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Advocates Call On Iowa City Officials To Give COVID-19 Stimulus To Undocumented, Low Wage Workers

Kate Payne
Advocates with the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition march towards Mercer Park in Iowa City on Wednesday. They're calling on local governments to allocate federal coronavirus aid to undocumented immigrants and low wage workers.

Advocates took to the streets of Iowa City Wednesday, to call on elected officials across Johnson County to give federal pandemic relief funds to undocumented immigrants and low wage workers. Dozens of people with the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition marched for over a mile through the city, at times slowing and blocking traffic, before sharing their priorities at a public hearing with the city manager.

Carrying signs, holding banners and banging on drums, the group of workers and their children marched to the public hearing at Mercer Park on the east side of Iowa City.

They chanted in Spanish, “we want a check!” and “yes we can!”

The group is calling on local governments across Johnson County to use their allocations under the American Rescue Plan Act for benefits like direct cash assistance and hazard pay for vulnerable workers. Collectively, municipal governments across the county are slated to receive some $54 million.

"Every one of us, all the people in the Latino community, they have problems, they have problems paying their rent, water, light, medicine, bills that have come from the hospital."
-Ninoska Campos, organizer with Fund Excluded Workers Coalition

March organizer Ninoska Campos says that undocumented immigrants have been extremely hard-hit by the pandemic. Many are essential workers, laboring long hours for low wages in settings that saw some of Iowa’s worst outbreaks, like meatpacking facilities.

Campos points out that many don’t have health insurance and don’t qualify for many public benefits, including the federal stimulus checks that arrived in the mailboxes and bank accounts of most Americans.

“Every one of us, all the people in the Latino community, they have problems, they have problems paying their rent, water, light, medicine, bills that have come from the hospital,” Campos said through an interpreter.

Kate Payne
Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin listens to worker advocates testify at a public hearing on Wednesday about how the city should allocate its funding under the American Rescue Plan Act.

Campos says she’s encouraged by elected officials in states like California and New York who have extended pandemic stimulus funds to undocumented immigrants. She says if Iowa City allocated this kind of support, other cities would follow suit.

“It’s clear that that would happen. Other states have done it,” Campos said. “We don’t qualify for a lot of the government assistance. So that is why we are asking the city of Iowa City to give out stimulus checks so that we can be supported as well.”

The coalition’s priorities include not only targeted support for undocumented immigrants but also for formerly incarcerated individuals, low wage earners and other vulnerable workers.

At a public hearing in a park shelter at Mercer Park, the group shared their concerns with Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin, urging him to pass their stories on to elected officials and to expedite the city’s process of allocating the funds.

Fund Excluded Workers Coalition priorities include:

  • $20 million in direct cash assistance for up to 6,000 excluded workers, undocumented immigrants, previously incarcerated people, cash economy workers, and their families
  • $20 million in hazard pay bonuses of $1,600 each for up to 12,000 low-wage, public-sector, and essential workers in Johnson County who make less than $15 an hour
  • $5 million to purchase 54 new units of affordable and cooperative housing for immigrants, refugees, and previously incarcerated people
  • $3 million to expand public transit to late-nights and Sundays
  • $3 million for agrarian reform, to return stolen land back to Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color
  • $3 million to grassroots, BIPOC-led nonprofits and faith institutions, with annual budgets less than $250,000 and demonstrable bases of community support, who do not primarily rely on government funding

Worker Benito Herrera testified at the public hearing, telling Fruin that he has worked throughout the entire pandemic but is still struggling to make ends meet, while continuing to mourn family members he lost to COVID-19.
“Some of us, including myself, we’ve lost family members during this pandemic,” Herrera said through an interpreter. “For myself, I lost my mom. And I continue paying off the debt of her funeral.”

Ingrid Ramirez, a single mother, recounted how she tested positive for the coronavirus and has struggled to find work after suffering an injury while working at a carpentry company.

“It’s hard to go ask for help,” Ramirez said through an interpreter. “I didn’t get any kind of support from the company from the accident and I’m still having problems paying. I did try to find some work cleaning apartments but it’s been difficult because of the injury. Everyone here has a little bit different story.”

"Some of us, including myself, we’ve lost family members during this pandemic. For myself, I lost my mom. And I continue paying off the debt of her funeral."
-Benito Herrera, advocate with Fund Excluded Workers Coalition

Pediatrician Kathy Lee-Son told Fruin that the city has an opportunity and a responsibility to allocate the funds in a way that markedly reduces poverty in the community, a step which she says would positively impact children for years to come.

“Children who experience any episodes of insecurities, as such, have a lifelong risks of worse educational outcomes, health outcomes, mental health outcomes. We can do something about it now,” Lee-Son said.

Lee-Son noted that the previous round of federal stimulus checks were shown to have reduced poverty substantially and said Iowa City has an opportunity to do the same.

“We don’t really want a higher poverty rate in Iowa City and Johnson County, do we?” Lee-Son asked. “These are the people who need your help right now.”

Fruin told the group Wednesday he couldn’t make any promises about how the city council might allocate the funds and cautioned that elected officials won’t be discussing the issue again until September, following more public outreach.

“I want to be very transparent. We’re starting the discussions with our council on September 7 and I think that they’re going to working through those decisions throughout the fall,” Fruin told them. “I know that’s frustrating for many of you but that’s where we’re at today.”

Advocates warned that debt collectors and landlords won’t wait for the city council’s deliberations.

“Why does it have to wait until September? Why?” asked Eric Harris, a formerly incarcerated individual and a member of the city’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “People are going to get evicted soon.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter