Washington Legislature Approves $340M for COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund, Making It One of the Country's Largest

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Washington's Immigrant Relief Fund got an enormous boost this week when the Legislature approved $340 million in additional funding.

That brings the total allocated so far, first by Gov. Jay Inslee and then by the  Legislature, to $467 million — believed to make this the second-largest fund of its kind in the country, behind New York's.

The fund provides payments to immigrants shut out of other forms of pandemic relief, like federal stimulus checks and unemployment insurance, because they are not in the country legally. California and Oregon offer similar assistance.

"I think we should be very proud of our state," said Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa, political director of Working Washington, a labor-aligned organization that with the advocacy group OneAmerica co-led a large coalition pressing for funding.

Washington was quick to act, he said. Last August, as COVID-19 was spreading  through immigrant communities at especially high rates, often infecting agricultural and other essential workers, Inslee announced the formation of the then $40 million fund. Seattle launched its own immigrant fund in October.

In contrast, Quiñonez Figueroa said, it took New York a year to approve its $2.1 billion fund earlier this month April, and only after protests that sometimes shut down bridges.

The coalition in Washington lobbied hard with news conferences, emails and phone calls to lawmakers and the governor's staff. "There were so many competing needs," Quiñonez Figueroa said.

But unlike in New York, advocates faced little overt opposition, even from Republicans often censorious of providing benefits to immigrants without legal status.

"I haven't gotten wind of any material controversy," said Alejandro Sanchez, a special assistant to the governor working on immigration issues.

State Sen. Lynda Wilson, a Vancouver Republican who is her party's budget lead on the Senate Ways & Means Committee, said she doesn't remember having any discussion about the issue — not during frenzied talks before lawmakers approved the biennial budget Sunday, which included the $340 million, nor before an early  budget passed in February that put $65 million into the fund.

Republicans' focus was elsewhere, including trying to support businesses, Wilson said. "There's a whole lot of people hurting," she said lawmakers felt as the early budget came through. "I think we just decided to do what we could to prop up everyone."

By the time the biennial budget was up for discussion, the precedent was set and there were other things to fight about as Democrats pushed through their priorities, like a capital-gains tax.

The state's Department of Social and Health Services, in consultation with the governor's office, has yet to determine the kind of individual payments that will come from the $340 million. Earlier dispersals of funding, including one that opened to applications last week, delivered onetime $1,000 payments to low-income people 18 or over who have been affected by the pandemic and are ineligible for unemployment or stimulus payments because of their immigration status.

Immigrant-led organizations are managing the fund, and are not sharing applications or personal information with the government.

Advocates this time around hope individuals will receive multiple payments and larger amounts. New York is offering onetime payments of up to $15,600.

"A $1,000 check is great but it's not enough," said Brenda Rodriguez, co-director of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, which has been helping people apply, in part through its hotline. (844-724-3737)

People can also apply directly online at immigrantreliefwa.org.

During earlier rounds, WAISN set up in churches around the state to walk people through the application. Hundreds showed up, often with their children, and waited sometimes hours in their cars before they were called to come in, Rodriguez said.

Quiñonez Figueroa has been sitting in on focus groups with recipients. He said they include workers on farms where the coronavirus broke out, forcing workers to quarantine for weeks and lose income; employees of restaurants and other small businesses that have shut or reduced hours; and domestic workers who have lost clients.

"There's a feeling that the community has been singled out," he said, noting many don't understand why they've been excluded from other types of assistance even though they pay taxes. Mental health is a big problem, he said, with many struggling with their inability to provide for their families.

Griselda, a Washington resident who asked not to give her name because of her status, said she and her husband received payments from the fund in December. They both worked for restaurants that had closed, hers this spring. The $2,000, combined, took care of a month's rent.

Her employer opened again but she only works part-time; her husband's is expected to reopen next month. They work odd jobs and pay bills as they can, often late, and have frequented food banks.

Some activists and legislators, including state Sen. Rebecca Saldaña and Rep. Kristen Harris Talley, Seattle Democrats, say the next step is to make immigrants like Griselda eligible for unemployment benefits.

"I'm committed to working with our state agencies, the governor's office and community leaders to ensure we make history and include everyone," said Saldaña in a statement put out by OneAmerica.

The existing unemployment system is prohibited by federal law from providing benefits to immigrants living unlawfully in the U.S., according to Sanchez, of the governor's office. But the state could conceivably devise its own system. As it passed its newest budget, the Legislature set up a work group to study the possibility.

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