A new fund aims to provide direct cash assistance to undocumented immigrants across Pennsylvania who have been excluded from federal coronavirus aid programs.

More than 40 advocacy groups have joined to create the PA Immigrant Relief Fund, which is helping residents who receive no stimulus money because of their own immigration status or that of a family member, according to a news release from the organizations. People without official papers also are ineligible for unemployment benefits under state and federal regulations.

“We all decided to take it on because it was necessary, and nobody else was doing it,” said Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, based in Philadelphia. “Congress made a very intentional decision to exclude people in the middle of a pandemic.… It basically told the immigrant community, ‘You’re worth nothing.’ ”

That decision, she said, has forced people to seek whatever jobs they can find at the same time that government authorities try to enforce stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus.

The fund was launched with $500,000 from the Douty Foundation, which helps child and youth organizations in Philadelphia and Montgomery County.

Organizers hope to raise $4 million by June 30 to provide 5,000 immigrants with one-time cash payments of $800. So far, major philanthropies have been slow to respond, and most of the roughly $75,000 in additional money has come from individual donors, many of whom contributed their stimulus checks.

Assistance of $800 may not be much, Carter said, but could be the difference that helps someone pay the rent or buy groceries.

In the first round of distribution in May, money was provided to immigrant-advocacy groups that then made payments to 580 people. The application process for organizations wishing to join the program will be announced in a few weeks, organizers said.

“This fund has the potential to positively impact so many immigrant residents in Philadelphia and beyond,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in the news release.

In the United States, immigrant communities have been left out of philanthropic giving. Nationally, only 1% of major-foundation grants go to organizations that support immigrants and refugees, even though they make up nearly 14% of the population, according to the NonProfit Times and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy in Washington.

Sundrop Carter is executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. PICC helps coordinate the PA Immigrant Relief Fund, an effort by a group of organizations to offer emergency assistance to immigrants who could not receive federal COVID-19 stimulus money.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Sundrop Carter is executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. PICC helps coordinate the PA Immigrant Relief Fund, an effort by a group of organizations to offer emergency assistance to immigrants who could not receive federal COVID-19 stimulus money.

In May, California became the first state in the country to provide COVID-19 relief to undocumented immigrants, with eligible families getting up to $1,000 per household. The state intends to contribute $75 million, but efforts to privately raise $50 million more have fallen short, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Pennsylvania is home to about 170,000 undocumented immigrants, including 50,000 in Philadelphia — all part of a national population of roughly 11 million. Many work and pay taxes, and advocates say their exclusion from unemployment benefits and stimulus payments hurts not just them but the U.S.-citizen children in their families.

“If there’s anything we should be learning from COVID-19 and from the recent uprisings,” Carter said, “it’s that excluding segments of our community is not what we should be doing.… We should be investing in black communities, and in the work to address systematic issues around police brutality. Immigrant communities are suffering. Both should be funded fully.”

The fund is hosted by PA is Ready!, a community grant-maker housed within Philadelphia Foundation, a philanthropy that supports programs and endeavors across the region. (The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns The Inquirer, operates under the auspices of Philadelphia Foundation.)

"In early March, we began seeing hundreds of families in our Asian communities lose business, places of employment, and having to make hard choices to work in unsafe conditions,” said Alix Webb, executive director of Asian Americans United in Philadelphia. “This fund is the first we know of to offer direct financial support — for food, rent, supplies, for safety.”

Donations can be made through PICC at http://paimmigrant.org/pa-immigrant-relief-fund/ and via Philadelphia Foundation at https://www.philafound.org/give-now/. Every dollar contributed will be distributed as assistance.

“I barely have words for how much this can help,” said Sara Dickens-Trillo, program director of Mighty Writers Kennett, an education and cultural organization that supports Spanish-speaking families around West Grove, Chester County.

For months, she said in a statement, she has seen families lose jobs and face eviction, struggling even for food.

“This money will change their lives,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like a lot to us, but to them, it is like a million bucks right now. They can pay their rent and sleep easy for a change.”