New Report Sheds Light on Immigrant Families and the Organizations that Serve Them during the COVID-19 Crisis

By Renato Rocha

Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we have realized many of our worst fears. The intersecting health and economic crisis has magnified the threats facing immigrants with low incomes, placing stress on families already challenged by the Trump Administration’s immigration enforcement, public charge policies, and other extreme and cruel actions on communities of color and immigrants. Millions of immigrants are on the frontline of COVID-19 response efforts but have been left out of Congressional relief efforts.

In April 2020, the Protecting Immigrant Families (PIF) Campaign invited proposals for funding from community-based organizations to mitigate the harm of public charge and other anti-immigrant policies. The PIF campaign received more applications than ever before, far exceeding available resources. Although this funding was not targeted to respond to COVID-19, we knew that these health, nutrition, housing, education, and legal service providers were on the front lines of responding to the crisis, and that the pandemic would require them to navigate new and complex challenges.

PIF therefore partnered with the Urban Institute to better understand the unprecedented challenges facing immigrant families and the organizations that serve them during the crisis. The Urban Institute analyzed grant materials submitted to the PIF campaign and surveyed applicants between May and June 2020, capturing important insights about what was happening in the field. Today, the Urban Institute published new research from this project, providing key perspectives from the immigrant-serving field during the COVID-19 crisis.

These key findings reflect the survey responses of 99 community-based organizations:

  • Cash, food, employment, housing, and health care are the most pressing needs during the COVID-19 crisis for immigrants in households with low incomes. Since the start of this crisis, millions of people have lost their jobs and earnings, cut back spending on food for their families, struggled to pay their utilities bills, and faced the prospect of eviction. The Urban Institute found that 40 percent of organizations reported cash assistance as the first or second most pressing need for immigrant families during the pandemic. The next most pressing needs included food (38 percent), employment (37 percent), housing (31 percent), and health care (26 percent), reflecting the reality of unmet fundamental human needs.

  • Immigrants in households with low incomes are avoiding COVID-19 relief programs because of immigration concerns. We know that even before the pandemic fear and confusion because of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric have already significantly harmed families, causing people to disenroll from programs or forgo benefits for which they are eligible. Now, this report shows that immigrants and their families have been deterred from accessing health care and COVID-19 relief programs because of immigration concerns. Particularly concerning are the reported chilling effects in Pandemic EBT, a program designed to help families put food on the table for children who were receiving free or reduced priced meals at school. The Urban Institute found that more than 20 percent of organizations reported that “almost everyone” or “many” immigrant families are avoiding P-EBT because of immigration concerns.
  • State, local, and private support is not enough to meet the need during the crisis. Overwhelmingly, respondents said that state and local programs to help immigrants in households with low incomes were only “somewhat effective,” “slightly effective,” or “not effective at all.” Food was the only domain where more than 20 percent of organizations reported such programs were “very effective.” And, when asked what is the single biggest challenge to their organizations’ ability to conduct their work in the COVID-19 context, approximately one-third of respondents reported their greatest challenge was limited funding to support clients’ increased needs.

Grounded in insights from this project, the report also includes important priorities for practice, policy, and research. For instance, effective COVID-19 relief depends on the inclusion of immigrants in federal programs. The Heroes Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives nearly four months ago, is a critical step forward to a COVID-19 response that would make the United States healthier and safer. Another priority is increased funding to support the immigrant-serving field. This would help organizations meet the significant needs in their communities and, ultimately, help our collective public health and economic recovery.