March 2021 marks a year into a world-altering global pandemic declared during Women’s History Month. A year of turbulence, loss, and what seemed like never-ending change. Many of us transformed our homes into offices, classrooms, gyms, and shelters that kept us safe while a mysterious virus raged on. COVID-19 forced the collective to get creative and think outside the box about maintaining our families’ health and being prepared for what might happen next. Uncertainty became the new normal. Millions of Americans suddenly felt the weight of employment, housing, food insecurity, prolonged distance from loved ones, civil unrest, travel bans, lack of access to medical care, and misinformation. We don’t need reminding.
It is easy to forget, though, that while the challenges we navigated in 2020 were new to many of us, it has long been the reality for over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Uncertainty has always been the norm. Out-of-the-box solutions are a necessity. Jobs are never secure, borders and wars separate families, and access to health insurance and other benefits like unemployment are severely limited. Despite the unique inequities undocumented immigrants face, they’ve helped drive the economy and workforce throughout our nations’ history. But our history tends to be curated by the dominant class, who decide who the winners are and whose lives hold value. The pandemic has shown us all just how interwoven our collective well-being and economic opportunity truly is to one another, regardless of documentation status. As we celebrate the women in our lives this month, we must also uplift the stories and neglected needs of the essential lives that keep our country running during these historic times.
Fund Excluded Washingtonians: The Intersection of Racial, Health and Economic Equity
Women make up 46% of over 220,000 undocumented immigrants in Washington State, with over 93% identifying as people of color. Half of them are uninsured and have limited access to affordable medical care. Immigration status also prevents many women from receiving unemployment benefits, food stamps, or federal stimulus aid. These exclusions, coupled with unprecedented job loss and lack of access to affordable childcare, leave undocumented women and their children particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of COVID-19.
While our previous and current administrations failed to adequately step up for our undocumented communities, five Latinx organizers under the age of 30 stepped in to address the needs of excluded workers and families bearing the brunt of this public health crisis. Undocumented and formerly undocumented young professionals and organizers with the Washington Dream Coalition in partnership with an organization called Scholarship Junkies led our state’s charge to develop a COVID-19 Undocumented Relief Fund. Alejandra Perez, Larissa, Daniela Murguia, Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa, and Guillermo Mogollan took the initiative to fill the gaps where our government should have. Initially, the small but mighty team set a goal to raise $200,000 for undocumented migrants left out of aid, but in just a few months, they witnessed their efforts grow to become the largest grassroots-led fund in the nation. This fund helped to support over 5,200 families throughout Washington, equaling over $7.1 million in cash assistance. This funding came from community-centric mutual aid donations, and the fund was run entirely by volunteers. After quickly gaining traction with no end in sight for COVID-19, the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network and several community-based partners launched a formal coalition campaign to advocate for state-funded COVID-19 relief for undocumented Washingtonians. By May 2020, the urgency to push for statewide relief was made even more apparent by farmworkers in Yakima striking over hazardous working conditions, low wages, and lack of paid sick leave. Our state representatives could no longer turn their backs on our excluded frontline workers. Thanks to the tireless work and advocacy catalyzed by women like Alejandra, Daniela, Larissa, and the workers that rose against injustice, in October of 2020, Governor Inslee announced a $40 million fund for undocumented immigrants through the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.
The formalized coalition not only provided financial support but also ensured that the fund was accessible to our states’ diverse immigrant population. As a process created for immigrants by immigrants, the Washington Covid-19 Immigrant Relief Fund provided information in 11 languages, developed a dedicated hotline through the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Fund (WAISN), and implemented measures that kept applicant identities safe. Immediate assistance went out to thousands of families, but with over 90,000 applicants, many were still left out of much-needed support due to limited funding. Ongoing conversations about expanding the fund continue at the state level with the most recent Senate and House budget proposals including $300 million and $340 million in allocations for the fund respectively. This would be one of many huge wins necessary in the fight for equity and justice for immigrants in Washington. All of which is made possible by women of color like Alejandra, Larissa, and Daniela leading the way.
Successful and Inclusive COVID-19 Recovery Requires Bold Progressive Action for Undocumented Immigrants
For even documented citizens impacted by COVID-19, the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act were simply not enough. Delayed and inadequate action by Congress worsened conditions for millions struggling to make ends meet across the country. In the absence of federal support, immigrant communities rallied together to take care of one another.
Community building, mutual aid, and creative ingenuity have always been at the heart of immigrant cultures, values, and their survival. Amid a devastating pandemic, paternalistic band aid solutions are unacceptable, and it is up to us to push for more. Additionally, we must work towards transformational systemic change that centers the experiences and leadership of undocumented immigrants. Recovering from COVID-19 means moving past limited and exclusionary relief efforts. Inadequate and inconsistent financial support does not meet the needs of the people, especially when it leaves out our most vulnerable populations. Contrary to xenophobic rhetoric, undocumented immigrants pay an average of $79.7 billion in federal tax and $41 billion in state and local taxes each year. Yet, despite working under dangerous conditions on the frontlines of a global pandemic while paying millions into social infrastructure, many of our essential communities remain excluded from reaping any of the benefits. This is exploitative and wrong, and challenging these broken systems should not fall solely on the shoulders of immigrants impacted by them.
Beyond financial relief, supporting our undocumented communities requires including them in unemployment benefits and nutrition assistance programs, expanding access to affordable, high-quality healthcare coverage (including vaccination rollouts), and balancing our tax code to ensure that, like undocumented folks, the wealthy in our state contribute their fair share. We have more than enough resources in Washington to make sure everyone’s needs are met. Our investments must cease funding deportations, family separation, racist travel bans, children in cages, and abusive migrant detention centers. Instead, we can seek to establish equitable citizenship pathways beyond meritocratic or temporary measures like DACA and TPS. For those of us with the privilege of citizenship status and accomplices to the abuses of power against those who give so much to our society, the time to mobilize for progressive policies is now. During Women’s History Month, there is no better way to honor the legacy of changemakers like Alejandra Perez, Larissa, Daniela Murguia, and all the immigrant women that paved the way before them. Kind words and dedications are no longer enough. It’s time to follow the model of their leadership and initiative. We need long-term commitment and investments from our state and federal government, inclusive of all undocumented peoples.
The aftershocks of 2020 ripple into another Women’s History Month, but with vaccinations and businesses reopening, springtime feelings of hope are on the horizon. Many are having conversations about returning back to normal. But as we forge our pathway toward recovery, we can’t forget those who risked their lives to keep our country afloat. For undocumented women in our country, the “normal” many strive to return to will only continue to look like deadly xenophobia, health disparities, and exploitation without holistic systems change. The chronic stress of uncertainty they face will not go away when the pandemic is over. Not unless we step in and do right by our essential but excluded neighbors.
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