Category: ICE

JHISN Newsletter 08/15/2020

Dear friends,

This week we take a focused look at the intersecting emergencies faced by thousands of community members in Jackson Heights. Some have started to call it, simply, ‘the cliff,’ that dangerous edge where housing eviction, income loss, health and food insecurity, and lack of government support now threaten to push people into economic free fall. As an increasingly authoritarian White House–in violation of the Constitution–orders undocumented immigrants to not be counted when apportioning congressional districts, we need urgently to ask ‘Who counts?’ Who counts during a deadly pandemic? Do some count more than others? Who decides?

The Cliff

Virtually the entire population we serve is jobless and facing food insecurity. Anetta Seecharran, Executive Director, Chhaya (Queens, NY)

It shouldn’t ever get this bad, in one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries on earth. Nevertheless, working-class immigrants in New York City, and the US as a whole, are confronting a devastating economic crisis that threatens their very survival. Already brutally battered by coronavirus, and reeling under constant police and DHS repression, millions of immigrant families have now been pushed to the edge of a financial cliff as basic needs go unmet, debt piles up to the sky, and crushing unemployment surges to Depression-era levels.

In the Jackson Heights area, working-class immigrants of all nationalities are in emergency mode. Gotham Gazette reports that hundreds of Bangladeshis have died from coronavirus in New York City, and thousands have become sick. Many lack health insurance. One in three Bangladeshis lives in poverty, but many are being passed over entirely for government assistance programs because they are undocumented. Communication from the City government to Bangla speakers has been poor, obstructing access to accurate health care information, food resources, and unemployment compensation.

A new report by Make the Road New York details the economic hardship faced by local working-class immigrants, mostly Latinx, who were surveyed at the end of July. Sixty-six percent of the respondents are out of work. About 60% were unable to pay rent for May, June, and July; almost all were worried about paying August rent. Among unemployed undocumented respondents, 98% have received no government economic assistance whatsoever; the same is true for 60% of the unemployed citizens.

In Corona, as in other parts of our neighborhood, the effects are stark:

Shutters are down on businesses that have closed permanently. Many people haven’t paid rent in weeks, said Pedro Rodríguez, executive director of La Jornada, a food pantry. “We have gone from 20 to 30 new clients a week to thousands in the last three months….” (Washington Post, July 28, 2020)

On top of food insecurity and unemployment, working-class immigrants are facing an explosive housing crisis. New York State and the federal government have extended eviction freezes month by month. There are partial rental assistance programs for some New York tenants. But whenever the programs and temporary freezes end, thousands of dollars of accumulated rent will suddenly come due for already-impoverished families. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 30-40 million people are at risk of being evicted by the end of the year in the US; this includes hundreds of thousands in New York. Despite the supposed freezes, landlords are already lining up to file for judgments and evictions in a newly-reopened Housing Court.

Immigrant-led organizations, mutual aid networks, and some local progressive politicians are making heroic efforts to deliver funding, food, and services to working-class immigrant families. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has raised over $1 million for COVID-19 direct relief for immigrant and excluded workers, distributed to nearly 40 community and grassroots groups, including several in Queens. But donations and volunteers, crucial as they are, can’t be expected to meet the long-term survival needs of millions of people abandoned by a cruel and corrupt government during this crisis. 

Meanwhile, the rich get richer. 118 New York billionaires increased their wealth by more than $77 billion during the first three months of the Covid-19 shutdown. US insurance companies doubled their profits in the midst of the pandemic.

Progressive activists and immigrant justice groups have gathered around two major demands:

  1. Increase taxes on billionaires and millionaires to create a fund to help those excluded from current government benefits. Local State Senator Jessica Ramos authored one of several bills to make this happen. On August 9, over 300 people rallied and marched down Roosevelt Ave in support of the Billionaires’ Tax. (Governor Cuomo says he is firmly opposed, while also scooping up campaign contributions from billionaire families.)
  2. Rent and mortgage cancellation. Legislation to cancel rent for tenants facing hardship has so far been pushed aside by Democratic leaders in Albany. But grass-roots pressure is growing, accelerated by demonstrations and rent strikes.

It’s not just individuals who find themselves at the edge of a cliff. It’s our whole community. Powerful forces seem ready to destroy, by design and by neglect, the fabric of our neighborhood, and the immigrant families who are its heart. How will we fight back? Will we keep them from pushing us over into the abyss?

