by Sharon H. Chang
It has been six months of an escalating US coronavirus outbreak which began in Washington State. During this chaotic time, when many government leaders and Americans have shown more interest in protecting personal politics than actual human lives, it has been confusing and hard for Washington’s most impacted communities to navigate safety and wellness. But one thing has been made abundantly clear to undocumented people in the state who are among the hardest hit by coronavirus — if they don’t take care of each other, no one will. This is why the Washington Dream Coalition did not wait to take action and has raised millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds for their community since March.
The Washington Dream Coalition is a network of five young, undocumented immigrants under the age of thirty. Daniela Murguia, Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa, Larissa Reza, Guillermo Mogollan, and Alejandra Pérez fight inequities faced by Washington’s undocumented immigrants using community-based organizing, education, and advocacy. They are all volunteers based in South King County. Early on, the Coalition saw how drastically the pandemic was affecting their undocumented parents and family members. Daniela Murguia’s mother had to close her hair salon during the stay-at-home mandate and had no income for months. “I knew she was going to be directly impacted, and she was,” said Murguia. The Coalition realized government would do nothing to help and took matters into their own hands. They started a COVID-19 fund to provide emergency and recovery financial assistance to undocumented persons excluded from government relief efforts and safety net programs.
They launched the campaign March 25 in partnership with Scholarship Junkies, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, Entre Hermanos, and Somos Seattle. Since then, the Coalition has raised over $5.2 million through grants, fundraising, and most recently, donation matching as part of All In WA. Impressed with the campaign’s impact and momentum, additional partners and foundations have also jumped on board.
The Coalition’s organizing shows the power of community aid where government falls short. Gov. Inslee floated a relief fund for undocumented workers in May, but it is nowhere in sight. Undocumented workers will also be ineligible for Washington’s first public option health program, which begins January. Meanwhile, as government flounders, the Coalition has already raised and distributed millions of dollars. Over 16,000 undocumented people have applied for help, with the largest number of requests coming from King and Snohomish counties, followed by Pierce, Clark, Yakima, and Benton-Franklin counties.
“This is not charity work, this is mutual aid,” said Alejandra Pérez. “This is our responsibility as community to do this since our government is failing us right now.” Said Murguia, “We call it redistributing wealth and we’re making sure it gets to the hands of those impacted directly.” Mutual aid is when people come together to strategize and directly distribute resources for their community’s survival. This kind of grassroots aid has been critical during the pandemic for marginalized communities most vulnerable to infection, like communities of color.
At this point, it is well known that people of color in the U.S. are suffering the most from coronavirus because of systemic racism. Nationwide, African Americans are the worst affected, dying from COVID-19 up to three times more than whites. In Washington, however, data shows Latinx experiencing the most disproportionate impacts, making up 13 percent of the population but a whopping 44 percent of total cases. In King County, Latinx have the second highest infection rates behind Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders and are dying from COVID-19 two and half times more than whites.
Murguia said coronavirus is “hyper-present” in undocumented communities, especially in rural places in Eastern Washington where much of the state’s undocumented population is concentrated. There are an estimated 229,000 undocumented people in Washington (though advocates believe that number is under-reported). The vast majority are Latinx highly vulnerable to coronavirus infection. “Latinx are essential workers,” said Alejandra Pérez, Coalition founding member. “We live in multigenerational households.” Yet because this population is undocumented, they are ineligible for stimulus checks, unemployment, or health insurance.
Numbers culled from applications for the Washington Dream Coalition’s relief fund testify to the grim reality undocumented folks are living. Of the 16,000 applicants who have asked for assistance to date: 95% are renters and do not speak English, 74% are single parents and/or primary household income earners, 28% are high risk, 18% are pregnant, and 5.1% are houseless. Many mentioned being infected with COVID or having family members who are infected. Assistance is urgently needed. The importance of the Coalition’s mutual aid work is irrefutable.
The Coalition pre-approves all applications. A team of 60 community volunteers follows up with a phone call to confirm applicants are undocumented and have lost income because of COVID and the stay-at-home mandate. It is not a rigorous review process because that is the last thing undocumented people need, said Pérez. And, of course, documentation is not required. But because the Coalition has not received enough donations, they have to triage who to fund. Besides job and wage loss, they prioritize applicants who are renters or houseless, primary income earners or single parents, and/or at high risk (esp. Black, elderly, immunocompromised). Applicants who meet all these criteria are extremely vulnerable and funded first. The rest of the applicants have to be told to wait.
It is a lot of work and also emotional. Pérez said she already spends 10-20 hours a week or more helping to review the thousands of applications on top of her full-time job. Then, to have to choose a few to help in the face of such enormous need is a lot to hold. “It’s really horrible to prioritize people based on traumatic experiences,” said Pérez. “Everybody’s deserving of this money.” Murguia said the stories the Coalition hears from applicants are “really, really heavy.” Phone volunteers, trusted friends and family of the Coalition (many also undocumented), end up crying with applicants on calls and sometimes experiencing secondhand trauma. Pérez said she and the other members are often angry during weekly check-ins.
The toll in physical and emotional labor may be high, but it’s one the Coalition and their volunteers are happy to pay without question and for the long haul. That steadfast determination has resulted in reaching an incredible milestone. The Coalition has recently funded all of their high-risk applicants (28 percent of applications), distributing $2.5 million directly into the hands of those most in need. Recipients are deeply grateful, saying they thought they would be ignored and forgotten, like they always are.
Achieving this fundraising goal feels amazing, said Murguia and Pérez, but their work is far from done. They are determined to do more. “It’s not enough,” said Pérez. “We have 16,000 people who have applied across Washington State. We need 15 million dollars to support them all.”
Today, the Coalition is working to fund their largest pool of applicants, those who meet 3 of the 4 top priorities. The pandemic has worsened and applications keep coming in. The Coalition will continue fundraising as long as they can. All pre-approved applications will stay open until more funding becomes available, so no undocumented person has to re-apply. “Community always provides, especially when government fails,” said Murguia, adding immigrants are used to helping each other in a country that seldom helps them. “I feel like it’s something we’ve always known in our culture, in our families.”
If you are able, please support the Washington Dream Coalition’s COVID-19 relief fund for undocumented people by donating here.
Sharon H. Chang is an activist, photographer, and award-winning writer. She is the author of the acclaimed book Hapa Tales and Other Lies that reflects critically on her Asian American, Mixed Race, and activist identity through the prism of returning to Hawai‘i as a tourist. She lives in the Columbia City neighborhood.
Featured image: Washington Dream Coalition (clockwise, left to right: Paúl Quiñonez Figueroa, Guillermo Mogollan, Larissa Reza, Alejandra Pérez, Daniela Murguia) / illustration by Julie Feng