‘Long overdue’ support for undocumented workers, advocates say

For undocumented workers on the East End, March typically signals an important shift. It is a time when seasonal work across a number of industries — agriculture, landscaping, restaurants, tourism, housekeeping — picks up, and families are able to get back on their feet financially, after their income often dwindles significantly during winter. For those workers, the coronavirus pandemic could not have arrived at a worse time.

Sister Mary Beth Moore of Centro Corazon de Maria, an immigrant advocacy group in Hampton Bays, witnessed the fallout at this time last year.

“Just at a time that their resources were depleted, the whole economy shut down, and they were left in a terrifying situation,” she said. 

Helping those families — many of whom have been living in the country and working in the area for more than a decade — required tremendous effort on behalf of organizations like Centro Corazon, the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, the Latino advocacy group SEPA Mujer and other charitable organizations, particularly because undocumented workers were largely ineligible for pandemic-related unemployment benefits or federal stimulus money. But that changed for New Yorkers last week, when it was announced that $2.1 billion had been set aside in the $212 billion state budget to provide financial relief to those workers, most of whom work in industries hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Dubbed the Excluded Workers Fund, it will provide one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented immigrants who lost work during the pandemic. While New York is not the first state to provide such payments — California included a similar provision in its budget — the $2.1 billion is, by far, the highest dollar amount set aside for that purpose. Close to 300,000 people in the state could benefit from the funds, the New York Times reported.

Provisions for the fund state that undocumented workers who can verify they were state residents and ineligible for federal unemployment benefits, and who lost income as a result of the pandemic, could receive up to $15,600. Those who can prove only their residency and provide ID and some form of work documentation will have access to lower amounts. Proof of employment can come in many forms, from pay stubs to a letter from an employer. The CARES Act had allowed residents eligible for unemployment to receive an additional $300 a week in benefits.

Sister Moore pointed out that undocumented workers provide the underpinning for the many service industries in the area, from restaurant work to housecleaning and landscaping — business that are thriving because of tourism and the presence of wealthy second-home owners across the North and South forks. 

“They’re woven into the fabric of the economy on the East End,” Sister Moore said. “You can’t chop them out. When everyone else was getting help, they got nothing. This is long overdue and desperately needed, and deserved.”

That opinion is not shared by all, however, and the inclusion of the funding in the budget was a hot-button issue. State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) was one of several lawmakers strongly opposed to it, saying money should have been prioritized for small businesses, which he termed “the backbone of the economy.” He also pointed out that California, a state with more than double the population of New York, created a similar fund but with $75 million set aside and with more safeguards included.

“It’s ripe for fraud, and it was done so recklessly without the appropriate safeguards,” he said.

Mr. Palumbo added: “I think it’s way over the top. Of course, excluded workers and undocumented workers are human beings, and I don’t want to discount their lives, but to have done this with $2.1 billion is, in my opinion, not where our priorities are supposed to be.

“I think that taxpayer money should be reserved for taxpayers that are here, that aren’t here illegally,” he continued. “I know that may sound a little harsh, but that’s not what the relief is for. It’s for people who pay into the system and are part of the legal business community.”

Immigrant advocates dispute the notion that undocumented workers do not pay taxes. 

“It’s not accurate that undocumented workers aren’t paying taxes,” said Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, pointing out that she has an accountant at her office who routinely helps workers coming in to apply for taxpayer ID numbers. “They want to prepare for the future and make sure the government sees them as contributing potential citizens.”

The degree to which excluded workers have paid taxes over the years they’ve been in the country, and the length of time they’ve been here, are almost beside the point for the people who have been helping them survive over the last 12 months. For them, it’s a moral issue first and foremost.

“We’ve helped one person who has had to try to protect herself from COVID because she is suffering from lung cancer,” Sister Margaret said. “We were able to get her a month’s rent paid, which took some pressure off. She’s been living in such fear of her children being in school and possibly bringing [COVID] home.

“People aren’t asking you to pay forever and ever,” she continued. “Any amount just takes the pressure off, so they can take a deep breath and get back on their feet.”

Brittany Bye, a senior community organizer with SEPA Mujer, pointed out that the state aid is also a way for excluded workers to access the help they need in a more direct and sustainable way. She pointed out that in the last year, many undocumented workers were forced to wait on long lines at food pantries that were often struggling to keep up with demand and, in some instances, workers were taking out high-interest loans to keep up with rent payments and other bills, putting them in potentially dangerous situations with loan sharks looking to profit from their situation.

For Sister Moore, the issue extends beyond politics.

“The pandemic should have opened our eyes to the fact that it’s a single human community,” she said. “What do we say to the next generation, to the citizen children of undocumented workers, that their parents were told or some kind of leadership thought they didn’t deserve to live with dignity and have an arrangement of sharing? There’s an opportunity to become more human, to share with the people who are doing the hardest jobs.”