Adi Talwar

Sorybel, a single mother, who lost her two jobs due to the pandemic, sought emergency help for immigrants for months. She found an organization by watching Telemundo.

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To Leidy, a single mother of four, unemployed since the end of February and an undocumented immigrant who preferred not to disclose her last name, it took more than two months to find one of the 30 organizations that were providing emergency relief to immigrants in New York City.

“I heard the mayor giving the news [of the creation of the fund: New York City COVID-19 Immigrant Emergency Relief Program] on television and from the next day I started calling the organizations I knew,” says Leidy.

This $20 million fund, donated by the Open Society Foundation, was publicly announced in mid-April by the mayor’s office. The program´s goal was to provide financial assistance of $400 per person, or up to $1,000 per family, to undocumented persons excluded from the federal program’s aid package. 

However, beneficiaries and some of the community-based organizations (CBO) say the program was not transparent. So far, the names of all the CBOs that were selected by the city to distribute these funds are not known, so many immigrants did not have information about where to apply to a program that was supposed to benefit them and that is now in its final stage.

Since it was not clear which organizations were distributing the money, City Limits has been contacting organizations to understand how this program was developed and has been able to confirm the names of 12 of the 30 organizations selected by the city: Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, African Communities Together, Alianza Ecuatoriana, La Colmena, Laundry Worker Center, The Street Vendor Project, Make the Road New York, Chhaya CDC, Catholic Charities, Bronx Works, Arab American Association of New York and New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE).

Leidy: Did it have to be so hard?

“I felt lost, disoriented because there was no information, no matter how much I looked on the Internet, I did not know where to apply or who to call,” says Leidy, who lost her job cleaning homes.

Leidy made dozens of calls to the 10 organizations she knew worked with undocumented people. She also sent dozens of text messages, e-mails, and even tried direct messages on Facebook, “but I received automatic responses.”

“It was discouraging not knowing anything,” says Leidy. She called the organizations but no one confirmed to her whether the organization had been selected by the mayor’s office to distribute the funds to immigrants. “It was very difficult trying to search. Continue my calls, it was like a constant fight.”

One of the organizations Leidy had called was the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights (NMCIR), a non-profit organization. According to Alba Lucero Villa, executive director, as soon as they confirmed with the mayor’s office that they had been selected the organization spread the news among its clients and also among those people who were lining up to receive food at its facility. In June, Villa was interviewed by Telemundo to talk about this announcement.

After that interview, “we received 3,400 calls in the next 24 hours,” Villa says.

After more than two months of searching for information, Leidy watched the interview and called NMCIR. “I told them that in the interview they said they were distributing the funds,” says Leidy. An NMCIR official told Leidy that they would give priority to the organization’s clients, however, as she had called earlier, her name was on the waiting list. “In less than two days, they called me to say that I had been selected,” says Leidy.

The debit card loaded with $1,000 arrived in Leidy´s mail at the end of June. She is one of the people who believe that the process could have been more transparent. For her, the information should have been made public to know what organizations were distributing the funds in order to have avoided the two-month search, as well as the uncertainty during the process.

“Like when you play the lottery, if you don’t win, then you have the peace of mind of having tried,” says Leidy.

Sorybel: When the mountain doesn’t go to Mohammed…

Sorybel, a single mother who lost both her jobs to the pandemic and who chose not to disclose her last name, was also looking for the emergency fund for immigrants after she found out about it in April.

“You have to be behind the mountain, chasing it,” Sorybel says, alluding to the saying about Muhammad and the mountain.

Like Leidy, as soon as Sorybel watched Villa’s interview on Telemundo, she called and sent messages to apply to the fund. She was also added to the waiting list.

“The undocumented have to fight a lot in this country and we contribute with taxes, we consume, we create jobs and how are they going to ignore us?” Says Sorybel.

Three weeks ago Sorybel received the $1,000-loaded debit card. The NMCIR estimates that it will be able to distribute them to a little more than 800 people and to do so it has until July 15. Between March and May, NMCIR created a list that contained 1,800 people seeking help, but after the interview with Telemundo, the organization created an additional list with 3,400 more people, which means that the organization has already selected the fund´s beneficiaries.

Organizations such as African Communities Together, Alianza Ecuatoriana, La Colmena, the Laundry Worker Center, and the Street Vendor Project have also selected the people who will receive the cards.

African Communities Together, for example, received $400,000 in cards and they plan to distribute them to just over 400 families. More than 600 people have applied for these funds.

La Colmena received $1 million in cards to distribute, but as with all organizations, “compared to the number of people we have, it’s nothing,” says Yesenia Mata, the organization’s executive director. The cards have been distributed to both members and non-members and the organization is currently finalizing the selection of beneficiaries.

La Colmena also chose to publicize the news through the media in an NY1 News story.

“When we were selected, we let the community know. We like to be transparent,” says Mata. Like NMCIR, the Beehive has until July 15 to distribute the cards.

