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How undocumented workers took on the New York establishment – and won

After 23 days on hunger strike, undocumented workers in New York won access to COVID relief funds. Now others across the US are following their lead

Luis Feliz Leon
25 June 2021, 1.11pm
Excluded essential workers appear at Washington Square Park after ending a 23 day hunger strike in New York
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Brian Branch Price//Alamy Live News

“During the hunger strike, 23 days without eating, my sadness, and my desperation manifested on my body, on my face. At first, you don’t notice, but when you take off your mask, you see the physical wear, or desgaste, on your face,” said Rubiela Correa, 44, a house cleaner who lost her job in March of last year and ended up in the city’s shelter system.

Correa is a Queens member of Make the Road New York, which is part of an alliance of immigrant workers organized by the Fund Excluded Workers coalition. Several months ago the group launched a hunger strike ahead of the New York State budget on 16 March, demanding $3.5bn in funding for workers excluded from federal and state COVID-19 relief programs.

But Correa’s transformation, along with the other hunger strikers, wasn’t only physical. The hunger strike presented what she describes as “the opportunity to do something about my desperation” and “the doors began to open… where I could fight for my dignity not just for my own but for others.”

The hunger strike lasted 23 days, ending on 7 April when the New York State Legislature and governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to a $2.1bn fund for workers excluded from unemployment benefits and federal stimulus checks.

The win culminated a year-long campaign, including shutting down bridges, and protesting in front of the mansions of billionaires and the offices of elected officials.

Before Thanksgiving last year, Make the Road New York and other allies packed the sidewalk outside Cuomo’s Manhattan office to demand a tax hike on the rich. “This week, billionaires will feast like kings, while our people have to survive by food lines. Is this fair?” chanted Julissa Bisono, associate director of organizing for Make the Road New York. “We know that our governor loves to cook for his family and offers the same to millionaires in the Hamptons, but what about us?” Bisono added, pointing to a mock breadline with essential workers standing behind a table with no bread while next to them sat billionaires feasting.

Correa is now one of nearly 300,000 New Yorkers who will benefit from the fund because they lost employment in the pandemic-stricken city but were ineligible for state and federal relief programs. New York City is home to roughly 476,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the US Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

“This was a fund to win respect and recognition for the labor and the dignity of undocumented workers. Undocumented workers have lived, worked, and paid taxes in our communities for decades, yet they have been shut out of the safety net,” said Make the Road NY lead organizer Ángeles Solis.

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Proposals to fund excluded workers are now spreading across the US. | Diego de la Vega

What’s included in the fund?

New York’s sweeping $2.1bn fund far outpaces the $75m cash assistance program California established last year to aid undocumented workers, which provided $500 one-time payments on a first-come, first-served basis.

In New York, undocumented workers who lost income during COVID-19 and can prove state residency are eligible for one-time payments of up to $15,600.

Eligibility is divided into two tiers – a last minute concession forced by Cuomo to allegedly prevent fraud. “Our community tends to be defrauded; we’re not committing the fraud,” Murad Awawdeh, interim co-executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, told The Intercept in response to the tier system.

To be eligible for the $15,600 top tier of benefits, workers must provide proof of employment, such as a tax return filed with a valid Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (which is issued to people who are ineligible for a Social Security number by the Internal Revenue Service), a letter from an employer, pay stubs, wage statement, or a Wage Theft Prevention Act wage notice.

Workers who do not have access to these documents, but can prove their residency, identity and provide some work documents are eligible for a lower sum of $3,200 as ‘Tier 2’ applicants.

Solis notes that the commissioner of labor, charged with overseeing the disbursement of the funds, has leeway to determine which documents workers can use for Tiers 1 and 2 – by establishing a point system based on a series of wage and bank documents.

“While we’re glad that lawmakers ultimately expanded the kinds of documentation workers can use to apply for the funding, we believe that impacted workers – many of whom work in the informal, cash-based economy – need the maximum flexibility possible, especially when it comes to proving loss of employment or income,” Solis responded.

Maximum flexibility would encourage more immigrants to apply, reversing the legacy of the Trump administration, which kept many immigrants from seeking federal assistance programs. A May report from the Urban Institute found that in 2020: “more than a quarter of adults in low-income immigrant families – and nearly a third of those with children – did not seek benefits for which they were eligible.”

A new movement for immigrant protections

For more than a decade, Make the Road New York and its allies have been at the center of fighting policies of exclusion that deny immigrant workers municipal identification, drivers licenses, protections from wage theft and gender discrimination.

