On April 19, 2021, after over a year of civil disobedience from immigrant rights advocates including hunger strikes, protests in front of Jeff Bezos’ house, and a bridge shutdown, New York state’s immigrant rights community successfully got a relief fund for undocumented workers into the state budget. It was rightly hailed as monumental in its scope: more than $2.1 billion would be available to people without legal immigration status across the state — a number estimated at about 800,000 people of working age. Of those, up to 290,000 are expected to receive relief, according to Fiscal Policy Institute.
The fund officially opened to applications on August 2. But advocates are concerned that people who need the most assistance could be shut out by the state’s strict requirements.
Since before the fund began accepting applications on August 2, advocates feared that proving identity, residence and lost income would be hurdles for immigrants. When those regulations were made public July 27, days before the fund opened to applicants, some of those fears were borne out.
“Because the regulations were so stringent and did not allow for the kind of documentation that our community members might have access to, it’s unfortunately going to be shutting out a number of workers, maybe thousands, especially from the cash economy system,” says Vanessa Agudelo, a Peekskill, NY councilperson and a manager of public engagement for the Hudson Valley with the non-profit New York Immigrant Coalition.
When the federal government provided several rounds of federal relief in 2020 and 2021, people without legal immigration status were explicitly excluded from stimulus checks and shut out of federal boosts to unemployment payments by default. (Undocumented people are unable to receive unemployment insurance.) The Fund Excluded Workers coalition, which consists of over 200 organizations across the state, formed almost immediately after statewide shutdowns, pressuring the legislature to compensate immigrants excluded from federal relief by raising taxes on the wealthy.
David Kallick, deputy director of Fiscal Policy Institute, says the Excluded Workers Fund should be celebrated for its size and scope. In a report, Kallick wrote that if aid actually goes out as planned, there would be positive effects on immigrant neighborhoods that would impact the entire New York economy.
“The businesses in the downtown areas where immigrants live are going to be buoyed by this aid,” Kallick says. Additionally, “undocumented workers will put the money quickly back into circulation by buying food and necessities for their families,” he wrote in the report.
Carina Kaufman-Gutierez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project, said the fact that that program disburses money through the Department of Labor rather than non-profits was important and one of the key advocacy areas of the coalition. This would reflect the state’s long-shirked responsibility to undocumented immigrants, she says.
“We wanted to make sure it was coming from a state institution and not through non-profits because that’s not a sustainable model,” Kaufman-Gutierez says, “and also for the state to recognize the responsibility that it has to look out for all New Yorkers regardless of immigration status.”
But advocates are disappointed by the Department of Labor’s final list of requirements.
The state set up a two-tier system to disburse funds. Workers who qualify for the first tier will get $15,600, roughly equal to annual payments through state unemployment insurance. The second tier will pay $3200, equivalent to the three rounds of stimulus that went out in 2020 and 2021, and will have looser requirements.
The state has assigned point values to different types of documentation to prove identity and residency. To prove lost income, workers can mix and match from requirements with different point values to qualify for either the lower or higher tier. Documentation that carries more points includes proof of tax returns, six weeks of pay stubs, or a letter from an employer stating the applicant’s income and their reason for losing income. These documents carry the highest point value of 5.
Less points are assigned for employer issued ID cards, toll or parking receipts, or written communication between the worker and an employer proving a work relationship.
Since funds opened, advocates have been focused on making sure that people can access the money at the highest tier. But first, people have to apply, which has meant getting the word out.
“It will never be enough to develop a program and just get it up on the web particularly for undocumented folks,” says Marco Castillo, who organizes with Red De Pueblos Transnacionales (Transnational Villages Network).
To that end, the state’s Department of Labor offered $10 million in grants to non-profit organizations to conduct outreach, in amounts between $50,000 and $300,000. Castillo says the money has gone to larger immigrant rights organizations within the coalition, like Make The Road NY and New York Immigrant Coalition. Transnational Villages Network, a smaller organization, did not qualify for funds they were hoping to use for laptops and to hire additional organizers.
