The Washington state Legislature approved $340 million in April 2021 to aid the state’s undocumented immigrants, who total around 275,000, in navigating the hardships brought on by COVID. The allocation made Washington a national leader in helping people whose immigration status disqualifies them from receiving unemployment benefits and stimulus payments.
This fund was a way to provide relief to undocumented people who faced many of the same challenges as Washingtonians with citizenship during the pandemic, but didn’t have the resources to navigate them, said State Rep. Timm Ormsby, chief budget writer for House Democrats.
However, long lag times stalled the third round of this funding. In a March Crosscut story about the delay, state officials said they hoped checks could go out between this month and December. Now, the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, which is helping to support and manage the fund, expects funds to be distributed from December to January; hopeful recipients have until Nov. 14 to apply.
The country’s undocumented-immigrant population was hit hard during the pandemic for a myriad of reasons, including limited access to healthcare and their roles as essential workers in several industries, such as health and agriculture. Washington’s Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance representatives attributed the delay in distributing funds to these communities largely to the state’s Afghan refugee resettlement efforts. To some, the relief money’s slow rollout reflected a need for structural change.
Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, previously told Crosscut he hoped to see the money get to communities faster, and that the state’s refugee and immigrant assistance office may need additional staff on hand to manage sudden events like the resettlement push for Afghan refugees.
“It took time to get set up,” Barón said of the fund in a recent interview. “That delay obviously meant that people did not get assistance as early as we would have wanted.”
He viewed the holdup as a lesson in the importance of infrastructure, which he said can move the process along more quickly in the future.
Who’s applying to Washington’s Immigrant Relief Fund
Upward of 35,000 people had already applied to the fund when Crosscut spoke to Nazibah Chowdhury, communications manager at the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN) on Sept. 27.
Many of these applications came from people in Yakima and King counties, according to Chowdhury, who said that on Oct. 3, the number of applicants surpassed 50,000. She characterized the program’s intended recipients as those “greatly impacted by the pandemic” – ranging from those who lost work to those who dealt with the repercussions of getting COVID.
Those interested in the funding can check their eligibility by going to immigrantreliefwa.org and clicking “Apply Now,” which will prompt them to fill out a questionnaire that asks, for example, if they:
- Live in Washington and are at least 18 years old;
- Experienced specific hardships since January 2021 due to COVID – like being past due on rent, losing child care or contracting COVID;
- Received unemployment benefits during the pandemic or a federal stimulus check.
People can apply in Chinese, English, Korean, Spanish and Tagalog. Applicants needing assistance in other languages can find community resources on the Immigrant Relief Fund site or call 844-620-1999.
Barón of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project emphasized that applying to the fund will not negatively impact one’s immigration status or efforts to gain citizenship.
Being undocumented during the pandemic
COVID took Edgar out of commission for about a month.
“It hit him pretty hard,” his son, who helped translate, said in a phone conversation. “Body chills and body aches and throwing up… I mean, you could name it all and he had it.”
Even after he got over the debilitating symptoms, Edgar, a Washington resident for over a decade whose last name has been excluded for privacy reasons, still found that his lungs and sense of taste had yet to fully recover.
Beyond getting COVID, the pandemic also impacted his work as a house painter: He worked fewer hours. People didn’t want anyone coming into their homes.
Edgar weathered woes characteristic of the pandemic, but due to his undocumented status, could not rely on receiving the financial assistance many other citizens used to cushion themselves – until he learned about the relief fund on social media. He applied to the program in the summer of 2021 and received a $1,000 check about one month later.
He was able to put the money toward household needs like groceries, his son said. Since then, Edgar has applied for the third round of relief funding, and, if he receives the money, plans to use it to pay rent and other bills.
Why was the relief money delayed?
The distribution delays may be the result of an overextended office maneuvering a large-scale, fast-paced refugee resettlement push, but there could also be other factors at play, said State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle.
“While I think we all want so many things to happen more quickly, I do think that making sure that community is designing… every piece of this particular program is really important,” said Saldaña, a longtime advocate for immigrants’ and workers’ rights.
The push to ensure community organizations had a seat at the table in shaping the rollout, in combination with workforce shortage issues within state agencies, appeared to fuel the delay, she said.
A spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee told Crosscut, in previous reporting on the relief funding disbursement delays, that Trump-era policies limiting refugee resettlement in the U.S. led to staff reductions at resettlement agencies. Representatives with the state’s Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance at the time indicated to Crosscut that it planned to add three additional staff members to its 13-person team, who could assist in managing the fund.
Barón wants to see Washington better primed to respond to immigrant communities’ needs, but that isn’t a responsibility for the state to shoulder alone. Programs like the relief fund reflect a federal failure to pass legislation that gives people a path to citizenship, he said.
“I think there is a necessity and an urgency for states to step in and say, ‘If the feds are not going to do the job, we need to put in place mechanisms to take care of the community members who are left out of federal systems,” Barón said. “Despite the fact that they’re making huge contributions to all of our communities.”