City Limits has been gathering information since January about how the city’s immigrant emergency relief program was set up and operated. Many complained that the program was not adequately publicized, leaving immigrant residents in the dark about how to apply.

Adi Talwar

Sorybel, a single mother, lost two jobs due to the pandemic, and was among those who received assistance through the city’s immigrant relief fund — but only after months of looking for information and waiting.

April marked the one-year anniversary of Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing the New York City COVID-19 Immigrant Emergency Relief Program, funded with a $20 million donation from Open Society Foundations.

Although the city program is now dwarfed by the $2.1 billion state fund for excluded workers, at the time it was the only lifeline for families boxed out of federal pandemic relief. And as the city moves from managing this pandemic to preparing for future disasters, there could be important lessons to be learned from the emergency relief program—on transparency, application processes, administrative costs and more.

The original plan was that the NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) and the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City would create a diverse, citywide network of community-based organizations that would be in charge of distributing one-time emergency relief payments to the city’s immigrants on a first-come-first-served basis.

The announcement was covered by both local and national media, so many immigrants around the city knew about the program once it was first announced, and were eager to get more information about it. In June of 2020 alone, for example, City Limits received 16 comments from people asking for more information about the city’s fund.

Read our coverage of New York City’s Coronavirus crisis.

The announcement came at a critical time, as the months of April and May 2020 devastated New York’s immigrants who were wage workers or independent contractors. Hours were cut, jobs disappeared and business vanished. A report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs found that immigrants were “20 percent more likely than their native-born counterparts to have been dislocated in the current crisis.”

In May 2020, three weeks after the fund was announced, City Limits reported about the slow beginning of the program, and the little that was known about it. The city at the time said about 30 community-based organizations had been selected to be part of the initiative, but MOIA said it would not immediately release a list of participating CBOs to the public.

In the end, 34 CBOs were part of the program, but the list of participating CBOs wasn’t made public until mid-January 2021—when those CBOs submitted reporting data back to MOIA. And it wasn’t just the media that was in the dark: Many immigrants never knew where, when, how to apply to a program that was supposed to benefit them.

In July of 2020, City Limits wrote a follow-up piece about the program, noting that the initiative had run under the radar, with just a couple of CBOs openly talking about being selected in the media, leaving dismay among immigrants who felt left behind and without information. At that time City Limits reported that 96 percent of all screenings up to that point were of people who met the criteria of living in the city, and only one CBO had applications open for program.

MOIA has since confirmed that eligibility screenings for the program had begun in June 2020, and by July, intake for the program had been closed.

MOIA has insisted that one of the reasons the information wasn’t publicized was because of concerns and heightened fears of immigration enforcement, and the public charge rule under the Trump administration. However, New York’s program was unique in that aspect.

The state of California operated what was at the time the largest fund to assist the undocumented population under similar Trump-administration circumstances and all information about the application process and organizations involved was openly available and publicized in the media.

The city of Chicago also created a cash assistance program for immigrants in partnership with  the city, the Resurrection Project and Open Society Foundations, with organizations, individuals, and the media spreading the word about where, when, how to apply.

Both the Chicago and California programs were overwhelmed, as it was expected; this was another reason MOIA cited for not disclosing the names of the CBOs at the time the program was open.

In the end, however, MOIA’s discretion did not stem the flow of requests to New York’s CBOs. From April to September 2020, MOIA received 3,000 calls “specifically for the Open Society Foundations-funded COVID-19 Immigrant Emergency Relief Fund,” according to its latest report.

After intake for the program closed in July, participating CBOs had received more applications than funding available through the program; many of those organizations spent the following months distributing, tracking, and confirming receipt of the funds.

By mid-October, the last of the money was distributed. Originally, the program would distribute relief payments through debit cards of $400 per individual, $800 for couples or single parents with children, and $1,000 for families with multiple adults and children, but at some point a new category was added for “other amounts.”

Award Amount# of People Receiving Award Amount
Sub Total21,300+
Other Amounts2,810+
Based on data provided by participating organizations to MOIA as of October 28, 2020

Basically, if an applicant had already received some sort of cash assistance from any other COVID-19 relief fund, the city’s immigrant fund would cover the difference between their award bracket and the amount they already received.

MOIA says 24,000 immigrant workers received this aid, including those who were given other amounts, and if projected, 52,000 people in their households. That’s more than the safe-bet cap of 20,000 people established by the mayor.

“This program was needed, and it played a key role in getting NYS to a place where it would recognize and include undocumented workers in Covid-19 state relief. At a moment of crisis, we were able to respond and react in real time. We’re proud of the work we did with local governments and CBOs to meet the needs of millions of people who were reeling and were left out of federal aid,” said an Open Society Foundation’s spokesperson in an email.

Based on data provided by MOIA, 39.1 percent of recipients resided in Queens; 27.2 percent in Brooklyn; 17.2 percent in The Bronx; 9.7 percent in Staten Island; 6.3 percent in Manhattan; and 0.4 recipients did not have a stable address.

Half of all recipients were domestic workers (e.g. home health aide, nanny, housekeeper), restaurant/food service workers (e.g. food prep, delivery), and construction/day laborers.

The $20 million donated by Open Society Foundations included administrative costs, so each CBO received between 7 to 10 percent of the funding amount they distributed as an administrative fee.

“We knew about the administrative costs. It requires a lot of work to provide the cash, to run outreach, and keep a durable organization going. One of the biggest learnings that we saw across cities was the toll of the pandemic on nonprofits doing the work on the ground. There is a true cost of doing business and someone has to pay for it,” said OSF.

Exact percentages and amounts weren’t disclosed, although MOIA Commissioner Bitta Mostofi told Documented that nearly $2 million was spent on administrative costs.

Compared to Chicago’s funds, New York’s administrative fees were higher. Chicago, for example, worked with the Resurrection Project and  charged 2.1 percent of the total cost of the program, according to Eréndira Rendón, vice president of strategy and immigration defense at the organization.

“Different cities had different approaches in a complex environment. We understand and respect NY’s approach. We understand and respect CA and Chicago’s approach,” said OSF.