“This type of crisis makes big organizations bigger, and sometimes small organizations smaller, because we also get caught up in the game of not having sufficient proof to back up access to larger funds,” Castillo says.
But he says it’s good that the state is actually working with organizations within the Fund Excluded Workers coalition to handle outreach. “It’s a very good practice that the state government is working closely with the organizations that pushed for the fund,” he says.
Outreach workers are also aware that many who qualify for the funds may be concerned about how their information is being used, given the federal government’s history of requesting data on undocumented people from state agencies.
Kaufman-Guttierez says Street Vendor Project has been doing on the ground outreach focused on making sure people understand what documents they have to assemble and, where needed, do translation.
She says community-members, including vendors, do the best outreach. “Vendors are members of the community that they are serving,” she says. That includes vendors in Corona Plaza in Queens and Fordham Road in the Bronx, hubs for street vendors where many undocumented immigrants congregate. Some of these vendors even put QR codes on their carts that link to more information about the fund, she says.
Advocates expect over 10,000 people to apply in the first month, which will require a lot of support. “It’s going to require a lot of work from civil society to spread the voice and make sure we have folks applying for this,” Castillo says.
When the fund opened to applications on August 2, advocates say, immigrant workers immediately faced challenges compiling acceptable documentation.
Agudelo says that already, many workers who were hoping to qualify for Tier 1 of the funding are being relegated to Tier 2 because of a lack of documentation. The requirements are especially difficult for people in the cash economy, like street vendors, who can’t produce end of year pay stubs or letters from employers.
Adding to the concern, the Department of Labor added several last-minute rules, including a requirement that a worker needs to have lost 50 percent of their income to qualify, and a requirement that workers prove that they worked at least 15 hours per week for at least 6 weeks in the six-month period before they lost income. These stipulations create complications for people who may have lost work prior to the pandemic, as well as day laborers who experienced seasonal slowdowns coinciding with the winter months that preceded the pandemic.
“We were hoping the regulations would provide more clarity and flexibility,” Agudelo says.
But she says the Department of Labor, which is continually negotiating with the coalition, has shown willingness to make guidelines more clear for workers and eventually loosen restrictions. Many of the requirements for the first tier of funding are locked into place by state legislation, but the Department of Labor has some flexibility to broaden the accepted documentation for both tiers.
While it’s too early to say how many people will be shut out of funding, New York State and Governor Kathy Hochul would likely not want to duplicate the state’s rent relief bottleneck. As of early August, New York has sent less than 5 percent of its $2 billion in emergency rental assistance to landlords and renters.
In fact, Castillo says many immigrant community members faced similar challenges trying to access Emergency Rental Assistance funds. Those federal rent relief funds did not statutorily discriminate based on immigration status, unlike other forms of federal relief, but the process was far more difficult for people without legal immigration status.
Despite the hurdles of accessing Excluded Worker Fund relief, advocates don’t want immigrants to feel intimidated and do want them to apply for as much relief as possible. “We believe everyone deserves the first tier,” Castillo says. “Our commitment is to make sure that folks don’t feel discouraged and apply for the first tier as much as they can.”
While far more immigrant New Yorkers are receiving income than in April 2020 when the state was completely shut down, Castillo says many people excluded from federal relief are in debt from the early months of the pandemic.
“It’s not just going back to work, they’re going back to work struggling, to make ends meet and pay back what they owe,” he says. “Many of them without having the chance to grieve for the loss of someone.”
This is why, even if the $2.1 billion from the state’s fund are disbursed within a few months, advocates are looking ahead to getting more money to communities. The estimated 290,000 people who could receive Excluded Worker Fund money constitute less than half of undocumented people of working age across the state.
Castillo says that in many ways the Excluded Workers Fund is a model for other states, in terms of the collaboration between government and civil society.
“On the other hand,” he says, “New York is also a reference of what should not happen.” One reason for this is because the funds did not come soon enough, he says. “This was needed at least 8 months ago,” Castillo says. And the application process has also left much to be desired. He says the state could have been more creative and flexible to make pandemic relief as easily accessible for undocumented people as it was for people with full citizenship.
“There’s still a lot that needs to be learned,” he says.
Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.