New York made history on April 6th with the creation of the nation’s first multi-billion dollar fund for undocumented workers who have been left out of federal and state pandemic relief. A year-long campaign by the Excluded Workers Coalition, along with a 23-day hunger strike that broke the morning after the budget passed, helped influence the historic stimulus package.
“Here in New York state we just led the way in establishing an unprecedented program that puts cash directly into the pockets of those who need it,” said Angeles Solis, lead organizer at immigrant-led organization Make the Road New York. “Today we set a new precedent.”
The $2.1 billion fund is set to offer one-time payments up to $15,600 to those who provide formal documentation that proves loss of income, such as an individual tax identification number, pay stub or bank statement. Those who have proof of New York residency but are unable to verify employment before the pandemic will only be eligible for a $3,200 payment.
Even though recently incarcerated individuals were part of initial discussions, they were removed from the fund during the last rounds of negotiation.
Lengthy discussions and last-minute changes to the fund not only revealed strong opposition from Republicans but also fissures among Democratic lawmakers over how much money to allocate and how to verify eligibility. Governor Andrew Cuomo didn’t include any aid for undocumented workers in his January budget proposal, while both the State Senate and Assembly put forward bills for a $2.1 billion fund.
The fund was championed by progressive Democrats and most New York City lawmakers. Around thirty Democatic assembly members and at least thirteen senators were reported to have expressed reservations about the fund. Most of these lawmakers represented suburban and rural swing districts in upstate New York.
Some progressives accused opposing lawmakers of bigotry. “This is not a hard decision,” said Jabari Brisport, a Democrat state senator from Brooklyn, at an Excluded Workers Coalition rally in early April. “You can’t call these people essential up until the point you need to pay them,” “I will not work with legislators who enable racists.”
Democratic Party Chair Jay Jacobs issued a statement responding to the accusation. “Questioning certain provisions of the ‘excluded workers’ bill does NOT make someone racist,” he wrote. “If we, as a party and a nation, can no longer debate issues like that without being subject to ad hominem attacks that unfairly question one’s motives, then Donald Trump has truly won and we are no longer a democracy.”
Advocates and lawmakers who pushed for the fund said that even though undocumented immigrants account for more than half of New York City’s essential workers, up to 300,000 New Yorkers were excluded from any federal or state relief because of their immigration status or recent incarceration.
From medical staff to construction workers, day laborers, food industry workers, street vendors, clerks, cleaners and domestic workers, undocumented immigrants remained at the frontlines of the pandemic or were among the first to lose jobs in the past year. As bills piled up for many, they were never eligible to collect unemployment, stimulus checks or apply for small business loans.
“Our hunger strike didn’t start 23 days ago, it started in March last year, when our jobs shut down, when we got kicked out of our homes, when we got sick with COVID,” said Felipe Idrovo, an undocumented striker who fasted for 20 days. “I wasn’t prepared for any of this. My already small savings are gone.”
Idrovo, 52, lost his brother and father to COVID-19 only a few months apart. He was evicted during the first months of the pandemic after he lost his job at a food distribution plant.
“My only family here, my brother, had just died from COVID, I was still recovering from the virus myself after I ended up at Elmhurst Hospital’s ER, and the job I held for eight years just vanished,” the Ecuadorian worker said. “I moved into a small room, and I couldn’t support my kids back home anymore. It was too hard to get out of bed. I realized I was completely alone.”
The “Fast for the Forgotten” rolling hunger strike began on March 16th and was supported by nearly 100 people who fasted for different periods of time. City Comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott Stringer fasted for a day in solidarity; Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynez, a Democrat representing parts of Brooklyn, fasted for nearly two weeks; and a smaller group of around 50 protesters fasted and slept in Judson Memorial Church and White Plains Presbyterian Church. According to members of the Excluded Workers Coalition, 96% of the strikers were immigrant women of color.
The strike was supported by many others in the political world, including former gubernatorial candidate and activist Cynthia Nixon, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and mayoral candidates Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales.
In the months, and particularly in the weeks leading up to budget negotiations, undocumented immigrants and activists doubled down on their year-long Fund Excluded Workers campaign, shutting down bridges, protesting outside the offices of Governor Cuomo and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and fasting for over three weeks.
“I cannot believe we did that,” said Rubiela Correa, a Colombian cleaner and caretaker who fasted for twenty-three days straight. “I thought I would fast for three days, and then I did another, and another, and I just didn’t stop. I fasted for myself, but also for so many others who were silent. We deserve help just like anybody else to pay rent, to afford food. We’re workers who serve this city too, and the pandemic wiped out so many of our jobs.”
Correa, 49, and Ana Ramirez, 42, were the longest-standing strikers in the protest, going more than 550 hours without any food. For Ramirez, a restaurant worker from Mexico who has paid taxes for over ten years, the fund is about more than just money.
“This relief package is also an acknowledgement of undocumented immigrants like me, who break a sweat, who do extra shifts, who work very hard every single day,” she said “It’s an acknowledgement of human dignity. My first meal was spiritual more than anything. I felt nourished by the historic victory we helped secure.”
Since the fund was passed, activists and legislators have expressed concerns over certain provisions that could leave out many undocumented workers or decrease the amount of money they’ll be able to access.
“What we want is a real implementation of the program in a way that is accessible and clear. . . so that our communities can take advantage of every dollar,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat from Queens and lead proponent of the fund.
On the same day that strikers celebrated their victory in New York, undocumented workers in New Jersey announced the start of a hunger strike to demand pandemic relief.