Immigrant advocacy groups are working their way through uncharted territory as they begin providing coronavirus relief to undocumented New Yorkers in the form of cash supplements, a step they say is necessary because state and city government have left a void.
For most organizations, this looks like collecting funds online and re-distributing them to their communities through multiple channels. For many groups, the COVID-19 pandemic is the first time they are providing direct cash assistance at a large scale, and it’s been challenging, they say. Moreover, many organizers feel that the massive new efforts they’re making to redistribute funds to financially devastated immigrants reflects neglect on the part of state and city governments.
Direct cash assistance can be a complex process. Fundraising, accounting, and disbursement all require planning and documentation. Some organizations have used apps like Venmo or Cash App to transfer relief funds to immigrant New Yorkers left out of federal stimulus funding. But for many undocumented residents, this process is complicated further as some don’t have email or a bank account, two requirements for most digital payment platforms.
Even for groups well-versed at fundraising, the amount and pace at which money is currently flowing into their systems and out into the hands of people is unprecedented. Make The Road NY began campaigning under the banner #sharemycheck in April. Their COVID Emergency Response Fund has raised $900,000. That money has now been spread across 4,000 households in the form of prepaid debit cards. Recipients are mostly members of the Make The Road community and people affiliated with that community, but they seek donations on behalf of all vulnerable workers and low-income immigrant families.
These fundraising networks can have immense consequences for people like Daniel, a 44-year-old construction worker and resident of Catskill, N.Y. He speaks both English and Spanish and got involved with the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement (CCSM), a local Hudson Valley advocacy organization, to help other immigrants apply for driver’s licenses.
In February, he was arrested by ICE agents. CCSM helped him find a lawyer, but he was charged a $14,000 bond to leave custody, an amount he’s never had on hand. He worked with CCSM and other organizations to raise portions of his bond on GoFundMe. Soon after he was released, lockdowns started and his work slowed. “My situation became even more difficult,” Daniel said. When the executive director of CCSM, Bryan MacCormack, mentioned a funding campaign they were running, Daniel applied.
Unlike other aid he had applied for in the past, the Mano a Mano fund was just one link and one online application. No interviews, no questions. “It all worked very fast,” Daniel said. Two weeks later, he had money to pay for rent and other expenses.
The Undocu Workers Fund a grassroots initiative started by Sahra Nguyen, founder of Nguyen Coffee Supply, and Audrey Pan, an organizer with the Revolutionizing Asian American Immigrant Stories on the East Coast (RAISE), has collected over $55,000 for New York City residents since it launched in March. Originally dedicated to undocumented people working in restaurants who had lost their jobs, the fund now invites any undocumented person in any borough to apply.
“The need is so insane,” said Sahra Nguyen, one of the organizers of that campaign. “After the last round, we had to fundraise another 20k, and then we opened up the eligibility form again, and in less than 24 hours we had 1,600 submissions. In under a day.”
The fund asks applicants to confirm two things: are you an undocumented person? Are you unable to work at this time? This may seem light, but organizers at multiple funds cited concern that applying for financial resources can be potentially traumatizing. Applications and interviewers may ask intrusive questions in order for recipients to demonstrate their need in a way that can feel dehumanizing. Instead, rapid response mutual aid efforts tend to assume that if people are asking for help, it means they really need it.
“We know times are stressful enough as is, and we are focused on redirecting resources to impacted folks without the strain of bureaucratic systems,” said Nguyen.
“When we started we wanted to keep it really accessible and easy for people to donate,” Nguyen said. Venmo appeared to be the best option, but they ran into problems. Venmo has person-to-person sending limits which The Undocu Workers Fund quickly maxed. Then, Nguyen learned that a number of the recipients on their list didn’t have mobile banking.
“We’re becoming more aware that not everyone who’s impacted in the community we want to serve is tech savvy. Not everyone has email, or they can’t fill out the eligibility form, or maybe they don’t have PayPal or Venmo,” Nguyen said.
To breach these gaps, the fund is trying workarounds and has sent portions of the money raised to Mekong NYC, and Adhikaar, two Bronx-based organizations who will disperse directly to their community members without access to digital payments.
Another New York City group providing aid for the first time is the legal services organization Unlocal. Executive Director Michele Lampach was hesitant to take on cash assistance at first. She was in the middle of applying for emergency funds to keep Unlocal itself afloat when her staff approached her about starting a campaign. “It came from enough clients asking enough of their attorneys and their staff. The staff was like we need this, and we need it quickly,” Lampach said.
As of May 6, Unlocal’s fund had raised $20,500 in pandemic relief. The funds will support their clients facing removal, and also a selection of non-clients that reached out to them on social media. Unlocal primarily provides legal representation in the immigration courts, and not online fundraising. But right now, “people literally just need money,” Lampach said.
Unlocal will be offering recipients Venmo, check, gift card, and Cash App as ways to receive payments. “We’re hopeful that with the variety of options we’re providing, even if folks are not banked, they’ll be able to tap into one method of distribution,” Lampach said.
The Columbia County Sanctuary Movement has raised $37,000 in mutual aid. Previously, CCSM felt incapable of providing direct cash assistance sustainably. “We’ve been in conversation about emergency funds in the past but in a different context around specific families emergencies or raising money for bonds,” MacCormack said.
CCSM’s Mano a Mano mutual aid fund is restricted to immigrants living in Columbia and Greene counties. The organization is giving one-time grants of $300 per household. So far they have moved $19,000 to 63 households. CCSM decided to distribute all grants in cash for two reasons. “The majority of our community does not use banks. The majority of applicants were asking for cash anyway,” said MacCormack.
Delivering cash in-person also allows staff members to check in with recipients and share general information, know your rights information, census info, and healthcare info from a local clinic.
“The money actually came on rent day, and that helped me a lot,” Daniel said. He used his grant to help cover the rent and utility bills, and he said that other families he recommended the fund to were doing the same.
Daniel was relieved to receive aid in cash. “It’s really difficult for me to open a bank account. I have to provide documents that I don’t have,” he said.
Correction: This article was amended to show that The Undocu Workers Fund was created by Sahra Nguyen and Audrey Bao, an organizer with RAISE