For decades, safety net programs such as unemployment insurance have alleviated the burden for unemployed individuals in the United States. However, many immigrants and refugees have been intentionally excluded from those programs based on their lack of immigration status. Many immigrants and refugees work high-labor jobs for low pay, leaving them with few resources to survive in moments of crisis.

Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment rates for immigrants have jumped substantially higher compared to U.S.-born workers.1 When Congress passed the CARES Act, a $2 trillion economic relief package, it intentionally excluded undocumented workers from accessing relief despite their critical role in the U.S. economy and more than $20 billion in tax contributions per year.2

Systemic injustices are deepening under the COVID-19 pandemic.

In collaboration with over 100 community partners, Innovation Law Lab’s team of lawyers, coders, and organizers worked to create the Oregon Worker Relief Fund (OWRF), an emergency relief fund aimed at providing temporary financial support to Oregonians who have been excluded from other safety net programs throughout the pandemic. Between the State of Oregon, City of Portland, and private donors, the OWRF has pooled over $22 million to be disbursed to Oregon’s undocumented workers at a rate of $2.5 million per week. . Investing in the undocumented workers who keep Oregon running – many of whom work in food service, agriculture, housekeeping, construction, and childcare – prevents thousands of families from suffering food and housing insecurity  in the midst of an economic and public health crisis.

The OWRF is one of the most forward-thinking programs to offer disaster relief to undocumented immigrants during the pandemic. Using custom software developed by coders at Innovation Law Lab, the OWRF uses a uniform application system, a robust and centralized application approval system, and leverages the power of mobile payments to get cash into the hands of those in need as quickly as possible. Working in close partnership with 20 community-based organizations in Oregon, Innovation Law Lab is at the forefront of protecting immigrant families and designing truly inclusive programs moving forward.

The financial and emotional anxiety and hardship  thousands of undocumented have been caused is entirely preventable. In the words of Susannah Morgan, CEO of Oregon Food Bank, “Hunger is a symptom of unequal access to healthy food and barriers to employment, education, housing and health care. What this crisis has taught us is that with adequate public investment we can dramatically reduce hunger in Oregon as long as all families are included. That’s why the Oregon Worker Relief Fund is critical.” 

And the OWRF has begun to meet the serious needs of undocumented families in Oregon. With an average payment of $1,712, the OWRF has delivered $8.7 million in disaster relief to Oregon’s immigrant community since May 10. Of the 5,071 individuals who have received aid from the OWRF, 81% supported minor children, 63% had at least two dependent minor children, and separately, 73% supported dependent adults.

In addition to providing valuable and lifesaving financial assistance to undocumented immigrants the OWRF builds skills for a post-pandemic civil space by encouraging clients to receive mobile, electronic payments. Banks, which require clients to have social security numbers, render checks less accessible and more risky for undocumented immigrants. The OWRF builds these necessary technological literacy skills by encouraging mobile payments – already, 28% of payments have been made through mobile phone applications. 

The estimated need in Oregon is much higher than what has been currently allocated by local and state governments. For every excluded worker in Oregon to receive relief, the fund would require nearly $124 million. State and local governments need to invest resources accordingly, or thousands of undocumented immigrants and their families will be left without any form of financial assistance. We need to create inclusive safety nets that protect all Oregonians –– we cannot leave members of our community, and the backbone of our economy, scrambling for survival at the margins during moments of crisis.