expired (scaled back to $400 in a proposal by President Donald Trump). Undocumented immigrants who own businesses also couldn’t receive a federal Paycheck Protection loan.
Inslee’s new relief funds come from a pool of federal CARES Act money that is not tied to restrictions on immigration status, according to Mike Faulk, a spokesman for the governor.
The $40 million Immigrant Relief Fund will distribute $1,000 grants per individual, up to $3,000 per family, beginning in October and running through December, according to Faulk and a request for proposals from nonprofits wanting to administer the fund.
“We have to ensure that no one in our state is left behind as we fight this pandemic,” Inslee said in a statement as he announced the $40 million fund. “COVID-19 doesn’t care what your immigration status is. We must support every family affected by the virus, especially those who lack the necessary means to quarantine or isolate and prevent further spread.”
A large coalition of immigrant advocates had pushed for $100 million, but members nevertheless declared themselves pleased.
“We’re really excited,” said Robin Engle, a spokeswoman for OneAmerica, a member of the coalition. One thousand dollars can help someone repair a car, pay rent or buy food, she said.
At the same time, Engle said, the fund is not enough to deal with all the need. An estimated 229,000 undocumented immigrants live in Washington, she pointed out, referring to figures from the Migration Policy Institute.
“We kind of see it as a down payment,” said Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa, an organizer with the Washington Dream Coalition, also involved in talks with Inslee’s office. He said he’s hoping that the state will allocate additional funds when the $40 million runs out in December. By that time, the Legislature will be in session, and he expects its members to weigh in.
For the past few months, the Dream Coalition has been distributing its own fund for undocumented immigrants. It raised $6 million from various donors, including foundations and an anonymous tech executive, and so far has given away half the amount to 3,500 individuals, Quiñonez Figueroa said.
Other organizations have also stepped in. Mercy Corps Northwest has given out more than $120,000 in grants to 24 undocumented immigrants around the Puget Sound who own businesses but couldn’t get a Paycheck Protection loan. They include two immigrants who run cleaning companies and one who has a catering business.
Organizations who work with undocumented immigrants say they have been hearing stories of distress from restaurant workers, child-care staffers and housekeepers, among others. One mother of three children, ages 1, 4 and 6, lost her restaurant job and was homeless. She called in to a hotline run by the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (1-844-724-3737) — originally set up to report immigration raids but now offering referrals for COVID relief — looking for the safest place in King County to sleep outdoors.
Rent and utility bills keep piling up, said two undocumented immigrants in Pacific County interviewed by The Seattle Times recently. Both are mothers of six.
One was laid off from a marijuana industry job in February and looked for months for a new job. She had just started working again at a crab-processing plant. She owed two months of rent and utility payments, which her landlord had covered.
The landlord was understanding but “it still stresses me out,” she said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. One day, she said, she would have to pay it all.