Immigrant coalition pushes for more counties to commit pandemic relief funds to excluded workers

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By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio

After successfully persuading Johnson County officials to commit some of their pandemic relief funds for direct payments to workers excluded from federal direct payments due to immigration status, a coalition of immigrants and advocates is pushing other counties to do the same.

The Excluded Worker Fund coalition is a new regional organization called Escucha Mi Voz (“Listen to my voice”), a spin-off of the Iowa City Catholic Worker.

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Last month, Johnson County devoted about $2 million to an excluded worker fund with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. ARPA’s direct payments to individuals was meant to “build a bridge to an equitable economic recovery” from the pandemic. Johnson County plans to begin its distribution to workers left out of those federal payments in early 2022.

The calls for economic relief have taken place over three months in cities ranging from Iowa City and West Liberty to Muscatine, Columbus Junction and Washington.

The Polk County Board of Supervisors ARPA Economic Wellbeing discussion was no exception to the calls.

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Alfonso Mendez lives in Des Moines and works in construction. With Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), he asked the Polk County Board of Supervisors to help out people like him, who are suffering from no stimulus during a time of financial stress.

“The sad reality is that in many parts of the country, there is not much help for immigrant families. A fund is needed to help excluded workers here in Polk County. It can be a start to improving the lives of the people who live and work here,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter provided by Iowa CCI.

Mendez and others stressed many people working jobs deemed essential during the COVID-19 pandemic have varying immigration statuses. And just because they may not be U.S. citizens, doesn’t mean they weren’t affected financially, emotionally and physically by the virus. Mendez himself contracted the virus and lost out on paychecks while sick.

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“That is why I am here with people from CCI to ask for an excluded worker fund that could benefit many families. This is something dignified, fair and possible. Our families have grown up here in Iowa, especially in Polk County. We love this place despite of our immigration status,” he said.

Blanca Sosa urged the county officials to remember people like her and Mendez. She said it was her first time attending a forum where she asked for municipal support.

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“I was very shocked by learning that you, being American citizens, are struggling yourselves. Now imagine the life of an immigrant worker who can’t benefit or can apply for these programs and receive that help,” she said through an interpreter.

The Polk County Board of Supervisors took notes during their speeches, and wrapped up the meeting without further comment shortly after the last speaker took the microphone. Under ARPA, Polk County is set to receive a total of $95.2 million.

In Wapello, speaker after speaker, in both Spanish and English, shared heartbreaking stories with Louisa County officials about losing loved ones to COVID-19 and their economic struggles. Healthcare worker Areli Espinoza was one of them.

“We’re essential workers and we continue to work every day. We truly hang in there. Whether it was safer or not, we never stopped working. I am, and we are here, because we’re counting on the American Relief plan funds. We’re asking for a stimulus check relief,” Espinoza said.

She added her story is common for a lot of essential workers, many of which are immigrants. They were hit harder than U.S.-born individuals when the COVID-19 pandemic first appeared in the country.

Louisa County Board of Supervisors Chair Randy Griffin agreed some of the treatment workers have received during the pandemic was “unfair,” and he assured speakers he understands them and he is taking their concerns into consideration.

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Advocates in Iowa City predicted once some ARPA funding is directed toward excluded workers in Johnson County, others would follow.

Cherie Mortice, the board president of Iowa CCI, said Polk County has a responsibility to its residents, no matter their immigration status, to make sure they can recover economically from COVID-19. She added the extra funds will help individuals be more productive, which in turn will help the county.

“What we’re really seeing here is a moral imperative, that we show gratitude for the work that our frontline and essential workers have done, and the kind of strength that they’ve had to show to get through this, but also the impact it’s had on them and their families,” she said.

Other states, like California and New York, have passed similar legislation and ordinances that allow workers excluded from federal funds to receive direct payments from state and municipalities.

No decision has been made in Louisa or Polk counties.

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