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Biggest Financial Relief Effort For Undocumented Immigrants in New York City

Open Society Foundation gave $20 million to the City to give to undocumented immigrants


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NEW YORK, NY- George Soros’ Open Society Foundation set up a $20 million pandemic financial relief fund for undocumented immigrants in New York City, City Hall was tasked with figuring out how to give the money away as fast as possible.

The Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs tapped 34 community groups it had previously worked with for the program, called the Immigrant Emergency Relief Program. Some, like the Workers’ Justice Project, had a sprawling network of 10,000 members. Others, like the Carroll Gardens Association, had no formal members, but a few hundred contacts.

The money went directly to more than 24,000 people on a first-come-first-served basis and potentially benefited nearly as much as three times as many, according to data provided to Documented by MOIA — making it a model for cities with large undocumented populations. But interviews with organization leaders show the city’s reliance on community groups — often necessary to reach undocumented people wary of government assistance — came with trade-offs that impacted who received funds, and when, with those already connected to organizations most likely to benefit.

A year after its creation, Documented has put together a clearer picture of the Open Society Foundation’s fund through documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, additional records provided by the city, and interviews with nonprofit groups and city officials who administered the funds.

City officials told Documented that the Immigrant Emergency Relief Program was a success, but the constraints from the relatively small amount of money, as well as the amount of data processing and other technological hurdles, have come into focus as the state prepares a fund that’s more than 100 times its size.

The state’s $2.1 billion Excluded Worker’s Fund is set to pay as much as $15,600 to 275,000 undocumented immigrants who lost their jobs during the pandemic. While the state fund doesn’t rely on networks of community organizations to get the word out, it requires people to hand over documentation and prove their residency — which could be a major roadblock for anyone who doesn’t want to risk being tracked by the government. It’s also tiered, and those who don’t provide as much data receive $3,200.

Even during the early months of the economic collapse of the COVID-19 pandemic, the sensitivity around distributing funds to some in off-the-radar communities became apparent to organizers.

“Our goal was to, in a short period of time, reach a breadth of community members that were left out, or unable to access, other public benefits or stimulus funding, and to do so with as much speed and trust as possible,” MOIA Commissioner Bitta Mostofi told Document

The groups were selected among a pool of organizations that had worked with the city before, and for the types of networks that they already had in place, Mostofi said. Some of the specific backgrounds and identities, as well as their professions, like domestic workers, street vendors, sex workers, and delivery drivers, data show. All told, nearly seven in 10 of the people who received direct assistance lived in Queens and Brooklyn.

It’s not clear how much of the funding went only to people who were members of the organizations, but organizers said they also relied on word-of-mouth or partnered with other organizations to distribute it

That has made it all but impossible to verify if funds have in fact gone to undocumented immigrants in need, though no one has accused any group of any wrongdoing.

In other cases, groups partnered with other organizations to give away the funds. For instance, the AAF worked with the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association, Hamilton-Madison House, and Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York to distribute $250,000, Yoo said. Overall, MOIA identified 24 other organizations that were indirectly involved in distributing the money.

About half of the grantees received $1,000, the full amount intended for families, according to MOIA’s data. How the funds were spent varies, but most organizations suggested prioritizing the money on food rather than rent. And in some cases, workers invested in things like e-bikes so they could make money as delivery drivers.

City-data show that the prevalence of people saying they would use the money to care for their families showed the impact would be as wide as 76,000 people. Couples and single parents, who made up about 12% of the grantees, received $800, while singles, nearly 25%, received $400. The rest received other amounts, which varied depending on whether they had received other forms of financial relief.

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