The Laundry Worker Center has also already received the disbursement and the cards, but the organization did not want to share how much money it had received. They plan to cover about 200 people with this fund and all the beneficiaries have already been selected.

Another organization that did not want to share the amount of money received to distribute was the Street Vendor Project. According to Mohamed Attia, SVP’s director, they estimate that 300 people will benefit and the distribution of the cards started three weeks ago. Its distribution strategy focused on “our members and network only”, responds Attia by email.

Alianza Ecuatoriana Internacional has already started to deliver the cards. The organization says around 150 people selected. Among the long lines of people who line up to receive food from the organization, says Walter Sinche, the organization’s executive director, there have been problems with people who, frustrated by not knowing how to apply for the funds, have gone on to aggressively demand money.

“It’s ugly to be pointed out. Despair leads to saying things that shouldn’t be said and it’s ugly. Every day someone comes to demand money. The other day a person from Argentina came and said ‘I’m not moving from here until I get the money,'” says Sinche.

Not only those who have received money from this fund but also many other people who didn’t know where to go have complained about the lack of transparency from the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) in refusing to make public the list of organizations that were selected to distribute the funds.

Luis, for example, an undocumented worker with four children, one of them a newborn, who owes about $4,000 in rent, had been looking for news since April when the fund was announced, but his fate was different. He called four organizations but received no information. On July 6th after a call to City Limits, Luis learned that most people had already been selected by the organizations and that the project was in the final phase of implementation.

Other questions City Limits received via comments on our website include “how to get financial relief? Many of us still don’t have information on [that],” from Jessica, who worked in a beauty salon. 

“They said they were going to help and give information. Now it turns out that all the organizations have a full seat and those of us who have not registered, where are we?” wrote María.

Laine Romero-Alston, a team manager on OSF’s International Migration Initiative, says that on both the development process and the distribution of this program “we have relied fully on the mayor’s office [MOIA] and the CBOs. 

Nearly 9,000 helped

As of July 6, 8,593 people or 96 percent of all screenings up to that point were of people who met the criteria of living in the city, not having received federal aid, and not being able to apply for unemployment insurance. Those chosen represent 170 zip codes and have come from 101 countries, with the top ten in descending order: Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, China, Honduras, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Haiti, El Salvador and Venezuela. The mayor’s goal with this program was to reach up to 20,000 undocumented workers and their families affected by job loss, but the final number of beneficiaries is not yet known.

Of all the organizations that responded, Chhaya CDC was the only one that had applications open for this fund as recently as last week. The organization has already received the $520,000 in debit cards and estimates that it will be able to benefit a little more than 900 people. The selection was made on a first-come, first-served basis and like many organizations, they chose not to circulate this information beyond their network of members.

Francisco, who is single and arrived in New York city in 2003, lives under the same roof with eight of his relatives: three sisters, each with a child plus the two children of his nieces.

“Neither of them is working. I am the man of the house and I worked in construction until before the pandemic,” says Francisco.

Francisco, like many, learned about the emergency fund for immigrants in April, but unlike Luis, Sorybel and Leidy, he didn’t have to spend months looking for information because he has been a member and a NICE volunteer for more than 10 years. In May, the organization announced to its members that it had been selected by the mayor’s office, so Francisco applied and weeks later received a $400 debit card.

NICE was one of the first organizations to know that it had been selected by the city to distribute immigrant relief fund. Like Make the Road New York, Catholic Charities, Bronx Works and Arab American Association of New York, NICE did did not respond to inquiries for this article.

In an interview with City Limits Bitta Mostofi, MOIA’s commissioner, again declined to reveal the names of the organizations, but noted that “I do think the program was transparent and fair.”

Hope for more aid

According to Mostofi all the CBOs have already received the funds and this apparently means that most of the beneficiaries have already been selected.

“It is a real challenge to establish a system that recognizes limited capacity and resources and historical and unprecedented need,” says Romero-Alston, who argues these decisions were made to protect the beneficiaries, the city and the organizations that were part of it from possible legal challenges.

Some, however, believe the scale of the program was inappropriate to the massive need.

“It’s immoral for the Mayor to pretend that a $20 million privately funded program is adequate to support the over 500,000 undocumented NYC immigrants, many of whom are essential workers on the frontlines of addressing the pandemic,” Attia says. “This is simply not enough, and if New York City wants to call itself a sanctuary city, it needs to live up to its claim by supporting all of its residents–hundreds of thousands of whom have been without relief for over three months.” 

Attia estimates “that the emergency program for immigrants only serves 3 percent of our city’s undocumented population.”

For Attia, as well as most of the CBOs that responded to City Limits, this situation is desperate. For the moment, there is no sign of additional funds. MOIA says they are working at the state and federal level, for example, “advocating for the HEROES Act,” says Mostofi, who adds that they have had informational meetings with philanthropic organizations.

“It’s fair to say this is not enough,” acknowledges Romero-Alston.