Left out of federal benefits, undocumented immigrants are running out of options | Feature | Chicago Reader

Left out of federal benefits, undocumented immigrants are running out of options 

As debate rages in Washington, undocumented immigrants fear that federal relief may never come. Southwest Side community organizers see a need for systemic change.

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Increase the Peace distributed food and water to hundreds of families at a pop-up pantry in Brighton Park. - JUAN JOSÉ AYALA, JR.
  • Increase the Peace distributed food and water to hundreds of families at a pop-up pantry in Brighton Park.
  • Juan José Ayala, Jr.

This story was originally published by City Bureau on August 6, 2020.

With Congress locked in an impasse around a second round of pandemic aid, groups serving undocumented immigrants on the southwest side of Chicago say their neighborhoods are in trouble without government relief.

Congress has until this Friday to negotiate another coronavirus relief package before the August recess. Though it's unclear how the gap between Democrats and Republicans will be resolved, the current Democratic proposal would loosen rules to allow for undocumented immigrants to receive stimulus checks—but Senate Republicans oppose such aid.

U.S. Rep. Jesús "Chuy" García, D-Chicago, lays the blame on GOP Senator Mitch McConnell for holding up the HEROES Act passed by House Democrats in May, which would extend payments to individuals who file taxes but don't have a Social Security number.

"The communities I represent desperately need relief and the HEROES Act commits over $3 trillion to meet those needs and addresses the serious inequities in previous relief packages," García said in a statement.

Millions of Americans are out of work due to the pandemic, but the government aid keeping the economy afloat has rarely made it into the hands of undocumented immigrants—even though they suffered the worst job losses compared to people with legal status and most pay taxes on their income. In Chicago, majority-Latinx neighborhoods on Chicago's southwest side have among the highest COVID-19 infection rates. Community organizations say their constituents from undocumented or mixed-status families have survived the summer by accessing piecemeal relief options—community mutual aid funds, philanthropically funded relief programs, lotteries for rent relief, and a state relief fund for immigrants.

Each of those programs was overwhelmed by demand and drained quickly; for instance, when Illinois distributed $2 million in June to low-income immigrants who did not qualify for the federal stimulus, unemployment insurance, or public benefits, the fund was depleted within 24 hours, said Dagmara Avelar, director of programs at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

This spring, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council surveyed 814 community members and discovered that a majority of undocumented and mixed-status families in Brighton Park experienced a loss of income during the pandemic. Half of the survey respondents reported they were not eligible for unemployment insurance.

Since then, the organization has raised $35,000 through small donors and disbursed it all to families. Separately, they raised $300,000 from foundations and distributed about two-thirds of that fund this summer. "Our team decided to hold on to the rest of the dollars to prepare for the fall when the eviction ban would be lifted and families would again be in need of rental assistance," BPNC executive director Patrick Bosnan said.

BPNC and other local groups like Increase the Peace and Gage Park Latinx Council have found themselves in the business of resource redistribution: accepting cash donations, food donations, baby supplies, bicycles and handing them out to undocumented families, no questions asked.

Increase the Peace and Neighbors for Environmental Justice volunteers distribute food at a pop-up pantry in Brighton Park. Since the pandemic started, they’re among the organizations who’ve created pop-up pantries and cash assistance programs for families on the southwest side. - JUAN JOSÉ AYALA, JR.
  • Increase the Peace and Neighbors for Environmental Justice volunteers distribute food at a pop-up pantry in Brighton Park. Since the pandemic started, they’re among the organizations who’ve created pop-up pantries and cash assistance programs for families on the southwest side.
  • Juan José Ayala, Jr.

One of those recipients is Elvira. Earlier this year, this mother of four living Brighton Park worked part-time as a parent mentor at her neighborhood school. It didn't pay much, but along with income from her family members, it was enough for them to get by. Three of her four daughters had jobs in local restaurants. "Before everything happened we were tranquil, we were good," she remembers of life before COVID-19. Elvira is undocumented and City Bureau agreed to use a different name for privacy.

By mid-March, everyone in her family lost their jobs due to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. Since then, they've depended on some leniency from their landlord, Chicago Public Schools' meal program, and free meals from their church on the weekends to get by. A grant from BPNC this spring covered some gas and food but they haven't paid their full $950 rent in months.

"We've talked to various assistance programs, but they require you to be citizens or residents," Elvira said. Meanwhile, she said, her husband and daughters are still looking for work. "What we worry about is rent and bills. The debt is just accumulating and accumulating."

Back in June, Berto Aguayo knocked on the door of a Back of the Yards woman who sells tacos as a street vendor. He had a check for $500 of COVID-19 relief for her, he said.

Her question to him: "Are you the government?"

Aguayo explained he was delivering the check on behalf of Increase the Peace, where he's the director and cofounder. The community anti-violence organization hosted a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise money for people like her.

"You know the government's been talking about how they're going to help out and this and that," Aguayo recalled her saying. "It's been three months. I haven't paid rent, haven't paid my bills, don't even have money to put gas in my car. This is the first time I received any type of aid."

Since April, Gage Park Latinx Council organizers distributed more than 1,000 meals, diapers, and wipes at a pop-up for parents, and partnered with Working Bikes to give away bikes. Through their Mutual Aid Fund for Undocumented Southwest Side Families, they've raised more than $64,000—distributing $500 checks to more than 90 families.

"There is no social safety net for many undocumented community members who work in restaurants or hospitality," said Samantha Martinez, an outreach coordinator with Gage Park Latinx Council. "We are conscious of the fact that there will be people who apply and we may not have enough money for everything they're requesting, but maybe we'll get halfway there."

Some need help to buy insulin and medication, Martinez said. One person, who is undocumented and uninsured, had contracted COVID-19 and racked up a $2,000 hospital bill.

While these groups continue to pressure politicians to work on government relief, whether it's federal stimulus or grants at the state or city level, southwest side community organizers hope for a more permanent solution in the form of systemic change. That's part of the reason why they joined actions for police-free schools, and why they've recently stood in defense of a street vendor harassed by police.

Organizers with Increase the Peace and Gage Park Latinx Council want a radical redistribution of the Chicago Police Department's $1.6 billion budget. They want that investment shifted into building healthy communities.

"When we think about a long-term goal, it would be investing that $2 billion into creating communities that are safe and can look out for each other, that are fed and taken care of," Martinez said. "I think that's the biggest thing when it comes to collective care and collective work, how we ourselves can keep communities safe without relying on police."

The pandemic has shown the way community members offer each other support when officials fail to do so.

"I think there's a lot of privileged people making decisions about what our community needs without deeply understanding the pain, the need, the desperation that some of our people feel," Aguayo said.

"We need to think about how we can address short-term needs, what they need right now, and also think about what we need in the next five to 20 years—systemic change at all levels."  v

This story was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.

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