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Mar 29, 2024

Prepaid Debit Cards for Families of Migrants in NYC, Explained

NYC is providing 500 asylum seeker families with debit cards exclusively for purchasing food and baby supplies at local stores.

By Rommel H. Ojeda and Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio

New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a pilot program to provide pre-paid debit cards to 500  asylum seeker families with children. The debit cards, administered by the company Mobility Capital Finance (MoCaFi), will be solely used for migrants to buy food and baby supplies at bodegas, grocery stores and supermarkets. 

The program is one of the efforts introduced by the Adams’ administration to reduce spending on food provided in shelters, while improving the access to cooked, nutritious and culturally appropriate food — which has been a point of contention between the administration and immigrant advocates. 

The announcement of the program received backlash from right-wing publications and saw various levels of misinformation shared in social media platforms including TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. “The suggestion that New York City is handing out thousands of dollars in free cash to migrants who are only in our care for 60 days is not only false, but also contractually impossible,” Kayla Mamelak, Deputy Press Secretary for City Hall, told Documented.

Also Read: Fintech CEO Defends NYC Plan to Give Prepaid Debit Cards to Migrants

What is the purpose of the prepaid debit card program announced by Mayor Eric Adams?

The MoCaFi pilot program aims to distribute prepaid debit cards, known as Immediate Response Cards (IRC), to migrant families to buy food and baby supplies. “It can only be utilized at supermarkets and bodegas, and it is expected to save the city millions of dollars in services for families with children in our care,” Mamelak said. 

Who is eligible?

The program is currently in a pilot phase, and therefore it will be only available to 500 migrant families with children who have been selected to participate in the initiative. 

Can single migrants receive prepaid debit cards?

At the moment the program is only available for families with children. 

Graphic by Rommel H Ojeda for Documented

Where can I apply?

Applications are not available to the public yet. The program is undergoing a pilot phase and it is limited to 500 families. The cards are being distributed to the selected families, after they have been assigned to a shelter, by the IRC team at The Roosevelt Hotel. 

When will the debit card program start?

The pilot program began rolling out on Monday and by next week about 115 cards will have gone to roughly 460 people who are placed in 28-day shelter stays through the Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

How much money will each family receive on the debit card?

The amount of money that each family will receive on the card will be based on the family size and age of children, following SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) guidelines. The city will begin by loading only one week of funds onto the cards at a time. As an example, a family of four with two children under five will receive about $350 each week through the end of their stay. 

Also Read: New York Food: How to Apply for SNAP, Find Food Pantries, and More

Are there restrictions on how the debit card can be used?

Yes, the card can only be used at bodegas, grocery stores, and supermarkets.  It cannot be used to withdraw cash or for cash back transactions. It is designed primarily for purchasing necessities like food and baby items. 

What if the debit card is lost or stolen, or if assistance is needed?

A 24/7 call center is available for cardholders to report lost or stolen cards, check balances, or receive other assistance. Support is available in Spanish automatically and in other languages during business hours.

What misconceptions exist about the program?

Common misconceptions include beliefs that the program offers credit cards, provides cash in large sums without restrictions. The cards will solely be used to purchase food and or baby supplies. 

Mamelak reiterated “all families involved will be required to sign an affidavit affirming that they will be using these cards for the intended purposes, and anyone who violates the terms risks being removed from the pilot program.”

What are the future hopes for the debit card program?

The primary aim is to improve the experience for migrants by expanding access to cooked and culturally appropriate food, while also permitting the city to save money.  

Depending on the success of the program, “we can use this concept in other places that are providing food services,” Adams said in a press conference in February.  

Can a family be removed from the program?

Yes. As it will violate the affidavit signed when receiving the card,  if misuse of the card is detected, such as spending outside the intended categories, the family can be removed from the program, and funds can be withdrawn from the card. 

How will the success of the pilot program be evaluated for expansion?

The pilot’s success will be assessed based on feedback and how well the cards meet the intended needs. If successful, the program may be expanded to utilize the full allocation of $53 million under contract with MoCaFi.

This article will be updated as more information becomes available. 

Rommel H. Ojeda
Rommel is a bilingual journalist and filmmaker based in NYC. He is the community correspondent for Documented. His work focuses on immigration, and issues affecting the Latinx communities in New York.
Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio
Giulia McDonnell Nieto del Rio is a Report for America Corps Member who covers immigration for Documented, where she focuses on immigration courts and detention.
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