Immigrants in LA and elsewhere have been hit hard by COVID-19. MSPhotographic/shutterstock

Immigrants in LA and elsewhere have been hit hard by COVID-19. MSPhotographic/shutterstock

On what would have been Tax Day, California Governor Gavin Newsom took an unprecedented step. Drawing on state coffers, the governor designated a full $75 million for direct cash payment to immigrants—undocumented ones. The state’s new Disaster Relief Fund, designed to fill gaps left by the CARES Act as well as federal and state benefits programs, will provide one-time payments of $500 to roughly 150,000 undocumented adults across the state. That’s a large number, but it’s only a fraction of California’s total undocumented population, estimated at around 2 million.

The sheer weight of that number—higher than the population of many states—is hard for California to ignore. Though Golden State funders have been going to bat for undocumented immigrants at an increased tempo since 2016, COVID-19 marks the beginning of a new, more desperate phase in that fight. As is true across the country, California’s immigrant workers tend to work low-paid, insecure jobs in sectors like food service, caregiving, hospitality and landscaping. Many have lost their livelihoods. Others are putting themselves at risk on the front lines making deliveries, selling groceries and staffing hospitals and nursing homes.

To offset the human toll, a group of private funders has come together to supplement Newsom’s $75 million with tens of millions more. Their California Immigrant Resilience Fund (CIRF) wants to raise $50 million for direct relief to the undocumented. It’s operating alongside the state fund in a species of public-private partnership that’s been unheard-of in the immigrant funding world until now.

Though CIRF is perhaps the most prominent of philanthropy’s efforts to help immigrant communities during COVID-19, it’s certainly not the only one. The past couple months have seen an explosion of local funds, industry-specific aid and even crowdfunding campaigns to assist immigrants—including those whose status prevents them from accessing traditional benefits. Here’s a look at who’s doing what, and how immigrant-related funding may evolve as newcomers to the U.S. brace for even tougher times ahead.

The Rise of the UndocuFunds

One refrain we’ve been hearing quite a bit these days is that this society-wide crisis is exacerbating existing inequities, drawing into sharper focus the fault lines of race, class and gender. Citizenship status also fits that bill. Many bigger immigration funders who’ve spent the past several years backing legal aid, community services and advocacy have committed funds to relief efforts, or are planning to. But like a lot of other coronavirus responses, much of the action is taking place at ground level among community foundations, hometown donors and nonprofit service providers. 

Take, for instance, the rise of new “undocufunds” providing COVID-19 relief in immigrant communities. The term “undocufund” dates back to California’s devastating 2017 fires, which led a group of advocacy nonprofits to found the UndocuFund for Fire Relief in Sonoma County to aid the county’s 28,000 undocumented immigrants. Co-founded by Grantmakers Concerned With Immigrants & Refugees (GCIR) and with initial support from the California Wellness Foundation, the Sonoma County UndocuFund sowed the seeds for additional disaster relief vehicles serving the undocumented. They include the 805 UndocuFund, serving California’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, again in response to the state’s wildfires. 

COVID-19 has prompted the establishment of many more undocufunds, and not just in California. One, the MassUndocuFund, was set up specifically to help undocumented immigrants in the state of Massachusetts, where about 250,000 reside. Founding partners include Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, the fiscal sponsor, as well as MataHari Women’s Worker Center and One Fair Wage. San Francisco also has a new undocufund launched by local immigrant advocacy groups in March 2020 to respond to COVID-19. Yet another undocufund came online to help immigrant workers in Monterey Bay, California. Finally, the national immigrant advocacy group United We Dream just debuted its National UndocuFund for immigrants left out of federal and state benefits and CARES Act relief.

The undocufund movement, if that’s what it is, represents a growing acknowledgment that when disaster strikes, undocumented immigrants can be among the hardest-hit. And while they don’t use the term, a number of other local funds have come online to support immigrant communities with direct cash relief. We’ve discussed the Latino Community Foundation’s Love Not Fear Fund, supporting Latino-led community organizations in California’s Inland Empire and Central Valley. There’s also an Oakland Undocumented Relief Fund led by Centro Legal de la Raza, the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles’ Angeleno Campaign, and a fund by the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium to provide direct relief. 

