Undocumented workers ‘completely adrift’ as crisis persists

In the waning days of August, Elia had enough money to either pay for next

In the waning days of August, Elia had enough money to either pay for next month’s rent or cover back-to-school expenses for her two teenage children. But not both.

It was the latest in a long line of financial dilemmas that Elia, an undocumented domestic worker from Mexico, has faced since the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in March decimated her client list. Clients, she explained, discontinued her cleaning services because they worried about her bringing the virus into their homes.

The ensuing belt-tightening has been severe.

“The first thing that you stop buying are personal items. My kids and I, we are making do with what we already have,” said Elia, who asked to withhold her full name for fear of reprisal. “No new clothes, no new shoes. There’s no money for that.”

The income she still pulls in from the handful of clients she has left goes to utilities, rent and food.

“But it’s not like before. Before, I could buy chicken or fish, and have some leftover money to save. … Now it’s mostly frijoles, rice or lentils.”

While more than 3.7 million Floridians have received unemployment assistance and more than 100,000 Florida businesses received Paycheck Protection Program aid, undocumented workers like Elia have been scrambling to survive.

Immigrants without legal status have not received the $1,200 stimulus checks that the federal government sent out as part of the CARES Act, a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed in March.

Other key support programs — including the state’s SNAP food stamps program, which has seen one million new enrollees since the pandemic began — are also off limits. Without a car, Elia is unable to get to free food distributions. To supplement her pantry, she’s had to rely on the generosity of friends who occasionally swing by with groceries.

In the absence of federal assistance for immigrant households, some state and local governments have stepped up to fill the gap. In April, California created a $75 million disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants that disbursed one-time cash payments of $500 to approximately 150,000 adults. At the municipal level, cities ranging from Austin to Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., have rolled out similar programs.

But neither Florida nor Miami-Dade have created relief initiatives specifically targeting undocumented households.

One of the two candidates for Miami-Dade mayor, Daniella Levine Cava, has said that if elected, she would support aid for undocumented workers. “Some of the CARES money through a variety of means can be made available regardless of immigration status, but where that is not possible again as our county leader I would make sure that everybody who is living here and contributing would have the necessary protections to continue to thrive and be healthy. It’s a benefit to them and it’s a benefit to our entire community … so I would fight for that,” she said at an August forum. Her opponent, Esteban Bovo, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the matter.

In fact, one local program supporting low-income families who have lost income because of COVID-19 — a $10 million rent relief fund launched by the county in July — was closed to undocumented residents because applicants were required to show a driver’s license to confirm identity.

“I think what is unfortunate is that our local and state governments have sided with the federal government and really sustained that exclusion,” said Oscar Londoño, executive director of WeCount!, a South Dade immigrant workers’ center. “What we have seen on the ground is that there’s been a lack of political will and courage to confront the fact that this epidemic and the economic crisis are disproportionately impacting undocumented workers.”

But it’s not just undocumented immigrants who have been locked out of key sources of COVID-19 relief.

Also excluded from the stimulus check distributions were U.S. citizens and green card holders who are part of mixed-status families, meaning they file taxes jointly with someone who doesn’t have a Social Security number. In Florida, that added up to nearly 230,000, according to an estimate from the Migration Policy Institute.

Among those people is Kim Liu, a U.S. citizen whose wife, a recent immigrant from Venezuela, has no Social Security number.

The pandemic has forced Liu to close her acupuncture clinic. Like many Florida residents, Liu also found herself unable to get relief from the state’s malfunctioning unemployment insurance system. Then, she realized she was ineligible for the federal government’s stimulus program because of her wife’s status.

“I was actually very offended,” she said. “I felt like I was being discriminated against because of who I’m married to.”

With her bank account slipping into a negative balance, Liu says $1,200 of stimulus money from the CARES Act would have gone a long way.

“I was worried that we were going to get our water or our electricity cut off,” she said. “When my friends and neighbors heard that we didn’t get the stimulus check, a lot of them started helping out a little bit with food and some groceries. … But I actually didn’t even want to ask for any help because I felt so embarrassed.”

LOCAL NONPROFITS TRY BRIDGING THE GAP

With governmental assistance missing many immigrant households, local nonprofits and advocacy groups have tried filling the gap by funneling direct mutual aid to those left behind during the recovery.

