Veronica had been on hunger strike for nearly three weeks when Ángeles Solis, the lead organizer of Make The Road NY, told her that the New York State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo had approved a $2.1 billion fund for workers excluded from unemployment benefits, federal stimulus checks, and rent relief. She and 20 other strikers, mostly women, had been sleeping in Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and when they heard the news, she said, “We hugged and cried out of joy.”
The hunger strike that ended on April 7 was orchestrated by the Fund Excluded Workers (FEW) Coalition, which encompasses more than 200 organizations across the state. It began in March 2020, when immigrant organizations, labor groups, and farmworkers started a tax-the-rich campaign that sought to fund Covid-19 relief for workers unable to access most government benefits. Since their first direct action on May Day, which included a caravan and a protest in front of the home of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, for whom the pandemic has been lucrative, organizations have kept adding their names to the effort. The cross-sector coalition now includes day laborers, taxi drivers, sex workers, street vendors, and domestic workers.
Veronica, originally from Morelos, Mexico, arrived in New York 20 years ago. Prior to the pandemic, she cleaned eight households. Then, on March 26, a day that remains clear in her memory, her employers called her one by one, asking her to stay home. Suddenly, she had no work. Immediately, she and her daughter started to ration food, limiting themselves to two meals per day. She asked me, “How is a domestic worker supposed to do her work via Zoom?”
Despite her daughter being a US citizen, she wasn’t eligible for federal Covid-19 relief because of her undocumented status. The CARES Act excluded US-born children with undocumented parents. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, Veronica owes over six months’ rent. Veronica and her daughter have relied on emergency food pantries to survive. “Everyone said, ‘This too shall pass,’ but the only thing that has passed are rent and bills,” she sighed.
According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, the unemployment rate in New York is 3 percentage points higher among immigrants than among the US-born population. And while it is impossible to quantify the rate among undocumented immigrants, it is almost certainly even higher among this vulnerable group. Immigrants are concentrated in domestic and restaurant work and other sectors that shrank during the pandemic. The consequences across the state have been massive. There are almost 700,000 undocumented migrants in New York, and there are over half a million US citizens in the state who, like Veronica’s daughter, live with at least one undocumented family member.
This historic fund could offer desperately needed help to the undocumented community. It is a direct result of the work of community organizers and workers who, in addition to the hunger strike, have held emergency food distribution drives, shut down bridges, and orchestrated several caravans to Albany. This bill is expected to help 300,000 immigrants who have been praised as essential workers and pandemic heroes but have been excluded from nearly all forms of relief.
In contrast to the desires of organizers, however, the fund operates on a tiered system. It can provide as much as $15,600 to those with proof of employment in the form of tax returns, wage statements, or letter from an employer. Those without any proof are left to survive on $3,200, not nearly enough to offset more than 12 months of little or no wages or to pay off months of accumulated rent. Cuomo inserted these provisions at the last minute with the allegation that a more controlled system will prevent scams. But immigrant advocates say the tiered system will create barriers that will prevent people from accessing the program. The FEW Coalition has asked the Department of Labor to meet with them and expand eligibility. “The battle that is coming is the battle on the implementation process details,” said Marco Castillo, the director of the Transnational Villages Network. “Will it be revictimizing, discriminatory, or inclusive?”
The FEW Coalition organized a steering committee, which met once per week to discuss strategy. “The urgency of this campaign led [them] to get consensus in a lot of spaces very quickly,” said Bianca Guerrero, FEW’s coordinator.
Over the past year, they held weekly phone banks, organized daily digital actions, testified in front of the Senate, and engaged in civil disobedience. In mid-2020, as news surrounding Bezos’s pandemic profits kept growing, the coalition organized a fast and a camp out in front of the centibillionaire’s apartment. Mothers with infants and entire families slept in the street to bring attention to the disparate reality of elites and workers during the public health crisis.
In addition to the steering members, local groups held coalition meetings and developed direct actions in localities outside of New York City. “From the beginning we knew it was going to be a state-level demand so it was a statewide coalition,” Solís told me.
Every region conserved their autonomy and carried out actions that best fit their communities. “I adapted our tactics for each region based on the feedback and the expertise of the local organizations,” Guerrero said. This structure allowed the coalition to highlight workers in the Mid-Hudson valley, Syracuse, Rochester, and Long Island.
On the week of March 5, the coalition escalated their efforts and blocked the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges as well as the Albany Concourse. Solís pointed out that they were the same bridges they take on their way to clean, cook, and care for others. The action took weeks to organize. Many of the coalition members are undocumented, and so activists created a safety team for that included taxi workers, ICE Watch, Copwatch, and community members. “We keep each other safe,” Solís told me. “We planned a powerful militant action where we did not have to rely on the state.”
The hundreds of workers who took over the bridges marched in their uniforms. They showed up with hammers, strollers, laundry boards, server outfits, and pots and pans. They carried a 20-meter-long banner in the highway. For nearly an hour on the bridges, they held moments of silences, prayers, and ceremonies. Solís said she heard one immigrant worker say, “I’ve crossed borders, I’ve crossed mountains, I’ve crossed deserts, and today we’re crossing bridges so that we are seen again.”
