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Private funds have helped Tucson's immigrant community survive during pandemic

Mayor Regina Romero records her impact statement at American Eat Company. Organizers as well as Romero and Ward 1 city council member Lane Santa Cruz gathered to make impact videos for the completion of We Are One/Somos Uno-Immigrant Relief Fund.

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Patricia first began feeling the effects of the pandemic when her hours were reduced at work, putting a strain on her family’s finances.

Then in July, her husband was hospitalized with COVID-19.

The couple and their two children quarantined for 40 days until he recovered, but by that time her husband had lost his job in construction and remained out of work until the end of November.

Patricia, an immigrant from Mexico who asked that we not publish her last name, has lived in the United States for 20 years.

Her family has never sought any type of financial assistance, but with both adults out of work, Patricia says she had to look for help.

She picked up food from pantries at churches and the food bank. She tried to apply for financial assistance through different programs, to help with the mounting bills.

She was told she did not qualify because of her immigration status.

$1.25 million in private funds

It was Tucsonans like Patricia — immigrants hard hit by the pandemic and excluded from federal and state aid and lacking a safety net — that community leaders had in mind when they created the Immigrant Relief Fund, which is part of the city’s larger We Are One/Somos Uno Resiliency Fund.

The $1.25 million Immigrant Relief Fund is solely funded by private donations from the Open Society Foundations and an anonymous donor. Other aid programs supporting workers, families, small businesses and nonprofits part of the We Are One fund are funded by federal CARES Act dollars.

The Immigrant Relief Fund was announced in August and began accepting applications in September. By the end of December, all the funding had been distributed, providing $600 prepaid cards to 1,975 immigrants in Tucson and South Tucson who were not eligible for aid like the stimulus payments or unemployment.

Patricia and her husband applied for the fund and learned they were approved in November. Although the family was several months behind on bills, she was hesitant to accept the aid. She insisted others probably needed it more and remembered her own struggle trying to find help.

“I told (them) my husband is going to start work next week, and I’m already working my hours, and … if another person is in need, I prefer that you give it to that person and not to us,” Patricia says.

Nearly 73% of those who received help from the fund were already considered low-income, earning less than $20,000 per year before the pandemic. Several applicants said their hours were significantly reduced or they lost their jobs as a direct result of the pandemic. Nearly 80% of the recipients worked either as domestic workers, day laborers or in food service — industries hit hard by COVID-19 precautions and restrictions.

“Nobody should go through this alone”

“The goal was to be a support in a time of need,” says Mayor Regina Romero, who together with Ward 1 Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz secured the donations for the fund.

Lane Santa Cruz Ward 1 City Council member

“We knew that this pandemic was affecting everyone no matter status, no matter income, no matter ethnicity, it is still affecting everyone. So we just wanted to make sure that we gave the same opportunity to immigrant families and frontline workers and those we depend on to take care of our children. … For me it’s being able to help our fellow Tucsonans; nobody should go through this alone,” Romero said.

There were no restrictions or requirements for how recipients had to use their funds.

Initial reports show the funds were used for basic needs including rent, utilities, gas and clothing.

Overwhelmingly though, the money was used to buy food, with more than 46% of the funds spent so far at grocery stores.

The data “tells us that people need money. … We’re in such a crisis right now that people need direct grants and support,” says Kerri Lopez-Howell, executive director of the Sunnyside Unified School District Foundation, which administered the fund.

“People need to not be choosing between buying food and paying an electricity bill. It tells a story of horrible decisions people are making,” she said.

A group of community-based organizations with deep ties to the immigrant community in Tucson and South Tucson worked with the foundation to reach and distribute the funds to those most in need.

Lopez-Howell estimates that each organization has a waiting list of between 50 and 100 people on standby in case more funding is found.

The waiting lists are likely a fraction of the need here, Lopez-Howell said.

“The reason I think the waiting lists are small is because as quickly as word travels that there are funds available is as quickly as word travels that it’s closed,” she says.

Immigrants hit hard by pandemic

The idea for the fund originated from the Immigrant Empowerment Task Force, a coalition of Tucson and South Tucson nonprofits and grassroots organizations. It formed at the start of the pandemic to advocate for, and meet, the needs of Tucson’s immigrant community.

The organizers knew the pandemic was affecting the finances and health of immigrants, who often are employed as housekeepers, child care providers, in hospitality or as day laborers. Those industries saw major cutbacks and workers who hold jobs in essential services that do not allow for working from home are faced with an increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“Our biggest worry was how our community was going to survive the pandemic financially,” says Alba Jaramillo, who helped found the task force and works as the executive director of Arizona Justice for our Neighbors, a non-profit that provides immigration legal services to low-income immigrants.