The Excluded Workers Fund is a signal victory because Make the Road members and coalition partners delivered a one-two punch: creating a safety net for workers deemed essential but treated as expendable, and expanding the understanding of citizenship by using the state government to redefine who is worthy of inclusion in social and economic life.

The transformative potential of the fund – as well as its backlash – is now spreading across the US.

In Maryland, Republicans branded a bill providing state relief to poor residents that included undocumented workers as “far-Left,” with Republican minority leader Senator Bryan Simonaire adding: “It’s not following lawful rule and it doesn’t respect the citizens who work hard for their money.”

Now Republican governors in 25 states have moved to cut expanded unemployment benefits. They argue that these desperately needed unemployment benefits contribute to a non-existent shortage of workers.

However, as Solis from Make the Road highlighted, proposals to fund excluded workers are being deliberated across the country from Washington, DC, Iowa, Minnesota, California, Oregon, and Washington.

“There is surging support, sparked by the success of our campaign in New York, to reclaim what immigrant taxpayers have contributed – thousands of dollars of well-deserved, and needed unemployment benefits,” Solis said.

Undocumented immigrants contribute billions of dollars annually to US coffers, keeping Social Security and Medicare solvent with their income tax and payroll tax dollars. According to a 2017 report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented workers paid a total of $11.7bn in state and local taxes in 2014 alone.

Supporters and organizers of the Excluded Workers Fund argue that the campaign was just the first step in protecting undocumented and precarious workers in the economy.

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Participants of the hunger strike rallying outside Governor Cuomo's Manhattan office. | Lev Radin / Alamy Stock Photo

“We intend to scale up efforts to institute protections for misclassified workers, and end tax cuts for billionaires and millionaires to redirect sorely needed resources directly into our communities,” said Solis.

“There should never be a circumstance where New Yorkers are excluded from the social safety net,” added Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center, a coalition partner. “The Excluded Workers Fund is the floor of what’s possible when workers across sectors come together,” adding that an “even bigger and bolder worker and immigrant fight” is in the offing.

In May, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy approved a $40m fund for excluded workers as part of a $275m relief package. The $40m comes from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding and will be distributed in one-time payments of $1,000 and capped at $2,000 for people who meet an income threshold of about $55,000. Make the Road New Jersey and New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, while welcoming the funds as a first step, found the sum woefully inadequate.

The groups cite that undocumented immigrants contributed more than $600m in state and local taxes and $1.2bn to the state’s unemployment fund over the past ten years, according to a June 2020 study.

“It’s sad that it took a pandemic for immigrant lives to have value,” said Sara Cullinane, director of Make the Road New Jersey.

At Make the Road affiliates, rank and file members lead the campaigns and have decision-making power – from hiring and firing staff to approving budgets. Members described holding meetings in worker committees and speaking with other groups across the country. For example, Make the Road New Jersey launched a hunger strike after talking with the New York participants.

If you don’t organize, nobody is going to come and do anything for you.

As scholar and organizer Jane McAlevey writes in ‘No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power’, “Make the Road goes beyond a pure advocacy approach. They are not simply trying to win specific legislation or material benefits, but also trying to make long-term, structural changes in the power structure of the wider society, shifting the balance of power toward the organization’s base constituency and away from the forces that oppress them.”

The pandemic stopped some of the traditional community building that happens at Make the Road meetings where members break bread, plan actions, and deliberate on campaign plans with heavy membership involvement. However, these democratic hallmarks of the Make the Road model were quickly offloaded onto pixelated Zoom screens.

Jenny Llugcha, 47, a Make the Road New Jersey member, attended weekly Thursday membership meetings to discuss actions such as the hunger strike. During the pandemic, Llugcha leaned on her daughters Camila, 18, and Milena, 21, to learn how to navigate Zoom and continue to organize actions in the cities of Trenton and Passaic demanding relief for excluded workers like herself. She lost her first job as a factory worker and then a second job as a childcare provider during the pandemic.

“If you don’t organize, nobody is going to come and do anything for you. Like I always tell my daughters, neither the president nor the governor is going to do anything for you. It’s the pressure you bring to bear that forces those in positions of power to respond to your needs,” Llugcha said reflecting on the hunger strike.

Rubiela Correa from Make the Road New York echoed a similar sentiment.

“I joined the strike in an effort to fight for my community, particularly those without papers. As a result of the strike, I have become a stronger, wiser person who is more self-determined and more motivated than ever to continue to struggle.”

Why is journalism failing democracy?

In rich countries, local media is struggling to survive. The people who produce and consume the news are increasingly elites living in big cities. Why is this happening, what does it mean for democracy and what can we do about it?

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