The economic fallout of COVID-19 has forced thousands of Oregonians to flood the state's unemployment office, clogging phone lines, delaying response times, and adding to an already inflated sense of uncertainty among the newly unemployed.
Despite these bureaucratic logjams, most Oregonians applying for unemployment are confident that their claims will result in some kind of financial relief.
That's not the case, however, for a significant segment of Oregon's workforce: Undocumented immigrants.
Oregon employs an estimated 74,000 undocumented people—nearly 75 percent of the state's entire undocumented population. Like the rest of the Oregon population, thousands of immigrants were unexpectedly laid off due to COVID-19 closures in the past month, but because of their immigration status, none of them are eligible to collect unemployment insurance.
"We’re talking about restaurant workers, homeowners caring for their elderly family members, farm workers, construction workers," said Adriana Miranda, director of Causa Oregon.
Causa specifically represents undocumented Latinx immigrants, a population that is already disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. According to a Pew Research Center study released April 3, 49 percent of surveyed Latinx Americans say that they or someone in their household has taken a pay cut or lost a job because of the COVID-19 outbreak, compared with 33 percent of all US adults.
"Immigrant Oregonians are the backbone of our state's economy and they pay taxes, yet they are continually left out of receiving any public benefits," Miranda said. "This situation really highlights the need."
Many of these undocumented Oregonians file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)—a number provided by the federal government to undocumented immigrants who are required to pay taxes, even though they don’t have a Social Security Number. The Oregon Center for Public Policy estimates that undocumented Oregonians pay a total of $81 million in state and local taxes annually.
Even those with an ITIN number, however, are prohibited from accessing unemployment benefits or any of the stimulus money guaranteed through the federal government's Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which has promised a $1,200 check to all adults who file taxes. The stimulus bill also grants $500 to each child under age 17. While many children of undocumented workers are US citizens, their parents' status effectively bars them from accessing these funds.
There are a few immigrants who have access to these benefits: Workers with Temporary Protected Status (people with green cards or work visas) or those covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are able to apply for unemployment insurance.
But, for the vast majority of other undocumented immigrants, Miranda said, "There's just nothing there for them."
Miranda was one of several leaders in Oregon's immigrant rights community who initially called on the Oregon lawmakers to include some kind of financial support for undocumented workers in the legislature's upcoming special session to address COVID-19. But, when state lawmakers released their recommended priorities for the session in late March, immigrants weren't mentioned.
This gap in the state and federal social safety net encouraged several Latinx-focused immigrant rights organizations— including Causa, Latino Network, Voz Worker Education Project, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN)— to take matters into their own hands. By the first week in April, they had created the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, a program Miranda says will address "the immediate need of getting money in the hands of immigrant workers who've been laid off." The program will mimic the same kind of wage replacement that US citizens are allowed through unemployment insurance, and be dispersed through these organizations.
The group is currently accepting public donations for the fund online, but is hoping that the program gets picked up and financially backed by the Oregon Legislature in the coming emergency session.
Gov. Kate Brown has yet to announce when that session will begin. In an April 2 press release, Brown said that she's waiting for the federal government to finalize its COVID-19 stimulus bills before allowing the Oregon Legislature to open its doors, to avoid passing redundant funding bills.
"We want to make sure our scarce state dollars are focused on filling in gaps left by the federal stimulus package, not duplicating effort," Brown said.
For undocumented Oregonians, however, any delay pushes them further into instability—and debt.
"There is an incorrect assumption that everyone will benefit from a federal stimulus bill," said Ricardo Lujan-Valerio, advocacy director at Latino Network. "There's nothing coming from the federal government for undocumented immigrants. That's why we need that state legislature to act now."
The group has asked local jurisdictions, include the City of Portland, to throw their support behind the fund. Staff members in both Commissioner Chloe Eudaly and Mayor Ted Wheeler's offices say the council is seriously considering including the relief fund in its own list of legislative priorities, which it is finalizing this week.
Sonia Schmanski, Wheeler's deputy chief of staff, said that the city doesn't have the resources to effectively fund the program to the scale it deserves.
"The state and federal government will have to lead on direct support," Schmanski wrote in an email to the Mercury. "Our best role is to build systems and structures that prioritize our most vulnerable community members, and that facilitate direct support from state and federal programs."
In the meantime, community groups are fueling the fund with private donations. They're also looking to help undocumented workers who are still employed—but working in environments that may expose them to the virus. Because Latinx workers are disproportionately represented in industries that have remained open throughout the pandemic—like food service, agriculture, construction, and janitorial work—it puts them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
This risk is reflected in the latest data shared by Oregon Health Authority, which found that Latinx Oregonians make up 18 percent of the state's positive COVID-19 cases—while only representing 13 percent of the state's general population.
"We've heard from many immigrants who fear that, if they fall sick, they'll lose their current work status," said Lujan-Valerio. "And they know there's no resources for them if they lose their job. We can't let them fall through the cracks."