Alba Jaramillo Executive director for Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors

“Our dream was to have a fund, and we knew we didn’t directly have access to money, but that we could see whether our elected officials could help us in securing the funding,” she said.

Members of the task force also knew that there is widespread reluctance and fear among immigrants to apply for financial assistance, even for programs for which they would be eligible.

One reason is recent changes to what’s known as the Public Charge rule. It allows the Department of Homeland Security to deny visa and green card applications if applicants are deemed likely to rely on certain government benefits.

The task force shared their concerns with Mayor Regina Romero and Ward 1 Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz who worked to find ways to fund this relief effort.

It was important to both Romero and Santa Cruz and others involved with the fund that the aid be dispersed via prepaid cards, instead of checks or direct deposit. That’s because it lets people without bank accounts access the funds without having to pay high fees charged by check-cashing businesses.

“People needed money, because they shouldn’t be making decisions of whether they pay the rent or buy food or get the utilities shut off,” Santa Cruz says. “Let us give people money, and let them figure out” how to use it.

“Built on trust and relationships”

The Sunnyside Foundation was selected as the fund administrator, but joined with several community-based organizations that work with the immigrant community to distribute funds. Those include the Sunnyside Unified School District Opportunity Center, Tucson Unified School District Mexican American Student Services, Chicanos Por La Causa, Arizona Justice For Our Neighbors, El Rio Health, Southside Workers Center and the Primavera Foundation and Regeneración in collaboration with Scholarships AZ.

Celia Mendivil, left, director of homeownership program for Primavera, and Alonzo Morado, community engagement coordinator for Pimavera, wait to record their impact video. The We Are One/Somos Uno-Immigrant Relief Fund dispersed $1.25 million in relief money to undocumented immigrants.

“At the end of the day, our community organizers are the ones on the ground working with immigrant families day in and day out, so they know best how to reach out to them, and we also knew that to protect people’s identification there was going to have to be more like a word of mouth situation,” says Santa Cruz.

“And I think that’s what is important when you have representation that comes from these backgrounds and has worked there and understands that you have to be more flexible, more creative in how you reach this community than having a very standard approach.”

The organizations already had trusted relationships with immigrants they work with on a regular basis and knew who was in need. The groups had direct contact with those in need, sharing information about the fund, helping them apply and assuring them that because the money came from private donations it was safe to accept the assistance.

“The key people that had the contact with the immigrants were the immigrants’ rights activists, so there was already the trust developed between us in the immigrant community that we serve because we work with them every day, and I think it was only because they trusted us that they were able to accept that money without fear, although we still had to explain to them where it came from,” says Jaramillo of Arizona Justice for our Neighbors.

“I think had it gone out from just the foundation and an open announcement, I don’t know that it would have gotten to the hands of those who needed it the most because of that fear, because it included that personal relationship to ensure that there was a piece of safety in taking that money.”

Those who applied often referred neighbors, relatives and friends to the organizations, assuring them it was safe to apply so they, too, could get help.

“We were immediately able to connect with folks because of our relationships, it was a lot of intimate organizing, we already had a list of folks who needed to be served and they knew other friends and family who needed help,” says Nelda Ruiz a community organizer with Regeneracion, a grassroots organization that works on sustainability and social justice projects on Tucson’s southside.

“That’s the beauty of grassroots organizing — it’s built on trust and relationships.”

Like the other organizations, Ruiz says she is still receiving inquiries about the fund and keeping a running wait list.

Search for funding continues

“People are still calling and asking if there’s funding available, Ruiz says. “It hurts my soul to say ‘no, at the moment, there isn’t.’ The need is increasing more and more every day. We try to connect folks with whatever is out there. We’re still teaching folks how to grow their own food … but folks need money to live.”

Romero and Santa Cruz said they will continue to advocate for the immigrant community and work to bring in additional funding.

They are hopeful that Tucsonans will also consider supporting the effort.

“We also need to invest in our communities that are most marginalized and vulnerable to the pandemic,” Santa Cruz says. “Because at the end of the day they’re either our essential workers that have continued working, or they are domestic workers, our child care, our landscapers, our construction workers, our farm workers. …

“I think it’s a call for the community to also step up and support, and we’re going to continue looking for private funding to continue because we do know that while the pandemic is going on, and things are the way they are, that folks are going to need ongoing assistance.”

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