SEATTLE – Volunteers for St. James Cathedral Immigrant Assistance are helping undocumented immigrants learn about and apply for a share of $7.94 million in special COVID-19 relief funds from the city of Seattle.
Since the three-week application period opened October 15, it’s been “hectic,” said Christopher Koehler, director of the St. James Immigrant Assistance program. But, he added, “it’s been great to be able to spend time talking to people and answering their questions.”
The program is open to people who live, work or attend school in Seattle and weren’t eligible to receive a federal stimulus check because of their immigration status. Their income must be under 50% of Seattle’s median income for a household of their size. Grants will be $1,000 to $3,000, depending on household size, but not everyone who applies will necessarily receive funding.
“This fund is designed to help the most vulnerable population,” said Oksana Bilobran, a program specialist for the city of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
The city has enlisted 20 organizations like St. James to help get the word out and provide help filling out the online application because “if immigrants seek services, it’s from people they trust, from the organizations they work with on a day-to-day basis,” Bilobran said.
St. James and the partner organizations have reached out to current and past clients, sending notices in several different languages, Koehler said. St. James also is working with the archdiocese’s pastoral care and schools offices to inform parishes and school families about the fund.
Rogelio Rigor, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Seattle, is helping St. James return calls to people in the Filipino community, who “couldn’t believe they could get aid,” he said.
One couple he assisted is trying to support their children, who are living in the Philippines. “They’ve been scraping by,” Rigor said. “The husband was laid off and they are just getting a little [income] from the wife’s work.”
“You can sense the desperation,” he added.
Fears and frustrations
The program is for undocumented residents, but in the Filipino community, Rigor said, people can be reluctant to share their immigration status.
“They often keep it quiet or turn to family members for help,” he said. “The challenge for me is to let them know [this fund] is for them.”
The other challenge is the “sense of fear” undocumented immigrants have about sharing personal information for the application, details the government could use to deport them, Rigor said.
Rosamaría Graziani has been working with St. James to answer questions from people in the Latino community. Some of them are reluctant to apply because they failed to receive assistance in the past.
“I hear a lot of frustration,” Graziani said. “A lot of them applied for other grants and never received anything.” She tells them, “The worst attempt is the one you didn’t start.”
Once a person is ready to fill out the application, the next barrier they may face is technology. The application must be completed online, so Graziani said she has had to get creative in helping people over the phone — who may be talking with her on a borrowed phone while filling out the application on their own device.
Sometimes people just need a little encouragement, Graziani said. “I’m just here to hold your hand,” she tells them. “I have all the time in the world to help you do this.” Helping people apply for the grant funds has helped her feel less powerless during the pandemic, Graziani said.
Graziani and Rigor each said that people feel comfortable calling St. James for assistance because the Catholic Church is a trusted entity.
Even people from other faiths have been calling because the Catholic Church is “regarded as humane, compassionate and nonjudgmental,” Graziani said.
“The church has always been at the forefront of serving the underserved and marginalized,” Rigor said. “Christ himself stood up and risked his life to serve the afflicted.”
Seattle COVID-19 Disaster Relief Fund for Immigrants
Cash assistance of $1,000 to $3,000, depending on household size, will be given to undocumented immigrants who meet the city of Seattle’s eligibility criteria:
- At least 18 years old.
- Live, work or attend school within Seattle city limits.
- Not eligible for the “coronavirus stimulus check” due to immigration status.
- Household income under 50% of the median, based on household size, in Seattle this year.
The application deadline is November 5. Applicants will be notified in late November whether they will receive funds, which will be disbursed after December 1. Learn more about the program.
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