Left out of government aid programs, undocumented workers get help during the coronavirus pandemic from grassroots groups

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AUSTIN, Texas — Juan, a 41-year-old unauthorized migrant from San Luis Potosí, Mexico, is used to working up to 10-hour days as a cook at a Dallas restaurant.

But during the coronavirus pandemic, his hours have been cut by almost half. His wife, a domestic worker, was told by her employers to stop showing up to the house she normally cleans twice a week.

The couple have four kids, ages 3, 9, 14 and 19 years old, and a mortgage on a house in McKinney. Their 19-year-old son works at an electricity company to help the family.

“I just want my family to have food, water and utilities, so they don’t have to suffer right now,” said Juan, who asked The Dallas Morning News to not use his full name. “It affects you financially, emotionally. … It’s something nobody expected.”

Workers like Juan who are the backbone of Texas’ service, manufacturing and construction industries have been hit hard by the pandemic. But because of their legal status, they are left out of safety net programs such as unemployment insurance that many laid-off workers can rely on.

Instead, an informal network of community organizations has sprung up to help families get through the crisis, whether it’s by paying for a bag of groceries or giving them grants so they can stay at home during the pandemic.

Rosey Sullivan, a Dallas bartender and restaurant general manager, launched Undocumented Workers Fund Dallas after learning about a similar effort in New York.

She hopes to use the fund to give unauthorized workers who have lost their hospitality jobs because of the pandemic about $150 each. “That’s not a lot, but for seven people that’s groceries for the month,” she said. “I’m just trying to fundraise as much as possible.”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance also launched the Coronavirus Care Fund last month to support home care workers, nannies and house cleaners. Through the fund, local affiliates of the alliance such as Domesticas Unidas in San Antonio have received grants to help their members stay at home during the pandemic.

Of Domesticas Unidas’ nearly 200 domestic workers, 50 received a $400 grant from the alliance, said Araceli Herrera, the executive director.

“It was hard to know who to help because they’re all living day to day,” said Herrera, a 60-year-old house cleaner from Mexico City.

While Herrera now has enough to make it through the next month, she’s worried about what she and the others will have to do come May.

The nonprofit ImmSchools usually works with schools in Dallas, San Antonio and New York City to provide support for families of mixed immigration status but has shifted gears to provide financial assistance to families affected by the pandemic, said Lorena Tule-Romain, a former unauthorized immigrant and co-founder of the nonprofit.

It has given grants of $200 to 40 families for the month of April but hopes to provide ongoing support to 100 families.

“The idea is to help families with essentially three to four essential necessities from food, to helping them with utilities … and other necessities,” Tule-Romain said.

Juan has not yet taken advantage of outside help, but he says he’s found hope in efforts offering assistance to fellow migrants.

“The fact that they’re worried about us and listening to us is motivating,” he said. “It’s beautiful to get help from people from here who are also hardworking.”

But these efforts cannot begin to fill the need, and some want to see government aid used to help workers regardless of their status.

“They’re the ones working in the meatpacking plants, in the poultry plants. They’re also the ones that are working the construction sites, keeping the highways and roads open so that truckers can get our food supply. They are essential workers,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “They’re part of the front-line troops, no different than nurses or doctors at the hospital. They’re the ones that are putting food on America’s tables right now.”

An estimated 7.6 million of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country are part of the workforce, according to the most recent figures from the Pew Research Center.

“They are an important part of the economy, and they’re an important part of our economic health and important part of work that’s being lost,” said Bill Beardall, an attorney and executive director of the Equal Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that helps workers regardless of immigration status.

But in Texas and in most states, unauthorized workers are excluded from getting public benefits, including unemployment insurance.

That’s because in order to qualify for Texas’ unemployment insurance people have to be authorized to work and are required to have legally worked for a required period of time before losing their job.

Most unauthorized workers also won’t get the $1,200 checks from the federal stimulus package signed by President Donald Trump — even if they paid taxes. LULAC is lobbying for unauthorized workers to be included in any future stimulus package.

Many of these workers also don’t have health insurance, which can present a dilemma during the pandemic.

Without health insurance, Juan worries about going to work during the pandemic and getting infected or infecting others if he were to contract the virus. But he can’t afford to not work.

Last month his family’s finances had been stable enough to get another car on a loan. Now, he doesn’t know if he’ll have enough money for groceries.

In San Antonio, Herrera has been planning how to cut corners since some of her employers canceled on her, as are many of the women in Domesticas Unidas. She said the group is collecting stories from domestic workers at this time in the hopes of raising awareness of their plight on a national level.

“I hope the government forgets legal status,” she said. “We’re hardworking people, and we’re more at risk.”



Here are some resources for workers and their families.

Hospitality workers can apply for the grants from the Undocumented Workers Fund Dallas by emailing undocumentedworkersfunddallas@gmail.com, and the fund is accepting donations through Venmo. More information can be found on uwfd.squarespace.com.

Domestic and home care workers can apply for help from the National Domestic Workers Alliance online. The alliance is funding affiliates first, but is also accepting applications from those who are not members. To apply, visit domesticworkers.org.

ImmSchools is fundraising to help give more families financial assistance. It is also working to share information about resources for families with unauthorized members on its website: www.immschools.org

The nonprofit Techqueria is fundraising to provide financial assistance to unauthorized workers across the country. To donate or apply, visit their campaign: secure.givelively.org/donate/techqueria/support-undocumented-families-and-individuals-during-the-pandemic

Legal aid

Attorneys from the Equal Justice Center help workers who aren’t paid for their work, regardless of immigration status.

Unauthorized workers are fully covered by basic wage and labor law protections and are entitled to pay, including overtime, for any work they completed. They could also qualify for the expanded paid leave in the Families First Act passed in March if their employer already offered paid leave.

For more information about the center go to equaljusticecenter.org or call 800-853-4028.

DACA recipients

Immigrants authorized to work under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program may be able to qualify for unemployment benefits if they meet other eligibility requirements. For more information, visit www.twc.texas.gov.

DACA recipients and those who recently gained legal status could also qualify for help under the “Pandemic Employment Assistance” in the federal stimulus package. That assistance is meant to help workers


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