Helping immigrants cope with the effects of COVID-19

By Divya Amladi

An interview with Oxfam partner the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium

As 2020 draws to a close, we’re mindful of all the life-changing work you helped make possible this year, including our response to COVID-19. You helped us respond to its devastating effects around the world, including here in the US, where your support enabled us to make grants to organizations in communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

Immigrants have been hit especially hard by the pandemic and related job losses, and many lack access to benefits that cover gaps in income and health coverage. With your support, we partnered with the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium (SDIRC) to provide seed funding that led to the launch of their COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund. The fund, which assists immigrants in San Diego County, has raised more than $900,000—resulting in 1,700 $500 grants, which helped recipients buy groceries, make car payments, and generally get by during this difficult time.

We spoke with Lilian Serrano, chair of the SDIRC, to learn more about the Immigrant Relief Fund and how it is helping families.

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Photo provided by Serrano

Tell us about SDIRC’s work.

The SDIRC is a coalition of over 50 organizations ranging from small volunteer-based organizations to large nonprofits. These organizations share four goals: supporting comprehensive immigration reform; stopping local policies and practices that target and violate the civil and human rights of immigrants; educating immigrants on different forms of relief, deportation defense, and application assistance; and educating the public about the contributions of immigrants.

Where we all overlap is advocacy for immigrant rights and refugees in San Diego County. We worked with Oxfam on a panel in 2019; when we were faced with this pandemic, we saw it as the perfect opportunity to partner.

What motivated this COVID-19 Immigrant Relief Fund?

The fund is designed to fill the gap in our current safety net we are facing as a result of this pandemic. A lot of industries shut down, and a lot of people lost their jobs. With the support of Oxfam, we were able to get the fund started to provide financial assistance to folks who would otherwise not be eligible.

How has COVID-19 affected the undocumented community?

Being undocumented means that you are working, paying taxes, doing everything you can to be on the “good side” of the government. It means that you wait for many years for the government to give you an opportunity to prove that all you want to do is give your family a better life. Right now, the message the government is sending is that in return for your hard work, we are going to exclude you from every possible safety net.

When you’re undocumented, you might be working for 10, 15, years or more and then if you’re laid off, you’re not able to claim unemployment or food stamps, even in California [the state offers expanded protections for migrants compared to federal policies]. Also, you are not able to access healthcare.

[The first federal stimulus check] excluded immigrants and households filing with an Individual Taxpayer Number, [which is what] the IRS gives undocumented folks to file their taxes. That means that we left out not just undocumented workers, but mixed-status families [including US citizens], and the entire household is ineligible for those checks.

How has this fund made a difference to people?

One case that stuck out was a domestic worker who was going to use the money to make her car payment. Once this pandemic is over, she will rely on her car to get to work. She can’t miss a car payment and be on the verge of losing her car because that’s how she feeds her family.

A lot of people are planning to use the money to pay rent. [Even with] a moratorium on evictions, that just means they are postponing payment. Once they have to pay again, they might be asked to pay three months of rent at once, and that is just an amount folks can’t afford. More recently, we have been hearing from folks who are planning on using the money to buy food for their families because they are otherwise depending on food distributions and food pantries to feed their kids.

How can $500 make a difference?

We have heard that folks are very grateful. They agree with us, of course, that $500 is not a means to replace a salary, but they are grateful that someone cares. It’s not just financial support to be able to go grocery shopping; it is a message that someone cares, it’s an acknowledgement for their work, and a friendly hand reaching out them, seeing them as part of the communities. It’s been very powerful.

You can help families struggling to overcome hunger, poverty, and injustice. Please consider giving a gift today.

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