California Dreamin’

It’s no coincidence so many of these undocumented-inclusive funds call California home. The state’s undocumented population dwarfs that of any other save Texas (California’s is still higher by at least several hundred thousand). But unlike in Texas, California’s immigrant advocates have the blessing of public officials at every level of government. Especially during Trump’s presidency, the Golden State has played host to much of the nation’s most ardent organizing and fundraising for immigrants’ rights. Though tensions persist, there’s a clearer united front.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to the California Immigrant Resilience Fund (CIRF). The idea for a privately funded statewide relief fund originated with GCIR, whose president, Daranee Petsod, shared it with a group of California foundation leaders earlier this spring. These folks had been coordinating for a while—the group has convened on immigration issues since November 2016, with Don Howard of the Irvine Foundation leading the charge. 

CIRF will raise money on the state level and channel it to local and regional funds, which will use it to make direct relief payments to undocumented immigrants. The hope is that a centralized fund will increase efficiency, reduce the need to compete for resources, and fill geographic gaps. Local groups determine exactly how to distribute funds based on local needs. “In the long term,” Petsod said, “we want the fund to serve as a standing philanthropic entity that can quickly mobilize for future crises, disasters and opportunities.”

The Blue Shield of California Foundation was the first to sign onto CIRF with a $1 million grant. Then the Emerson Collective, channeling the wealth of Laurene Powell Jobs, came along with more support. It was an interesting move by a typically low-key, anonymous funder. Petsod called Emerson’s support “incredibly heartening” and likely to attract additional funding from tech. Other donors to CIRF include the California Endowment, Irvine, OSF, CZI, the California Wellness Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and the Akonadi Foundation. There’s also support from community funders like SVCF and the Marin Community Foundation, as well as a contribution from Sunlight Giving, founded by WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton and his wife Tegan. 

Seed money from those funders and additional donations over the past week brings CIRF’s total war chest to around $8.5 million at the time of writing. The fund still has a long way to go before it hits its $50 million goal, but California’s philanthropic leaders seem confident. Expressing their support for the fund, several praised immigrants’ contributions to the region. 

“During this moment of national crisis, undocumented immigrants are risking their own health on behalf of the rest of us, saving lives as healthcare workers; caring for our loved ones; and growing much of the food we depend on,” Laurene Powell Jobs said in a press release. Marin Community Foundation President Thomas Peters made similar remarks: “The social and economic vitality of California owes in large measure to the steady flow of immigration into our state.”

The day after California announced its public-private initiative, New York City followed suit. Its $20 million Immigrant Emergency Relief program draws on funding from the Open Society Foundations and support from advocates like NDWA to provide immigrant New Yorkers with one-time cash payments. Unlike CIRF, which specifically aids the undocumented, New York’s fund will serve immigrants in general. The city estimates the support will reach up to 20,000 people, many of whom live in mixed-status households. OSF’s commitment is part of a broader $133.7 million COVID-19 relief pledge, including $37 million for New York. The biggest piece of that pie is $20 million for the Immigrant Emergency Relief program. It’ll be managed by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Essential Workers

The idea that recent immigrants play a crucial economic role and should be better protected underpins not only the relief funds founded to aid immigrants, but also a variety of direct relief funds for workers. Immigrants, after all, make up a high proportion of the labor force in many industries where employment is precarious and protections are few. 

Advocacy groups active in the new labor movement have set up a number of response funds including the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Coronavirus Care Fund, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network’s Immigrant Worker Safety Net Fund and One Fair Wage’s emergency fund for tipped and service workers. There’s also a fund for gig and low-earning contract workers from the Workers Lab, an emergency fund for workers and students from the Mission Asset Fund, and a relief fund for farmworkers through Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP).