On March 16 and 18, the hunger strikes in New York City and Westchester, respectively, began. According to the Street Vendors Project deputy director, Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, this idea came from the organizations themselves. Our community members said, “[We’ve] been on hunger strike, but not by consent, for an entire year. What are 23 days when it’s been 365 days?”
In the first few days, doctors checked in on the hunger strikers once every 24 hours. As time passed, doctors increased their check ins to up to three times per day. The strikers’ bodies were tired, cold, and almost all of them had high blood pressure. Veronica lost four pounds in a single day. Two days before the government was voting on the bill, the hunger strikers made a caravan to Albany to bring their struggles to the epicenter. Some strikers were so weak they needed wheelchairs.
On April 7, they were outside the church when Ángeles told them to hold hands for the big announcement: The government had approved a $2.1 billion fund. “We celebrated the 23rd day with our first meal,” said Veronica. “For me it was two times as special because I received the first meal from my daughter’s hands.” Her daughter had surprised her by volunteering to distribute meals.
Now, weeks into the approval of the bill, they still see each other. “We hug as if we’ve known each other our entire life,” said Veronica. The hunger strike was a public yet intimate experience. The strikers, mostly middle-aged immigrant women, fostered a sense of community after being together for 24 hours a day for three consecutive weeks. “They felt really understood within that space, because everyone was going through the same thing,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez.
From the beginning the coalition had built relationships with legislators. In the end, the lead sponsors of the bill were Senator Jessica Ramos and Assembly member Carmen de la Rosa. Members of Congress, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams also stood with the coalition at actions and called for the fund. Assemblywoman Marcela Mitaynes even participated in the hunger strike for 12 days. “We knew we needed champions who would not be afraid of bringing home a bold campaign,” said Solís. “Not just symbolic relief for small numbers but real relief for our communities.”
Workers won this first fight—but they’re not finished. They’re now campaigning for an inclusive rollout. “The implementation of the fund is just as critical as its passage,” said Kaufman-Gutierrez. The governor slipped in the tiered system behind closed doors and at the last minute.
How much money excluded workers can receive depends on their score in a two-tiered system. Undocumented workers can prove eligibility with several documents worth different points. A non-expired foreign passport, for instance, is three points, while a foreign-issued ID card such as a consulate ID card is worth only one point. Workers that cannot turn in the required documents will only receive $3,200.
“This meritocratic system is in essence discriminatory,” Luis Ángel Gallegos, the lead organizer of the Transnational Villages Network, told me. Many of the approved documents are difficult or impossible for undocumented migrants to attain. Although at least half of undocumented migrants have historically paid taxes with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, some migrants may have been afraid to file with their ITINs during the Trump administration. A significant portion of undocumented migrants do not have non-expired passports—a share that has surely increased with the closure of consulates during the pandemic.
These obstacles defeat the purpose of the bill, Mitaynes told Make the Road NY. Proving loss of income with an employer letter will be difficult for undocumented workers. “We’re talking about undocumented people going back to employers who knowingly broke the law in hiring them,” said Solís. “That’s a huge barrier in itself.” Other excluded workers, such as street vendors and day laborers, work in the cash economy and are self-employed. Whom are they supposed to call?
Taking advantage of their migration status, employers of day laborers sometimes do not pay them for their work. “We are afraid to claim our stolen wages, and now we’re supposed to ask our employers for letters?” Pedro, a day laborer in Westchester, told me. Those who have suffered the most during the pandemic are precisely the ones who will have the hardest time being eligible for the top tier, he said. The passage of the bill “is very bittersweet.… probably most of us won’t receive the relief.”
Still, organizers are optimistic that they have a chair in the negotiation table. “There’s no way that we advocate for the fund for a year, and then we trust Cuomo’s administration to figure this one out,” Guerrero said.
Cuomo left the door open for the state’s Department of Labor to alter the fund’s requirements, and the coalition has been pushing the department’s commissioner, Roberta Reardon, to work with them and make it as immigrant friendly as possible. Reardon, for instance, can broaden the set of government-approved documents. There are promising signs. The Labor Department has been communicating with FEW Coalition groups and is listening to community advocates on the ground. According to Solís, they have held conversations with the DOL leadership and made recommendations about how to best extend eligibility. “We are the ones who know where they are, their language, and the barriers they could potentially face.” (Both the New York Department of Labor and the governor’s office declined to comment on the record for this article.)
Organizers and workers around the country have been monitoring the program and the distribution of funds. Just like New Yorkers were able to exert pressure to state legislators by spotlighting California’s $75 million undocumented workers fund, this bill sets a precedent for excluded workers around the country. Moreover, in contrast to previous programs, the FEW Coalition emphasized that funds should be considered retroactive unemployment benefits and therefore that New York state, not nonprofits, should distribute the money.
Days after the passage of the New York bill, excluded workers went on a hunger strike in New Jersey. On May 7, Governor Phil Murphy announced a $40 million fund for undocumented workers. In Iowa, the Press-Citizen published an op-ed calling for an excluded workers fund. On April 29, the Washington legislature approved a $340 million Covid-19 Immigrant Relief Fund, the second largest fund of this kind, and Washington, D.C., and Colorado seem next in line.
Guerrero told me, “I want this to be the floor of what everyone else achieves.”