Just days after the CARES Act was passed in late March, WeCount! launched its immigrant worker COVID-19 relief fund. Since its creation, the fund has distributed more than $150,000 in direct cash transfers to more than 500 local families.

“We knew from the start that our goal wasn’t to replace the state. Our goal was to meet an immediate survival need in our community,” said Londoño.

WeCount!’s assistance is meant for “people who are really at the margins and have been excluded from COVID-19 stimulus,” Londoño said. It comes in the form of one-time payments of either $250 or $500.

Applicants submit online and then, if deemed eligible, pick up the cash payments in person at WeCount!’s Homestead office. The money, according to Londoño, ends up going toward recipients’ basic necessities, including phone bills, food and medical costs, and rent.

Among those who have benefited from WeCount!’s fund are immigrant day laborers like Jaime, who gather in Home Depot parking lots or on street corners in South Dade to look for work in residential construction, painting or landscaping.

According to Jaime — who worked as a farmworker before joining the group of gig-hunting obreros outside of the Home Depot in Cutler Bay — the pandemic has reduced the availability of jobs “by 90%,” effectively wiping out day laborers’ earning ability.

At Home Depot parking lots, the few potential customers left are no longer willing to drive workers to their homes or work sites, as was common practice in the past.

“They are looking after themselves. People think we might be sick, so they’re not letting us get in their cars,” he said. “And if we don’t have a vehicle, we can’t go to where the job is.”

As an undocumented immigrant from Colombia, Jaime says he feels left behind by the government’s pandemic response. Because of his status, he asked that his full name not be included in this story.

“The government doesn’t take us into account at all. Immigrants like me who live day-to-day, we are invisible. We can’t find work and we don’t get help. … We are completely adrift.”

Having applied for and received a $500 payment from WeCount!’s fund, Jaime has used the money to help cover the cost of medications he needed over the summer to treat a bout of coronavirus, which he says he first contracted in late June.

Day laborers try to find work by a Miami-area Home Depot in 2017
Day laborers try to find work by a Miami-area Home Depot in 2017

FARMWORKER ASSOCIATION STEPS IN

In late March, the federal government designated farmworkers “essential.” That included the more than hundred thousand workers who toil in Florida’s fields and nurseries, a significant number of whom are undocumented.

“At the beginning of the pandemic when they called farmworkers ‘essential,’ we got all excited. Like, ‘Oh, they are finally realizing it,’ ” said Jeannie Economos, program coordinator at the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF). “But then we realized that there wasn’t going to be any positive action to back up that designation of ‘essential.’ ”

For farmworker families left out of COVID-19 relief because of their immigration status, FWAF launched its own mutual aid fund, hastily assembled from GoFundMe donations and grants from private foundations.

So far, a total of 235 families across five farmworker communities in Florida, including Homestead, have received up to $350 in direct assistance from FWAF. To get help, farmworkers must bring a bill or a copy of a bill to one of FWAF’s area offices. FWAF then sends the money directly to the creditor in question, be it a landlord, utility company, or management company.

“In one case we paid for one family to have internet service so their kids could do online schooling … just necessary things like that,” Economos said. “We wish we could do a whole lot more.”

A big source of concern for Economos are the farmworkers outside FWAF’s network.

“There are huge pockets of the state where there are no farmworker organizations, or churches, or charitable organizations that are helping families,” she said. “I think about that all the time. We don’t have the capacity or the money to go to all these areas.”

Providing COVID-19 relief has also required shifting resources away from other initiatives FWAF had planned, including pesticide health and safety training and heat stress training.

“We are not doing any of that right now,” Economos said. “Because we are dealing with this disaster.”

Both Economos and Londoño, from WeCount!, described their respective pandemic-era aid funds as band-aid solutions to a problem only the government can fix.

“No mutual aid fund is ever going to be able to cover the scale of need in this moment,” Londoño said.

INCLUDING IMMIGRANTS IN COVID-19 RELIEF COULD BOOST FLORIDA’S RECOVERY

With the coronavirus’ rapid spread triggering one of the sharpest economic contractions in U.S. history, experts say shoring up the safety net was imperative to make sure millions of newly jobless people nationwide could weather the crisis. But relief efforts like the CARES Act also play a crucial anti-recessionary role, because they help boost spending on goods and services, stimulating demand in an otherwise shrinking economy.

Florida’s large immigrant population, though, means the state’s recovery could be slower, since many local families didn’t see any relief money flow their way.

