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$2.1 Billion for Undocumented Workers Signals New York’s Progressive Shift

New York Times - Thu Apr 8 08:00

The fund, which could provide payments to hundreds of thousands of people excluded from other pandemic relief, ignited a battle among state lawmakers before it was approved this week.

Workers gathered outside Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office in Manhattan for an Easter prayer service and rally on the eve of the budget vote in Albany.
Credit...Desiree Rios for The New York Times

When the coronavirus arrived in New York City a year ago, it hit enclaves of undocumented immigrants with a fury, killing thousands and wiping out the service and construction jobs that kept many families afloat.

Lifelines like unemployment insurance and federal stimulus checks were out of reach because undocumented people are ineligible for most government aid. Instead, they have relied on food pantries, lenient landlords and loans from friends.

But after a sweeping move by lawmakers this week, New York will now offer one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented immigrants who lost work during the pandemic. The effort — a $2.1 billion fund in the state budget — is by far the biggest of its kind in the country and a sign of the state’s shift toward policies championed by progressive Democrats.

“I’ve met neighbors who have not been able to pay rent, or put food on the table, or been able to provide their children with a laptop when a public school has not been able to provide one,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat from Queens and lead proponent of the fund.

The excluded workers fund, part of the state’s new $212 billion budget deal that was reached on Tuesday, was one of the most contentious points of debate during negotiations, which dragged on past the April 1 deadline.

Republicans instantly criticized the measure as out of touch at a time when many other New Yorkers were still struggling, while some Democrats from swing districts upstate and on Long Island said privately that a publicly funded rescue program for people who are not in the country legally could be wielded as a cudgel against them in future elections.

“The question is not, do you help these workers, it is how do you do it and how do you structure it in a way where it is defensible in these districts,” said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic political consultant. Workers had made a compelling case that they had been devastated by the pandemic, he said, but some rural and suburban voters might see the payments as an expensive, and unfair, benefit for noncitizens.

Most Democrats would not speak publicly about fault lines in their party, but internal clashes emerged on social media on Tuesday as lawmakers squabbled about eligibility and traded personal insults.

New York’s fund dwarfs a similar relief program enacted in California, where officials set up a $75 million cash assistance program last year that gave undocumented immigrants a $500 one-time payment on a first-come, first-served basis.

It is hard to quantify the number of undocumented families living in New York, but the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute said Wednesday that the fund could benefit as many as 290,000 people statewide.

Undocumented workers could receive up to $15,600, the equivalent of $300 per week for the last year, if they can verify that they were state residents, ineligible for federal unemployment benefits and lost income as a result of the pandemic.

Others who can prove at least their residency and identity, and provide some work documentation, could be eligible for a lower sum up to $3,200.

The proposal found support in the Democratic-controlled State Senate and Assembly, especially among progressives who had argued for relief for more than a year. In the months leading up to the budget deadline, undocumented immigrants sought to draw attention to their cause.

Protesters gathered outside Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office and shut down bridges, carrying hard hats, pots and pans, and brooms and mops — the instruments of the jobs they had held — along with banners saying, “Our Labor Saved Lives.” And as the measure neared approval, about a dozen supporters who camped around a Manhattan church staged a three-week hunger strike that ended Wednesday.

Over the weekend, as an agreement around the fund materialized, it drew forceful denunciations from state Republicans, who described it as the latest “outlandish development” of one-party rule in Albany. The state also passed tax increases on the wealthy, meaning New York City millionaires would soon pay the highest personal income taxes in the nation.

“Democrats are raising taxes and using your federal stimulus dollars to enact a radical agenda rather than helping veterans, small main street businesses, teachers and senior citizens,” said Rob Ortt, the Republican minority leader in the State Senate.

But Democratic supporters called the effort a moral imperative and pointed to substantial relief for small businesses included in this year’s state budget — $1 billion in grants and tax credits — on top of stimulus money that has poured in from Washington.

“To deny excluded workers benefits after we relied on them to get us through this historically difficult year would be immoral and unjust,” said Michael Gianaris, a Democrat and the deputy majority leader in the Senate.

The warnings of a backlash among voters echoed those that followed the 2019 passage of a state law that allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses, an issue that some Republicans stressed in campaigns last year. There did not appear to be a detrimental response from voters — in fact, Democrats expanded their majorities — but the driver’s license law did not carry a $2 billion price tag.

“That number would resonate with people saying, ‘Wow, I struggled through this whole pandemic, I’ve followed all the rules, have paid taxes and done everything I’m supposed to be doing,’” said William A. Barclay, the Republican minority leader in the Assembly.

On Wednesday, Mr. Cuomo praised the fund’s approval but sounded a skeptical note, saying that it was “a major concern” that the fund could be susceptible to fraud, although he did not offer specifics.

Mr. Cuomo — whose political power has weakened amid investigations into his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic and multiple allegations of sexual harassment — was unable to persuade lawmakers to include stricter requirements on eligibility.

Lawmakers who were involved in the negotiations said Mr. Cuomo had pushed for a rule that applicants provide an individual taxpayer identification number, which is used to process tax information for some people who are not eligible for a Social Security number.

Groups that work with undocumented immigrants said such a provision would have excluded many workers who had not applied for an identification number out of fear during the Trump administration.

Another provision sought by the fund’s supporters would have offered the benefits to people who were recently incarcerated. That was ultimately left out of the plan, but Ms. Ramos, the lawmaker who led the push for the fund, said people recently released from behind bars — like anyone who can prove they both lost income and were ineligible to receive relief — could still qualify for the aid. She added that they represented a small share of those eligible for the payments.

John W. Mannion, one of five Democrats in the State Senate who voted against the budget bill that included the workers fund, said he voted no because he had disagreements over how such a massive program would be administered, even though he understood the emphasis on helping the undocumented population recover from the pandemic.

After the deal was struck, undocumented workers described in interviews months of desperation as work had dried up during the pandemic.

“There were days I couldn’t sleep. To be honest with you, we had nothing,” said Giovanna Carreño, a house cleaner who had supported her two children in Yonkers for more than a decade before the coronavirus arrived and her six clients told her to stay home. Ms. Carreño, 50, who immigrated from Peru, resumed working a few days a week this year, only to fall sick with Covid herself.

She said she paid taxes and asked that the government recognize the contributions she and other workers made to the economy.

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Workers stopped traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge on March 6, when more workers also marched across the Manhattan Bridge to draw attention to the plight of undocumented and other workers excluded from government benefits during the pandemic.
Credit...Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times

A coalition of groups had pushed for an even larger $3.5 billion fund. But much of the final negotiations in Albany focused on the eligibility restrictions Mr. Cuomo sought, and the type of documents workers would need to show to apply.

The budget language lists the wide array of documents that workers can use to prove eligibility. Those include driver’s licenses and state-issued identification cards; birth certificates and school transcripts; utility bills and bank statements; a letter from an employer; pay stubs, wage statements or wage notices; and a previous W-2 or 1099 tax form.

Groups that support undocumented people said they plan to make sure that excluded workers who survive on a patchwork of jobs or are paid in cash or under the table and cannot easily provide proof of employment will not be left out.

A construction worker in upstate New York who lost his job after the pandemic hit and was forced to rely on friends said the announcement of the agreement was emotional.

“We’re survivors of the virus, and we are only here because other people helped us out,” said the worker, a father of three from Honduras who asked to be identified only by his first name, Nelson, because of his immigration status.

Nelson still does not have steady employment but plans to try to get the paperwork together to apply for aid, so he can begin paying off his debts to friends, he said.

“For me and for all the others, it’s a pretty big victory,” he said.