Story County pandemic fund helps immigrants shut out from US aid: 'These people have been miracles'

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

Shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, a 36-year-old mother was laid off from her restaurant job in Washington, D.C.

As the world plunged into a public health emergency, a personal crisis was also boiling over at home — her husband’s alcoholism and violent outbursts were taking a toll on their two young children.

The mother and her children temporarily moved in with a cousin in Iowa. She was eventually hired at a restaurant in Ames. But supporting a family on a server’s salary is difficult in normal times. And unlike other U.S. taxpayers, the mother — a DACA recipient whose children are citizens — is ineligible for federal coronavirus relief because of her husband’s undocumented status. She asked that her name not be used due to the vulnerability of the immigrant program.

The COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Story County Immigrants has helped cover her rent, bills and groceries since June. 

"If I hadn't found this organization, I don't even want to think about where I'd be or what my kids would be going through," she said.

Previously: Local organizations partner up to create emergency fund for immigrants

'Our own homegrown CARES Act'

Based at St. Cecilia Catholic Church and convened in partnership with United Way of Story County, the COVID-19 emergency fund is a collaboration between individuals representing community partners like AMOS and Ames Interfaith Refugee Alliance.

Since opening applications on April 1, the fund has assisted over 100 immigrant households and helped pay upwards of 400 rent and utility bills, according to organizers. More than $160,000 has been raised so far from individual and institutional donors, including other local houses of worship and nonprofit organizations.

The COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Story County Immigrants is a partnership of Ames-area organizations that is housed at St. Cecilia church in Ames.

“If we didn’t have such a caring community, I don’t know that this would be possible,” United Way of Story County community impact director Anneke Mundel said. “We have been contacted by organizations across the country who have heard of us and want to replicate this model.”

A team of around 20 people, mostly volunteers, coordinate weekly donation disbursement. Multilingual caseworkers communicate with families in English, Spanish, Dinka and Arabic, regularly checking in to ask what they need or translate paperwork. Liaisons contact landlords to confirm outstanding bills and prevent evictions. The business office at St. Cecilia's handles transactions. A steering committee meets monthly to provide additional guidance.

“The Story County community came together to provide our own homegrown CARES Act,” Mundel said. “Because the government had not done that."

From opinion: Eileen Gebbie: Ames’s own Cares Acts

The $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which expanded unemployment benefits and doled out up to $1,200 in cash payments, left out millions of taxpaying immigrants.

Only immigrants with Social Security numbers who fulfilled certain residency requirements were able to receive payments, excluding unauthorized immigrants and temporary visa holders. Workers without Social Security numbers pay billions of dollars in taxes a year, usually with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.

House Democrats pushed to allow people with ITINs to qualify for stimulus payments but the Republican-controlled Senate rejected that condition.

The coronavirus aid bill also shuts out households with people of mixed-immigration status. This means that if anyone in a household pays taxes with an ITIN, the entire household is ineligible for stimulus payments unless one spouse served in the military in 2019. 

Related: Mixed-status families denied stimulus checks: 'Everyone who pays taxes should have rights'

A spokesperson for Sen. Chuck Grassley said in May that the provision was included to “reduce fraud and abuse” and that mixed-status filings are “relatively rare.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced a bill that would remove that stipulation, stating in a document about the bill that citizens "should not be denied federal coronavirus assistance because they married a foreign national that is not presently a citizen of the United States." That bill would not allow eligibility for those who file using ITINs. 

More than 16.7 million people nationwide have at least one unauthorized immigrant family member living with them, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Almost half are U.S.-born or naturalized citizens.

“Just because my skin color is different (doesn’t mean) my rent is forgiven or my groceries are free,” said the 36-year-old mother, whose husband is an unauthorized immigrant. “I have the same struggles as every other American, and my kids are American, so it feels like they are also getting neglected.”

Living on 'the very knife's edge of survival'

Susan Benner, one of the fund’s caseworkers, said she has long worked with local immigrant communities and was already familiar with their struggles. But amid the pandemic, she is "much more acutely aware that people live on the very knife’s edge of survival.”

“They don’t have any savings. They don’t have a safety net,” Benner said. “They live day by day, paycheck to paycheck. So when something like this happens, there’s nothing to catch them."

In industries hit hardest by pandemic layoffs, like retail and food services, immigrants are 20% of the workforce, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Immigrants also represent 19% of workers in essential industries, like health care, agriculture and manufacturing, according to the institute, putting them at higher risk of contracting the virus.

Mundel said many Story County immigrants were reluctant to use food assistance that their children were eligible for due to the Trump administration’s public charge rule, which seeks to disqualify green card applicants if they are deemed likely to use public benefits.

Before the pandemic, 1 in 7 immigrant families were already avoiding programs like Medicaid, SNAP and subsidized housing due to fear from the rule, according to the Urban Institute.

While Mundel is grateful for the generosity of donors, she wishes that the government did not leave supporting immigrants “all on the shoulders of a caring community.”

“We’re seeing how long (the pandemic) is going on and … we have a lot of heart-rending conversations about maybe not helping everyone every month because we just don’t have the funds,” she said.

'These people have been miracles'

In the face of hardship, Story County immigrants are doing everything they can to help one another, Benner said. 

“One of our applicants, her neighbor paid her rent one month because she knew she was struggling,” Benner said. “It’s people who have nothing who are trying to help people who have nothing.”

At the same time, immigrants who have benefited from the fund do not want to need help, she said.

“They’re incredibly hardworking … as soon as they think they have enough to pay the next month’s rent, they tell us ‘no, we’re fine,’” Benner said.

Benner has assisted several families with COVID-19. She drops off food and supplies for people while they quarantine — including the 36-year-old mother, who contracted the illness in July.

“These people have been miracles,” the mother said of the fund. “It’s nice to have people that still care, that still look out for the people that not a lot of people care about or look out for.”

In October, the fund sent out a survey asking immigrants for feedback. Several respondents said the fund’s greatest gift was to their mental health; they no longer had to worry about keeping the lights on or putting food on the table.

The greatest benefit was alleviation of our stress about paying rent.

It has improved my health a bit by helping lower stress and depression.

No stress about how to pay my bills with no work.

When asked how the fund could improve, none of the dozens of respondents had any suggestions. Respondents wrote “nothing” or “no change” while continuing to express their gratitude.

Nothing. I give you much thanks.

No change. For me, it was excellent.

I don’t have any recommendations, you are excellent people. Thank you for everything you do for people.

Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at or on Twitter at @irosarioc.