Earlier this month, some of the biggest names in philanthropy announced another funding vehicle focused on low-wage workers: the Families and Workers Fund. Aiming to raise $20 million, the fund’s initial backers have put in $7.1 million with a “two-tiered” approach in mind. Direct relief is the first goal, including cash and loans for individuals “left out of the government’s emergency policy response.” The second goal is advocacy, both for policies that help workers now and for long-term attention to workers’ issues. The funders involved include Ford, Schmidt Futures, JPB, Kellogg, OSF, Annie E. Casey and the Amalgamated Foundation.

Other new rapid response funds support communities and populations with high numbers of immigrants, including HIP’s new Rapid Response Migration Fund and Civic Participation Fund as well as the Asian Pacific Environmental Network’s new Emergency Community Fund.

The Advocacy Question

Though emergency responses still predominate, funders are also looking to the long game. Advocates want to encourage the public sector to make more benefits accessible to immigrants, and over the longer term, to make progress on questions of immigrant rights, economic justice and civic participation. According to Petsod of GCIR, California’s CIRF has been useful on that first front. It marks the first time state dollars have been deployed alongside big philanthropy to provide direct assistance to undocumented immigrants. “Advocates around the country have been using it to encourage other states to follow suit. We’ve been fielding a lot of calls from other states,” Petsod said. 

While it’ll be interesting to see if more places follow California and New York City’s lead on public-private funding, it’s still too early to gauge philanthropy’s response on longer-term immigrant advocacy. Plenty of grantmakers have loosened restrictions on support to policy grantees, but not a lot of post-COVID advocacy money has gone out the door yet. And when it does, it’ll be less about responding to COVID and more about adapting to the world COVID leaves in its wake. 

In that sense, one of the more interesting advocacy takeaways from this rapid response phase is the nature of the support itself: a whole lot of just giving people money. Marc Gunther pointed out in a recent post just how quickly funders have pivoted from complex funding around meticulous “theories of change” to direct cash for those in need. Blue Meridian’s recent $100 million commitment for low-income workers is a case in point—it’ll pay for direct cash transfers and help more people access public benefits. The groups Blue Meridian chose to disburse those payments include NDWA and One Fair Wage, key players in the intersectional movement for immigrant and workers’ rights. 

Direct cash may be more palatable today than it has been in decades, but direct cash to the undocumented (especially from public budgets) is, of course, a more controversial prospect. Still, the fact that philanthropies and even governments are entertaining that approach may signal larger changes afoot.

What’s Old Is New Again

In a detailed rundown of how philanthropy can best support immigrants and refugees during the pandemic, GCIR recommends narrative strategies—one way funders can “shape a narrative of inclusion and belonging” over the longer term. Though grantmakers are understandably keen to avoid the impression that they’re politicizing a crisis, those larger questions of who’s owed what in a post-COVID world will shape immigration debates for years to come. 

For Patricia Eng, president of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), the pandemic is a chance for funders to leave their comfort zones. “Foundations are creating emergency response grants, but many of those funds are still directed either to current grantees or to groups that are already in the loop and know to apply,” Eng said. “This is an opportunity to expand outreach efforts to ensure that immigrant groups know about the opportunity, set aside funds to ensure that they get a piece of the pie, and understand that their financial needs may be even greater.”

Eng also pointed to the need for new urgency around old problems of who American society embraces and who it excludes. For immigrant advocates and their funders, the onset of racism along with the virus has been unfortunate but unsurprising. An open letter to philanthropy penned by AAPIP characterized the ongoing spike in anti-Asian sentiment as “reminiscent of attacks against South Asians, Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11, brewed from anti-Blackness and the all-too-familiar racial profiling of Black, Brown, and Native American people just going about their lives.” 

In terms of funding for immigrants, one thing to keep an eye on is whether these shifts—direct payments, loosened restrictions, public-private partnerships—are just temporary relief, a blip in time, or whether they’re part of a deeper movement toward trust. Trust between grantmaker and grantee, yes, but also the trust that newcomers to this country mean something more than the economic value they generate or consume.

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