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El Paso groups raise funds for workers who are ineligible for stimulus payments

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Frustrated with a lack of action from government officials to provide assistance to immigrant farmworkers and undocumented familes that serve El Paso, three organizations have started a GoFundMe to make an immediate difference.

Agricultural workers are classified as essential workers under state and local orders, but many  do not qualify for the $1,200 stimulus check because they are undocumented immigrants.

Border Network for Human Rights, the Border Agricultural Workers Project, and the Peace and Justice Ministry recognized that the immigrant farmworkers and other undocumented working families are struggling and on May 1 launched an emergency fund called COVID-19 Economic Emergency Fund: From People to People to provide relief to those left out of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act.

Carlos Marantes, Border Agricultural Workers Project director, said the fundraiser also serves as a statement to government officials.

“It’s something worrisome. How can we be saying that the farmworkers are essential to produce food, but they don’t even get the basic measure of protection,” Marentes said of their exclusion from the stimulus package. “That’s something that should be an embarrassment to society.”

On Thursday, 13 organizations joined the fundraising effort, including El Paso Equal Voice Network, Volar Center for Independent Living, Familias Unidas del Chamizal and Bishop Mark Seitz.

Like many struggling Americans, immigrant farmworkers who toil in the fields to ensure crops are harvested also are suffering financial hardships.

Amanda, a 66-year-old immigrant farmworker from Chihuahua, has not worked in a few weeks and is afraid to return to the fields.

“I’m worried for the situation of the disease that you can’t see but is out there, yes, I’m worried,” Amanda said in Spanish. She did not want to give her last name for fear of repercussions. “The situation is bad because I haven’t been able to work.”

Sammy gathers with other agricultural workers on El Paso Street in the early morning hours to wait for transportation to chile and onion fields on Tuesday, May 19. Many agricultural workers are ineligible for federal COVID-19 stimulus assistance because they are undocumented immigrants. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

At 3 a.m. under the decorative lights strung along El Paso Street just steps away from the U.S.-Mexico border crossing, dozens of immigrant farmworkers step into cramped buses nearly every night to be taken to work in the fields.

Most of the workers wear face coverings to protect from spreading COVID-19. But they have no six-foot distance between them once they are on the transportation vans.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation is to stay six feet apart from each other. One van can fit about a dozen workers, each driven away with no less than 10 inside at once.

Amanda is afraid to get in the vans that don’t allow for social distancing. She said she has been struggling to get basic necessities met, but if there was a change to how they are transported she would gladly return to the fields.

The emergency fund established by the organizations aims to give immediate relief to individuals and families that were overlooked by the stimulus in disbursements ranging from $600 to $1,000 based on need and family situation. 

Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said the three organizations began meeting in the early stages of the pandemic spreading to the El Paso area in March.

Garcia said they started reaching out to local and state officials including the El Paso County Commissioners Court when they realized that undocummented workers and their families were being excluded from stimulus packages. 

“We are not getting a penny from the city or county and state or federal government; this is solidarity from community to community from people for people. That is the essence of this fund,” Garcia said.

The El Paso County Commissioners Court passed a resolution on April 20 acknowledging the contributions of immigrant families and advocating for an alternative fund to be established to help them financially. The resolution also advocated that state legislators make a push at the federal level for immigrant families be included in any future stimulus aid.

County Commissioner David Stout said county staff have been working on finding a way to help, but there have been challenges including legal issues regarding how the $20 million the county received from the CARES act has to be spent. He said they have allotted $18 million to COVID-19 expenses and have $2 million that he is hoping can be used to help families.

“It’s been very slow and I know people are suffering,” Stout said. 

Garcia said they are continuing to work with government officials, but have to continue to raise and disperse funds to provide aid to the workers and families.

The short-term goal for the campaign, he said, is to raise at least $20,000. The goal is to continue to raise funds so that they can immediately disperse them, Garcia said.

The GoFundMe has raised about $10,000. Garcia said they have already distributed funds to 10 individuals.

Marco Raposo, director of the Peace and Justice Ministry of the Diocese of El Paso, said he is troubled that a portion of the community was being excluded from assistance because of immigration status.

“All of those federal to state and local (officials) they were saying you don’t get anything,” Raposo said. “You are excluded; we don’t even see you. So that was very alarming.”

For immigrant farmworkers like Miguel, who is 66 years old and suffering health problems, the funds will help him get basic necessities addressed.

“Right now we need money for medicine, food, to buy some clothes or T-shirts or pants and there is nothing right now, there is no money now,” Miguel said in Spanish.

Miguel, who did not want to disclose his last lame for fear of repercussions, said he has not been able to work since December. He has been a farmworker since he was 14 years old.

“That (the stimulus) would have been very valuable because I could have had the money to get the necessities and have money to help my family, but no, there was none of that,” he said.

Miguel said he wants to return to work in the fields, but he is not sure if he will be able to because of his health and concerns about getting COVID-19.

Cover photo: Agricultural workers gather on El Paso Street in the early morning hours to wait for transportation to chile and onion fields on Tuesday, May 19. A number of el Paso groups are raising funds for undocumented workers who are ineligible for federal COVID-19 stimulus payments. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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