The blog of the Urban Institute
July 6, 2020

Including Immigrants in State and Local Support Responses during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Immigrants with low-wage jobs have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial and health hardships because of exposure to the virus as essential workers, overrepresentation in industries with high layoff rates, and barriers to health care access and safety net supports, including limited eligibility and fears around immigration enforcement and the public charge rule. Although federal relief has provided necessary resources to many around the country, immigrant families, especially families with undocumented members, have been largely excluded from those efforts.

Many state and local governments and nonprofits are rolling out emergency services and supports in light of COVID-19, and some are filling in the gaps in federal relief for immigrant families. To best serve immigrant communities, state and local efforts should first understand the reality that many immigrant families include members with different immigration and citizenship statuses, including US-born or naturalized citizens, permanent residents, temporary visa holders, or undocumented. Emergency supports should then prioritize inclusivity by removing eligibility barriers, raising awareness through outreach and effective multilingual resources, and tailoring supports to the specific needs of immigrant communities.

Early in the crisis, we scanned the responses of 10 metropolitan areas with large immigrant populations in a variety of state immigration policy climates. From those observations, we identified both innovative methods to inclusively support immigrant households in response and recovery efforts and gaps in state and local efforts.

Innovative strategies for supporting immigrant families

Since the start of the crisis, states and localities have worked to help residents get urgent information, meet basic needs, and stabilize housing. Some, especially those with stronger preexisting commitment and capacity for serving immigrant communities, have pursued targeted strategies particularly to support undocumented immigrants and multiple-status families. California created cash assistance specifically for undocumented immigrants through a public-private fund, which is expected to reach 150,000 families, and compiled a resource guide for all immigrant communities, which features information about social distancing, testing, and resources in multiple languages. Chicago made COVID-19 relief and recovery measures available to all residents, regardless of immigration status, and supported efforts across government, nonprofits, philanthropy, and business to raise money for the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund.

Others are taking steps to ensure immigrants’ access to existing mainstream programs through outreach or expanded eligibility. Some states, including New York and Washington, have elected to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment under emergency Medicaid, allowing eligible immigrants to access COVID-19 care. And many states and cities have adopted eviction moratoria and utility shutoff protection to provide temporary relief for families, usually regardless of immigration status.

Community-based organizations have also been vital in connecting immigrant families to public resources and filling in the gaps where those resources are missing. In Washington, DC, the city government has partnered with local nonprofits to support aid applicants and distribute funds for COVID-19 relief. Such partnership strengthens government initiatives and improves access for communities with limited English proficiency, low digital literacy, and distrust of public authorities.

Immigrant-serving organizations have also filled gaps in federal, state, and local pandemic response, especially in localities that haven’t directly acknowledged or provided resources to their immigrant communities. Grassroots efforts like mutual aid organizations, multilingual resource guides, and fundraisers for undocumented workers and families have arisen in communities across the country to aid and inform local immigrants who are excluded from or might struggle to access other resources.

Where the emergency response has left gaps for immigrant communities

Despite innovative program and policy responses, gaps remain for immigrant communities, especially for families with limited or no eligibility for existing safety net programs or federal supports.

Across the nation, many states and metropolitan areas with significant immigrant populations have not launched any targeted supports to address the needs of these communities and make minimal effort to include them in mainstream supports. Even in metro areas that have launched targeted supports, not all immigrant communities have equal access, especially those residing outside city limits, where they are likely not eligible for city-led programs and networks of community-based organizations and private resources are more limited.

In many cities we scanned, need has far surpassed the breadth and depth of available emergency resources. Supports like cash assistance and small-business assistance funds have been exhausted shortly after launch, often not reaching those most in need. These shortages more severely affect undocumented immigrants, who are excluded from many federal supports, such as expanded unemployment benefits and the individual federal stimulus payments.

Work protections, including appropriate personal protective equipment and safety measures for essential workers, and supports to immigrant-owned small businesses, were not implemented broadly in the early phase of the crisis. Some localities did provide assistance, such as Washington State’s extension of paid sick and safe time to all residents during the pandemic and public-private funds to support small businesses, but worker protections will require more attention as cities and states continue to reopen.

Prioritizing an immigrant inclusive recovery

Inclusive response and recovery efforts require attention to the needs and circumstances of immigrant communities and a combination of accessible mainstream and targeted supports for immigrant families. Local governments with existing support infrastructure in supportive state policy environments have been able to respond quickly, but immigrants in newer immigrant destinations or more restrictive policy contexts face numerous barriers putting them and their families’ health and financial well-being at greater risk.

The entry doors of Centro Legal de la Raza, a nonprofit offering legal services to immigrants, seen on Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Oakland, California. Signs on their doors advise that the office is closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus and offer a telephone number immigrants can call if they need help. (Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

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