Diana Manosalvas had been searching Instagram for information on getting help with the Excluded Workers Fund when the sponsored ad popped up. It was from a tax preparation office and offered to help individuals with the applications for the aid program.
Manosalvas’ family was in desperate need of the money — her husband, a mechanical electrician, couldn’t find work for several months after March 2020, just as they had both welcomed a new baby girl into the world. With two other children, all of who are cramped into a Washington Heights one bedroom apartment, the family is hoping to move somewhere more spacious soon.
So when Manosalvas, 34, saw the ad, she and her husband jumped at the opportunity to get help with the Excluded Workers Fund application and contacted the tax preparation office immediately.
But when the tax preparer told them they would have to send him copies of sensitive documents over WhatsApp and relayed that Manosalvas and her husband would have to pay $300 if they qualified for the aid, Manosalvas and her husband pulled back.
“I didn’t think it was trustworthy,” Manosalvas said. “It seemed like it was a scam.” Nevertheless, it was a close call, and she is sure that others will pay for this service. “There are people taking advantage of the situation,” Manosalvas said.
Immigrant New Yorkers are scrambling to apply to the Excluded Workers Fund in hopes that they can get back at least a fraction of what they’ve lost. But tax representatives, paralegals and others are capitalizing on a situation which has left immigrant communities in urgent need of benefits, by offering their services to fill out applications for a fee through social media advertisements.
In recent years, this situation has repeated itself time and time again, advocates said. It happened in 2019 when undocumented immigrants were first allowed to get driver’s licenses in the state of New York. It happened in June of 2021 when applications opened in New York for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
“We have always seen this,” said Jorge Torres, of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON). “Our community has to know that we will always be exposed to exploitation and exclusion.”
Immigration advocates are concerned that communities that are already struggling financially will, once more, spend hundreds of dollars on applications that can be completed free of charge.
Back in March, New Yorkers went on hunger strike for more than 20 days to push state leaders to create the Excluded Workers Fund (EWF) for undocumented immigrants. The EWF was passed on April 8 as a historic $2.1 billion fund that provides relief similar to unemployment benefit payments to undocumented immigrants and other workers.
Those who qualify could receive a one time payment of up to $15,600 (before taxes), so long as they can submit the required documentation needed.
After the EWF application opened the week of August 2, ads sprung up across social media from tax preparers saying they could facilitate the application process. Nicole Rojas, a community organizer for Mixteca, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Sunset Park, said that she heard of people paying tax preparation services for the Emergency Rental Assistance application.
When Mixteca organizers told their constituents that they offered free aid, community members said some places charged anywhere from $200 to $400 to assist with EWF paperwork and with emergency rental assistance applications.
“It’s important that we tell folks from the very beginning that these services are free and that they can refer folks to us or any other organizations that are working on this,’” Rojas said.
“Community members are trying to rush to apply for that fear of being excluded once again.”
One New York paralegal, whose phone number was being passed around WhatsApp, said that she was working individually from an office, and was charging $100-$200 to help with the Excluded Workers Fund application.
When contacted by Documented, a tax preparation service in Queens said it charges $300 for application assistance, though it noted that there were organizations that could help for free. Another tax services office, based in the Bronx, said it was charging from $300 to $600 for application assistance — if people ended up qualifying and received the money.
As with other benefits like the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, the demand is especially high to get the application done as soon as possible and receive the money, so many immigrants may turn to the first sign of help they may see, which could be a post on Instagram or an advertisement on the radio.
Some immigrants also already work with specific tax preparers, Rojas said, so they may just turn to them to ask for help with the Excluded Workers Fund application and end up spending hundreds of extra dollars.
Local organizations like Mixteca and Make the Road New York are ramping up their outreach so that communities are aware that the application can be filled out for free. Make the Road hosts weekly Facebook Live events where members answer questions about the application. They also offer training kits, application guides and have started in-person application fairs where they travel to different neighborhoods to facilitate the application process.
“What community members should know is that there is free help out there,” said Yatziri Tovar, a spokeswoman for Make the Road NY. “We know that these excluded workers, they have been excluded from relief, they need this money.” It is imperative to get the message “as far and wide as possible that this application is free,” she said. ”It’s outrageous for them to have to pay hundreds of dollars to just simply apply.”
Despite these efforts, some groups say that this outreach may not be enough to provide backing to the tens of thousands of immigrants who likely are looking for guidance in the application. “The demand is higher than we can handle at the moment,” Rojas said. “We definitely do need more support.”
Other advocates note that organizations must take additional steps to ensure that immigrants don’t turn to those taking advantage of them for application help. “We are very worried,” Torres said about individuals charging for EWF assistance. The advertising from places like tax preparation offices makes it look like with their aid, the EWF funding is “guaranteed,” he said. But it’s not, Torres added.
Though the application does not take a long time to fill out with the right documents, providing a work history in particular is challenging for some undocumented immigrants, Rojas of Mixteca said. Having a Tax ID number is recommended for the application, but many people’s numbers may have expired or they may not have one. For others, it can be difficult to prove their employment through a letter from their employer.
Some of these steps can seem overwhelming, potentially prompting people to immediately seek help at a tax preparer or private law firm. The sheer amount of documents necessary for the application is what first prompted Manosalvas, the mother of three living in Washington Heights, to seek out a tax preparer.
“At first, we thought it was similar to doing taxes,” she said, adding that she needs to pay someone to help her file every year. But once she looked over the application closely a few times, she was able to get everything done in about 30 minutes.
Her family is still trying to recover from the four months they spent without any income during the pandemic, and the fear of not receiving the EWF funds almost led them to pay for services which she now knows can be completed for free, she said. “We were left basically without any savings,” she said. “This money would be a huge help.”