With 650,000 unauthorized immigrants statewide, Florida has the fourth-largest undocumented population in the U.S. The greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area alone is home to about 450,000 unauthorized immigrants, making it the metropolitan area with the fifth-largest undocumented population in the country.

That means that a sizable portion of local households didn’t receive stimulus checks or unemployment insurance — be it at either its normal or temporarily boosted levels. With less money in their pockets, undocumented and mixed-status families have in turn played a more limited role than they otherwise would have in stimulating the recovery.

That can have a substantial impact: Consumer spending makes up about 70% of the national economy.

“Any money you provide undocumented immigrants with is really going to help their livelihoods, and it’s also money that would go back into the economy, and keep the engine working,” said Dr. Hector Sandoval, a professor and labor economics researcher at the University of Florida.

What’s more, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities called fiscal stimulus “most effective” when it “is directed to individuals … who will spend any additional resources they receive quickly.” As lower wage workers, undocumented immigrants would fall under that category.

“Lower income households do spend most of [their stimulus] money because they have to purchase the necessities, like food and medicine,” said Ned Murray, associate director of the Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center. “So you know that if they are getting assistance, they are putting it back into the economy — more so than say wealthy people who can afford to save that money or redirect it to other sources.”

Underscoring undocumented workers’ need for assistance — as well as the speediness with which they would likely spend it — is the fact that many relied on employment from the industries that have turned out to be most gravely disrupted by the pandemic, including tourism and hospitality.

But that’s not something official unemployment figures — including reports of decreasing new weekly applications for unemployment assistance in Florida — take into account. After all, laid-off undocumented workers never file for unemployment in the first place, knowing they are ineligible to receive benefits. That makes the July unemployment rate of 14.2% for the Miami-Miami Beach-Kendall area a likely undercount.

“When we think about how the economy is recovering in this moment, some of our metrics never take into account the lived conditions of undocumented workers,” said Londoño.

Economos agrees.

“It drives me crazy hearing them talk so much about the unemployment rate,” she said. “I’m like, ‘You know the unemployment rate means nothing because there are thousands of undocumented workers that are not counted.’ ”

Owners of small local businesses, meanwhile, suspect they would be better off if more people in the community were included in COVID-19 relief.

That’s the perspective of Jerry Dominique, executive chef at KC Healthy Cooking, a health-food restaurant in North Miami that’s only clearing about 40% of the sales it made this time last year.

“When everybody got their stimulus checks in the spring, we were able to see a difference in the restaurant because many people just spent it,” he said. “Small businesses have to survive, we have to stay afloat. The only way that can happen is if we put money into people’s pockets, it doesn’t matter if they are immigrants or not. We all contribute to this economy.”

WORSENING CRISIS AHEAD

Although he has recovered from COVID-19 and has returned home after spending weeks self-isolating at a county-provided airport hotel room, Jaime, the day laborer, is now worrying not about his health but about his debt: He owes his landlord about $1,500, almost four months’ worth of rent.

On Aug. 31, Gov. Ron DeSantis once again extended the state’s eviction moratorium — this time through Oct. 1 — but the scope of protections for renters has been narrowed. Jaime worries the moratorium will be fully lifted before work opportunities start coming back.

“Imagine, I’m already $1,500 behind on rent and I only have to pay $400 per month. I know people who have $700, $800 rents for their apartments. Right now they owe $3,000, $4,000 and they are just waiting for an order from the government to get kicked out onto the street,” he said. “At some point, that’s what’s going to happen. This situation is unsustainable.”

Londoño, from WeCount!, says the pandemic will continue taking a toll on undocumented communities for the foreseeable future.

“I think we haven’t seen the worst part of this crisis, but it’s imminent. … What I’ve personally seen is that there are undocumented immigrant workers who are two, three, four months behind on rent, and so when the moratorium is lifted they are facing a severe eviction crisis,” he said. “For many immigrant workers and their families, we’ve only begun seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

For Elia, the woman torn between paying her September rent on time and buying school supplies for her children, leaving undocumented immigrants without aid “feels unfair.” She has been a taxpayer since she first moved from Mexico to Florida 16 years ago, she said, and noted that her daughter, 13, does have U.S. citizenship, and would benefit from any benefits Elia might receive.

“You have to get really creative to make ends meet because as an immigrant, you don’t get any help from the government here. … But it’s us who push this country forward.”

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