KEY POINTS

  • Nearly half of these immigrants are now estimated to be unemployed
  • More than half of the city’s essential workers were believed to be immigrants
  • The loss of income has led to food insecurity

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the lives of New York City’s immigrant community with nearly half of this group now estimated to be unemployed.

A report by the Center For An Urban Future, or CUF, an independent, nonpartisan policy organization, also said immigrants in the city have been shut out of government stimulus programs designed to help the needy.

CUF noted that immigrants have been essential to New York City’s economic resurgence over the past four decades -- they accounted for 107% of the city’s population growth between 1980 and 2018 and also established more than one-half of all small businesses in the city. During the covid-19 crisis more than half of the city’s essential workers were believed to be immigrants.

Immigrants have also been hammered by job losses as so many businesses have closed down, many permanently.

For example, 90% of immigrants served by the Harlem-based African Services Committee have lost their jobs, while 95% of the day laborers and 100% of domestic workers and nail salon workers supported by Staten Island–based La Colmena organization are now without work.

The loss of income has led to food insecurity -- 40% of the Polish-speaking people who seek help from POMOC, a community organization in Ridgewood, Queens, said they do not have enough food for their families.

“Virtually the entire population we serve is jobless and facing food insecurity,” said Annetta Seecharran, executive director of Chhaya CDC, a Queens-based entity that serves South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities.

The vast majority of these immigrants have received no federal stimulus checks – while many are, of course, ineligible.

“So far, of the 108 clients my team has spoken to over the past four weeks, [zero] have received or expect to receive the $1,200 cash assistance,” said Ravi Ragbir, executive director of New Sanctuary Coalition.

Gonzalo Mercado, a board member of La Colmena and New York coordinator of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, noted: “About 99.9% of the community La Colmena works with is not eligible for the federal stimulus check, even though they have American-born children.”

At least 192,000 undocumented immigrant workers in the city have lost their jobs – and they cannot apply for unemployment insurance.

Overall, New York City is estimated to have lost 20% of its workforce – or 938,000 jobs -- since March, with low income workers hit the hardest. That decline wiped out nearly all the gains of the 10-year economic boom that started in late 2009.

“You can’t think about the current economy as just a very bad recession,” said James Parrott, an economist at the New School’s Center For New York City. “This is undoing all of the economic progress these communities have seen in the past decade.”

Job loss, business closures, and food insecurity are combining to create an unbearable crisis for immigrant communities.

The Chinese Progressive Association, a nonprofit based in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, said that 35% of its clients have received or expect to receive the $1,200 cash assistance from the federal government and 20% of clients have received unemployment insurance.

“Some who are authorized to work, eligible for unemployment insurance, and file taxes are not eligible for the $1,200 cash assistance because they are filing taxes jointly with an undocumented spouse,” said Mae Lee, executive director of Chinese Progressive Association.

Seecharran of Chhaya CDC commented that some of her clients are fearful of applying for government aid even if they’re eligible.

“Regarding cash assistance, many people say, ‘No thank you; I'd rather starve then put myself at risk of the government getting my information.,” she said.

“A lot of our undocumented families are unable to get unemployment insurance or any type of stimulus bill payments,” said Mon Yuck Yu of the Academy of Medical & Public Health Services, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit focused on healthcare. “That translates to some people putting their lives on the line to go out to work, probably for cash payments that would be lower than normal, because now they're in many ways desperate for the job.”

Eva Kornacka, executive director of POMOC, described the current crisis as a “nightmare.”

“About 20 to 25% [of our cliemts] are filing the claims and received some kind of reimbursement,” she said. “The majority of our clients are the self-employed that are filing for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and we have not yet had one positive [response]. And people started filing in late March. That's a huge problem and a source of a lot of distress for our community.”

Some immigrants have unique handicaps that disadvantage them even further.

“You're talking about extremely marginalized people who may or may not have literacy, who may or may not have access to a computer,” said Seecharran. “They might have access to a phone, but they don't have access to computers. How do you complete the unemployment application when you don't have access to a computer, and you're being forced to social distance?”

Immigrants, virtually all of whom live in apartments, are also facing threats of eviction, especially when back-rent comes due on August 20 (unless the moratorium is extended).

Tenant organizers, CUF said, “have reported a steady volume of calls from immigrants who have been illegally evicted, because either they or someone in their household was COVID-positive. [Organizers] have also had to organize tenants to fight for heat and hot water. There has been an increase in Asian homelessness in Chinatown and especially Flushing [Queens], where immigrants have been evicted” from renting single beds and rooms in overcrowded housing.

“Housing insecurity presents a significant issue,” said the Chinese American Planning Council. “Many community members live [in] multiple families in an apartment, in informal housing situations, basement housing, and shift housing (rotating through an apartment in shifts), where community members are unable to social distance, fear transmission of the virus, and fear a precarious housing situation if they are unable to pay rent.”

Most observers agree the crisis will not ease anytime soon.

“We have to take care of people's basic needs so they can be freed up to think and imagine a future, because they're essential. Essential. And the word essential means so much more now, but they're critical, to our cities and to all of us being able to move on and get past this,” said Seecharran of Chhaya CDC.

 “Our city is just beginning to reopen and… we know we have a long road ahead to get New Yorkers and our economy back on track,” said City Comptroller Scott Stringer. “It’s clear there’s a lot of work to do. We need serious federal help to get vulnerable communities the support they need for our city to thrive.”