ALBANY, N.Y. — State lawmakers in New York appear close to agreeing on a multibillion-dollar fund to provide unemployment benefits to undocumented immigrants and former prison inmates who have been excluded from federal aid packages since the start of the pandemic.
Talks between legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office have progressed to the point that they are now focused on how the relief plan, called the Excluded Workers Fund, would work “programmatically,” said state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens), one of the most vocal champions of the proposal. “Right now discussions are around eligibility and access.”
It would be the country’s most-ambitious such program by a wide margin. California officials have gained national attention for a couple of relief programs for undocumented immigrants, including one last spring that provided $500 checks to a relatively small number of people who were able to connect with an overwhelmed phone system.
New York’s proposal would provide some recipients with more than $27,000.
“This level of investment is absolutely historic for our communities,” said the New York Immigration Coalition’s Vanessa Agudelo. “It’s the biggest investment any state has made to provide this level of relief to those workers who have been excluded from those unemployment benefits as well as what’s been passed in the stimulus package.”
Beyond the magnitude of the program, the potential deal is notable for another reason: there has essentially been no public opposition to it.
That’s particularly notable given the amount of political hay Republicans have made out of other programs benefiting undocumented immigrants and formerly incarcerated individuals in recent years. New York’s DREAM Act, which passed in 2019 and provided $27 million to make more non-citizens eligible for college financial aid, was the subject of years of election-season ads attacking “free tuition for illegal immigrants.”
Republicans have held several news conferences about various issues in Albany since Democrats in the Senate and Assembly released budget proposals that included $2.1 billion for the Excluded Workers Fund. But they didn’t focus on this issue. Last week, they called for a relaxation in Covid-19 restrictions to let bars stay open past 11 p.m. But it seems as though not a single Republican state legislator has even put out a press release on the proposed fund.
Several Republicans and their spokespeople did not return calls about the proposal on Tuesday, though one said in the evening that they might comment soon.
That silence might lead some to hypothesize that at least a few GOP officials are happy to let the proposal become law so it can become electoral fodder next year.
“They want this to pass with the most crazy terms possible so they can campaign on it,” said a source familiar with negotiations. “They want to make this a political issue if it passes.”
Ramos offered a more charitable interpretation of the Republican silence.
“I would argue that they realize the economic impact of this particular segment of New Yorkers not having disposable income,” she said. “That must be crucial in some of the smaller towns and villages across the state — we’re talking about farm workers, we’re talking about poultry workers, we’re talking about domestic workers. All those folks need to be able to spend money.”
The proposals supported by legislative Democrats would be open to those who have suffered losses in income over the past year but have not been eligible for the various federal programs. The state Senate’s budget proposal would cover people such as undocumented immigrants as well as those who’ve been released from incarceration since October 2019 and thus did not develop the work history needed to be eligible for unemployment by the time the pandemic struck.
Recipients would retroactively receive $600 for each week they were unemployed from March 27 through July 31, 2020. They’d receive $300 for each week from Aug. 1, 2020 through Sept. 6, 2021.
Anybody who hasn’t worked for the duration of the pandemic would thus be eligible for an immediate payment of $20,700 and could eventually receive an additional $6,600.
Those figures match the enhanced unemployment benefits that most workers have been eligible for over the past year. Advocates have been pushing for a larger fund costing $3.5 billion, so that recipients can also receive funds matching state-level benefits.
“These are the folks who have been starving and have been on food lines on a daily basis, sometimes for hours, just to guarantee some food on the table for themselves and their families for the same night,” Agudelo said. “It’s the bare minimum that we could be asking for for our people, and we believe with the amount of wealth in this state and how quickly it has accumulated even in the past year during the pandemic within the ultra-wealthy class, we believe it is criminal while we think about the disparity that exists in our communities and the starvation [and] dire financial hardship.”
At this point, most of the negotiations seem to involve differences over how people can prove they’re eligible. The legislative proposal required recipients to establish their identity, but Cuomo’s administration has argued in closed-door negotiations that they should also be required to prove their financial hardship, sponsors said. Supporters have pushed against those requests.
“Given the nature of the circumstances a lot of our members face within the undocumented community, [they] wouldn’t be able to access” the types of proof Cuomo has requested, Agudelo said. “We wouldn’t want to create any extra barriers to relief that these families so desperately need.”
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