Aurora activists help distribute $250,000 to struggling undocumented immigrants

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Village Exchange Center in Aurora. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/ Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Worried for the livelihoods of undocumented Coloradans, a network including Aurora immigrant activists have wrapped up a pilot program sending cash to undocumented residents across the state, and are now aiming for government partnerships doling out millions of dollars. 

The Village Exchange Center, a cultural hub in north Aurora serving refugees and immigrants, has so far sent $1,000 to 250 undocumented residents in Colorado left out of the federal stimulus assistance and state unemployment benefits. 

Last year, a Pew Research Center study estimated 180,000 undocumented residents called Colorado home in 2017. Immigrants rights groups say this population has been laid off en masse from restaurants and hotels in particular but — lacking social security numbers and legal residency —  is afforded little in the way of government help. 

“They have no access to unemployment, they will not be getting a stimulus check or any other form of assistance, even though most of them pay taxes,” said Mark Newhouse, a trustee at the Denver Foundation. which helped build the fund. “And so, we quickly raised a quarter of a million dollars to run a pilot across the state.”

The Village Exchange Center sent out the $1,000 checks, or money transfers, depending on whether the recipient had a bank account. 

After the money hit residents’s bank accounts and wallets, the VEC and a network of foundations and immigrant services organizations are now gearing up to put millions of dollars in the fund. Currently, the fund is closed for applications until more money flows in from private or public sources.

Amanda Blaurock, the VEC’s executive director, said the fund first zeroed in on undocumented people eligible for the fund by connecting with workers laid off from hotels and restaurants. 

The VEC’s food pantry operation has expanded dramatically during the pandemic to keep up with more and more Aurorans struggling to find food by other means, Blaurock said. 

But since the pandemic began, immigrants rights and social justice organizations have sounded alarm bells that undocumented residents were most at risk of going hungry during this time with government assistance afforded to legal residents. 

“They don’t have money, they can’t pay rent, they can’t buy toilet paper, they can’t buy diapers,” Blaurock said.  

Even so, Blaurock said undocumented families receiving food and services at the VEC were more interested in getting food than free money. 

“We’re trying to force the money on them. A lot of them are not asking for it, and they are refusing it,” she said. 

The pilot program doled out $250,000 raised by the Denver Foundation, Glendale-based Rose Community Foundation, a third undisclosed donor and thirty individuals, according to Newhouse. Four groups handled various aspects of the cash fund: Denver charity fund Impact Charitable, the Denver Foundation, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and the VEC. 

Blaurock said that the pilot program proves that immigrant organizations and venture foundations have the capacity to set up a much larger fund with the help of state and local governments. 

The inspiration is California’s cash relief program. 

On April 15, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would spend $75 million of taxpayer money to create a Disaster Relief Fund for immigrants living in the country illegally. A group of charities also committed to raising another $50 million for the fund from private donors, potentially offering benefits to another 100,000 people. 

In that system, the state planned to thread the money through a network of regional nonprofits to find and vet individual undocumented Californians in need. 

The effort in Colorado is currently setting up a vetting system of its own, Newhouse said. Undocumented people who might be eligible for assistance would complete a survey and, if eligible, quickly receive the cash. 

But Newhouse said he is aiming for comparably less funds — $12 million — raised by both private and public sources. He said he’s interested in connecting with the City of Aurora and has so far heard encouraging responses from the City and County and Denver and state government leaders. 

Michael Bryant, a City spokesperson, said city officials would be reaching out to the VEC to learn more about the program.

City Council member Crystal Murillo, who represents some of the most diverse neighborhoods including that of the Village Exchange Center, said she’s supportive of a public partnership but said the cash fund network had not reached out to the City.

“To be frank, I don’t think there’s an interest on the majority of council for something like this,” Murillo said.

At least ten other immigrant resource networks have set up relief funds for undocumented residents in Colorado, including one in Pitkin County, and one in Boulder County, according to Blaurock. 

Donations to the fund can be made at www.impactcharitable.org/Workers-Fund. Undocumented Aurorans and organizations working with undocumented Coloradans can get in touch with the fund network by visiting https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfpL25IYxhNQspOEM4-mQ-Lwg_oJcKKINepRIFvOaGN-5_Ddw/viewform

This story has been updated to reflect that at least ten other undocumented relief funds have been set up in the state, according to Blaurock, not two.