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Community groups work to put cash in the hands of undocumented immigrants

“We know this isn’t sustainable, but we have to keep doing it, because no one else is looking out for our community,” one organizer said.

Berto Aguayo, right, with Increase the Peace, helps sign up street vendors in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood for grants.
Berto Aguayo, right, with Increase the Peace, helps sign up street vendors in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood for grants.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

This time of year is usually the start of Salvador’s busy season.

In the winter, Salvador sells churros along 47th Street in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. But in the spring and summer, as the school year comes to an end and the sun stays out past dinnertime, Salvador switches to candies and chicharrones, fried wheat chips drenched in hot sauce best enjoyed with friends on a park bench or on a stoop.

If he’s lucky, the 56-year-old pockets about $350 a week, enough for food, his cellphone bill, and the $500 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment near his route.

Salvador sends whatever money he has left at the end of the month back home to a small town in the western Mexican state of Michoacán where his wife and their 18-year-old daughter still live. “It’s for her studies, so she can go to school,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Salvador sent back $400. He doesn’t know the next time he’ll do that.

“It’s really slow right now with everything going on. People aren’t buying as much, and there aren’t that many kids out, which are usually the ones that get their parents to buy snacks,” he said. “I have enough for my own expenses — maybe.”

Salvador is one of an estimated 300,000 immigrants in Cook County without proper authorization to live in the United States. The Sun-Times agreed not to use his last name.

As Congress figures out whether to make some of those immigrants eligible for coronavirus stimulus checks, grassroots community groups are rushing to put cash in the hands of undocumented workers and their families, especially those who’ve been out of work for months and depend on daily wages to survive.

Together those groups have raised close to a quarter of a million dollars so far — a welcome sign of solidarity with Chicago’s undocumented community, they say — but are overwhelmed by the demand for help.

“We closed our applications in two days because more than 2,500 people had already applied,” said Antonio Santos, director of the Gage Park Latinx Council, which is collecting online donations to give undocumented immigrants on the Southwest Side a $500 grant.

The council has raised more than $58,000. At $500 per grant, the group can only afford to help about 120 families.

“We know this isn’t sustainable,” Santos said, “but we have to keep doing it, because no one else is looking out for our community.”

Members of the Gage Park Latinx Council pass out free grocery boxes in Gage Park, May 14, 2020.
Members of the Gage Park Latinx Council pass out free grocery boxes in Gage Park, May 14, 2020.
Provided

Meeting them where they’re at

At least a half-dozen other community groups from across the city are also taking online donations to fund one-time grants for undocumented immigrants.

Some groups are only taking applications from specific areas. Enlace Chicago has raised nearly $60,000 for families in Little Village, the neighborhood with both the highest number of undocumented residents and the most confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Other groups are focused on industries that employ many undocumented immigrants. South Asian social justice collective Chicago Desi Youth Rising, for example, has raised nearly $24,000 for service workers in West Ridge and Devon Street.

Increase the Peace, an anti-violence group in Back of the Yards, has raised close to $30,000 for Chicago’s street vendors, many of whom, like Salvador, are undocumented.

Berto Aguayo, a co-founder of Increase the Peace, signed up vendors on 47th Street for the grant last week. The application is available online “but a lot of street vendors might not have access to the internet, so we want to make sure they’re taken into account,” he said.

Getting a hold of undocumented immigrants is only half the battle as many are reluctant to share their personal information, fearing persecution by the Trump administration.

Taking those fears into account, none of the grant applications reviewed by the Sun-Times ask about immigration status. Some groups have even advised wary applicants to put down fake addresses, emails and phone numbers and to communicate directly with organizers of the giveaway.

“We’ve really had to draw from our community relationships in order for us to convince folks to give us their contact information, that we’re a trusted organization,” said Kristina Tendilla, executive director of the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment, more commonly known as AFIRE Chicago.

AFIRE Chicago and the National Domestic Workers Alliance are offering emergency $400 grants to home care workers, nannies and house cleaners, whose ranks are disproportionately made up of undocumented immigrant women.

Both groups are also helping domestic workers organize themselves to demand better pay and benefits like paid family and sick leave that can outlive the crisis.

“We know that the emergency funds are critical, but they’re a one-time thing. For us, it’s more about winning sustained support for our communities,” Tendilla said.

Luz Maria Cortez, right, with Increase the Peace,  helps sign up street vendors in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood for a small grant program to help street vendors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Luz Maria Cortez, right, with Increase the Peace, helps sign up street vendors in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood for a small grant program to help street vendors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Choosing who to help is “heartbreaking,” but necessary

In late March — the same day President Trump signed the CARES Act, which excluded undocumented immigrants from getting stimulus checks — the city of Chicago announced it would give 2,000 residents $1,000 to help pay their rent or mortgage. The application was open to all Chicagoans, regardless of their immigration status.

Around 83,000 residents applied for the grants, and the city picked the winners by lottery.

But community groups say a lottery system ignores the disparate hardships facing different households. And with only a limited amount of funds to hand out, those groups have to chose who gets the money and who doesn’t.

“We have to take a holistic approach, because we have to target those who need help the most,” Aguayo said.

In their grant applications, Increase the Peace asks street vendors for the size of their household and what percentage of their income derives from street vending. A committee assembled by the group will go through the stack of applications and decide who to help.

It’s a similar approach taken by artists Victor Arroyo and Brenda Hernandez, who put together an online raffle to raise money for undocumented immigrants and their families.

They set up the raffle on the website for Hernandez’s clothing line, La Carnalita, and took donations from artists and small businesses on the South and West sides. “After we went live, more people started reaching out to donate items for the raffle,” Hernandez said.

The raffle, which ended last week, sold nearly 2,100 tickets and raised more than $18,000. To distribute the funds, Arroyo and Hernandez have convened a committee of fellow activists, educators, and business owners to choose who to help.

Having to make that choice is “heartbreaking,” Arroyo said. The committee is focused on helping “single parents and the elderly,” he said, and all of the applicants will receive a care package with information about nearby food pantries and other services.

Artists and activist Logan LU (left), Victor Arroyo and Brenda Hernandez announced winners of La Carnilta’s raffle on a Facebook live stream last week. The raffle raised $18,000 for undocumented immigrants and their families in Chicago.
Artists and activist Logan LU (left), Victor Arroyo and Brenda Hernandez announced winners of La Carnilta’s raffle on a Facebook live stream last week. The raffle raised $18,000 for undocumented immigrants and their families in Chicago.
Provided

There’s hope that at least some undocumented immigrants might get some help from the federal government soon.

Last week, Democrats pushed through the HEROES Act in the House of Representatives, which makes undocumented immigrants who file federal taxes eligible for stimulus checks.

But the likelihood of that happening is unclear. The bill has to first make its way through the Republican-led Senate and then be signed by Trump.

Arroyo said he isn’t holding his breath.

“We’re all stepping up in the best way that we can. We’re not waiting,” Arroyo said. “All of us are taking initiative to help our communities, to help our people.”

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.