Weaving a safety net for immigrant Oregonians during the pandemic

by Stephen Manning — Posted in blog on May 16, 2021

The way S- explained it made one’s heart break. A social scientist might call it grit. Another would describe it as resilience. She called it her sistema, or “system.” Her sistema was a sort of calibrated response to the larger forces sweeping around her and through Central Oregon at the time. She was navigating the spaces.

She kept the early mornings free to get her kids off to school. Then she would move to her housekeeping job at a motel and then in the evenings she would take her shift at a local restaurant. There was a rhythm to the pattern of texts from her kids as they checked in after school when they made it back home.

By the time the coronavirus pandemic swept into Oregon, she realized that her sistema was not capable of sustaining her in such a crisis. The motel shut down. The restaurant shut down. The schools shut down.

Although she paid taxes, there was no stimulus for her. Although she worked hard and contributed, there was no unemployment for her and there was no severance, either. A racialized immigration system excluded her.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare and exacerbated dangerous inequities for immigrant Oregonians. However, community members and organizations from across the state quickly organized to create Oregon Worker Relief to distribute critical cash assistance for workers ineligible for unemployment insurance—workers excluded from the systems of mutual care meant to sustain Oregonians through crises like COVID-19.

Oregon Worker Relief has proven powerful and successful. In one year, the program disbursed more than $60 million to more than 37,000 individuals in Oregon’s immigrant communities statewide.

Designed and implemented by the community and for the community, Oregon Worker Relief has shown that when those most proximate to the problem—the true protagonists—get to create, shape, and implement the solution, it works.

>>Download our full report on one year of Oregon Worker Relief.

Like S-, many Oregonians were in untenable positions due to the frayed or non-existent safety nets in our society. The systems of civic life—the interlocking sets of policies, laws and practices and the logistics and implementation of them—normally hum in the background, and ought to increase our collective well-being over time. However, the pandemic illustrated that these systems fall far short of this goal, particularly for immigrant workers, who have been excluded from systems of mutual care historically, despite the profound contributions they bring to Oregon life.

The problem of immigrant exclusion—which lays at the heart of the systemic civic failures in the COVID-19 pandemic—is a hard, multi-faceted problem rooted in white supremacy and concepts of racial exceptionalism. In our new report, Narrowing the Gap, we examine the successes of Oregon Worker Relief and identify state-level policy recommendations to build permanent pathways to immigrant inclusion in Oregon.

The pandemic has demonstrated the need to design more permanent systems of care to address the fundamental inequities that plagued our society long before the pandemic and will continue long after the pandemic has passed. The keys to the success of Oregon Worker Relief—fostering deep coalition partnerships, utilizing community-led design, and building and sharing powerful in-house technology skills—can be replicated across domains and jurisdictions, transforming diverse systems to be more equitable, inclusive, and effective.

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