La Lucha Fund supports undocumented and mixed-status families with direct payments during COVID-19

In the war against COVID-19 thousands in our communities have lost their lives, and over one million Michiganders have been forced out of work. In an attempt to help Americans weather the economic fall out, Congress passed an economic relief plan, and while some have received a  CARES ACT stimulus check to help cover bills, rent, and other basic needs, there are many in our community who have been left behind. 

Even though undocumented immigrants in the United States contribute billions of dollars in taxes, they do not benefit from the same financial relief benefits that citizens and green card holders do during this time. Undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible to receive health insurance through the Affordable Care Act even though they disproportionately represent those picking and sorting our fruits and vegetables, processing our meats and fish, and operating machines in factories. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has deemed these occupations as essential by both the federal and state government, little has been done at the policy level to ensure undocumented immigrants in these occupations receive access to relief and support. 

Finding a way to fill in this gap presented itself as both an opportunity and a challenge for Erika VanDyke, program officer at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, who for the last several years has been working to remove barriers for Latinx immigrant families and children. “Systems are set up in such a way that they are not accessible to everyone who needs support. We know that to have a strong and functioning community, everyone needs to have a place to sleep at night, food on the table, and their other most basic needs met,” she says. But La Lucha Fund is a way around those systems. 

What is La Lucha Fund? 

La Lucha Fund — or “The Struggle” Fund in English — was created by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network, Movimiento Cosecha GR, and five local Latinx organizations. The fund was created as a short-term emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and is designed to provide financial resources directly to undocumented and mixed-status families in Kent County who are not eligible for unemployment, CARES Act relief, or other government support. 

Lorena Aguayo-Marquez of Movimiento Cosecha GR reviews La Lucha Fund applications.
“The purpose of the fund is to provide direct access to cash to Kent County residents who are undocumented,” VanDyke says. 

The fund was started with $100,000 from the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, as of May 26, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation had pledged $100,000, and community members had made an additional $170,000 dollars in gifts and pledges, totaling $370,000 dollars.

“In that same amount of time we received applications from just under 1,200 people and as of right now we have approved 725 applications totaling $297,000 and still have about 100 applications to go,” VanDyke explains. Each applicant has the opportunity to receive up to $500 dollars and she explains people who weren't approved for funds had an adult in their household who did receive a stimulus check or qualified for unemployment. Funds from La Lucha Fund are intended for those without any other safety nets.

VanDyke hopes the fund is a catalyst to a bigger conversation. 

“La Lucha Fund is a way to ensure people who are our neighbors, and who cannot access the same support others can, are cared for by the community. It's a way to demonstrate to them during this crisis that there are people in their communities who want them to be successful. If La Lucha Fund closes and we never have bigger community conversations about supporting families who are undocumented when this crisis is over, then we didn’t do a good job with our work,” she explains. 

La Lucha Fund brings together organizations within systems, but also brings together smaller grassroots organizations (that aren’t non-profit organizations) like the Grand Rapids Mutual Aid Network and Movimiento Cosecha GR. 

“A healthy philanthropic community is one where all of our community members are supported, including those who may be overlooked without advocacy,” VanDyke says. "La Lucha Fund exists because Grand Rapids Community Foundation followed the lead of LatinxGR, Movimiento Cosecha, and the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network."

Following that lead, according to VanDyke meant taking a closer look at who in Kent County is being affected the most by COVID-19. 

Social Determinants & COVID-19

As of May 26th, there have been 3420 people infected with COVID-19 in Kent county alone, and the Latinx community makes up 40% of those infected even though they only make up 10%of the county’s population. Doctor Irving Vega, a neuroscientist and professor at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, says In Kent County these disparities all come down to social determinants of health.

Social Determinants of health include socioeconomic status, education, the neighborhood in which one lives, physical environment, employment, social support network, and access to health care. Any one of these conditions can contribute to a person’s health and well being. When it comes to undocumented immigrants, all of these conditions can play a role at once, adversely affecting their health.

“Currently COVID-19 is putting these aspects on the spotlight and on top of that we have been living for the past three years in a very, very difficult sociopolitical environment for undocumented immigrants,” he adds. Vega, who has done extensive research among Latinx and African American populations around Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, explains that in general undocumented immigrants are continuing to go to work because their income is day-to-day and they don’t feel comfortable going to the local or state health care providers because they would have to reveal their undocumented status. 

“They are afraid that if they share with a healthcare professional that they are undocumented they could be deported,” adds Vega. Which is why the state is not seeing many undocumented immigrants take advantage of Michigan’s expansion of Emergency Service Medicaid for undocumented immigrants that was issued in early March in response to the pandemic. 

“They cannot apply for federal assistance because they are not in the system, even though they contribute to the economy and they are not included in the relief packages signed by the Federal and State governments. So they have to go to work so COVID-19 becomes the perfect storm that touches everything related to social determinants of health,” Vega explains. 

Right now, Vega explains, one of the barriers to addressing disparities among those infected with COVID-19 is testing. “Testing facilities are put in a particular place and people have to find a way to get there” he adds. “Access to a driver’s license and health insurance for undocumented immigrants then become barriers in getting a test.” In Michigan, undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for a driver’s license or a personal identification card or health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. 

Who is La Lucha Fund for?

And those are exactly the folks La Lucha Fund was meant for, according to Lorena Aguayo-Marquez from Movimiento Cosecha GR. During the day Aguayo-Marquez works at Grand Rapids Community College, but at night and on the weekends she volunteers to review the fund’s applications. “The fund was created for immigrants who don’t have access to federal and state resources. Basically they are unable to apply for unemployment or receive a stimulus check and there are a lot of immigrants who are affected but some are luckier than others,” she explains.

A mixed-status family could be one where the main bread winner of the household is undocumented and their spouse and their children are U.S. citizens. In that example, the home’s bread winner wouldn’t be eligible to receive a stimulus check or unemployment because of their immigration status. 

Aguayo-Marquez shares that before COVID-19, undocumented immigrant families weren’t able to receive services from the government, but they could still go to work and provide for themselves. “With the pandemic we could really see the systemic injustices at play where many undocumented folks are forced not to work and they can’t afford to pay for their bills and food by themselves,” she adds.

To reduce rent costs, many of these families are moving in with other families and sharing already small spaces with one another. “Quarantining when three or four families are sharing a kitchen, a bathroom, and other living spaces is almost impossible,” she explains.

Though $500 dollars is nothing compared to the needs these families have, Aguayo-Marquez explains, it does provide them the opportunity to get financial support with no strings attached that they can use in whatever way they need to. 

“Yesterday I had another single mom and when I told her how much she was going to receive from the fund she just started crying because she couldn’t believe someone in the community would just give her money with no questions asked. It's very humbling to see the need.” 

La Lucha Fund application is closed for the time being to allow Aguayo-Marquez and others to review the rest of the applications and to raise additional funds and serve people in need. 

“We talk about West Michigan being welcoming for immigrants, but we really have to step up our game and start pushing to make sure that when COVID-19 is over we figure out a way to help our immigrant community access drivers licenses. Our immigrant community deserves dignity and respect,” Lorena-Aguayo says. 

Although, VanDyke explains, the fund came out of the COVID-19 crisis, the needs of the families that are applying for the fund have existed long before the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Kent County, and will continue to exist long after unless things change.

For those interested in donating to the fund visit www.givegr.org/laluchafund.

Photos by Dreams by Bella Photography.
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