WHAT CAN WE DO?   As regular readers know, JHISN usually ends each newsletter section with this question, proposing a set of concrete actions that readers can take. Today, we leave the question open. Jackson Heights, together with working-class and immigrant communities around the country, faces a cascading set of deep crises. They will not resolve in a few weeks or a few months. They will unfold across our communities in uneven and profoundly unequal ways. The question of what we can do–collectively and with sustained solidarity–is one we dwell in, together. 

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network

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JHISN Newsletter 07/18/2020

Dear Friends,

We hope this unexpected summer-in-pandemic-times might also bring you unexpected pleasures, including a deeper sense of community and neighborhood. Normally, this time of year, JHISN would be outside tabling on 37th Avenue. This summer, the newsletter is our digital ‘table.’ We are encouraged to know how many of you are reading it, via email and social media. Please share it, please let it feed your actions and political imagination. 

Newsletter Highlights:

  1. Funds for Excluded Workers: Hunger Fast & March On Billionaires in NYC
  2. History of Dominican Community @ Jackson Heights
  3. COVID-19’s impact on Black Immigrant Domestic Workers

1. Fasting for Justice—#FundExcludedWorkers

At noon on Thursday, July 16, amidst the lush mid-summer green of Madison Square Park, over one hundred excluded workers and their allies—immigrant day laborers, domestic workers, street vendors, nail salon workers, farmworkers, religious leaders, and elected officials—began a 24-hour hunger fast. Fasting activists in the park were surrounded by live performances and a #NamingTheLost memorial altar, honoring community members who have already died from COVID-19. The public fast shined light on the brutal fact that undocumented immigrant New Yorkers, many of them also essential workers, have been starved of government financial assistance during the public health crisis.

Facing food insecurity, job loss, and the threat of homelessness, these excluded and essential workers are at the heart of the #FundExcludedWorkers campaign. The campaign—endorsed by over 90 immigrant and social justice groups including DRUM, Adhikaar, Street Vendor Project, Make the Road NY, and JHISN—calls for a billionaire wealth tax in New York State to pay for emergency survival funds for immigrant workers and households. So … just across from the park where fasting protesters spent the night, dozens of immigrant New Yorkers on Thursday also held a sidewalk ‘sleep-in’ in front of the Fifth Avenue penthouse of Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos. Bezos is one of 118 billionaires living in New York State who have together increased their value by $45 billion since the start of the pandemic, and who now hold a breathtaking total of $556 billion in ‘billionaire wealth.’

In a broader study of the economic and political power of billionaires in the U.S., the Institute for Policy Studies reports that in the past 30 years, billionaire wealth has increased by a stunning 1,130 % (in 2020 dollars). In the same 3 decades the tax obligations of U.S. billionaires, measured as a percentage of their wealth, has decreased by 79%. Recent ‘pandemic profiteering’ allows billionaire wealth to soar even as tens of millions of households struggle to pay rent, buy groceries, and survive the crisis.  

The public fast and sleep-in culminated Friday morning with activists walking in a lively March on Billionaires from Madison Square Park to Cuomo’s office. A just recovery demands that the Governor implement the billionaire tax and support over 1 million workers in NY who have been excluded so far from any emergency financial relief. 

WHAT CAN WE DO?

2. History & Politics of Dominican Immigration

Dominicans are the largest Latinx nationality in New York City, numbering over 800,000 people. “Today, the pattern of Dominican immigrants tends to be a settlement in Washington Heights/Inwood followed by a move to another borough.” Dominicans have become the second-largest immigrant group in the Jackson Heights area.

Dominican migration has been heavily impacted by US imperialism. The US military invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 until 1924. This period cemented the economic control of US-owned banks and sugar plantations, reinforced by white supremacy. 

After the occupation, the US Marine Corps groomed Dominican National Guard General Rafael Trujillo to take over, sponsoring his military coup in 1930. Trujillo, who ruled for 31 years, “was one of the most ruthless dictators in modern Latin American history. He was notorious for his torture chambers, his massacres of protesters, and his genocide of tens of thousands of ethnic Haitians. Trujillo accumulated billions of dollars through corruption. Under his rule, the Dominican Republic became a center for terrorism against progressive movements throughout the hemisphere.

After Trujillo’s assassination in 1961, there was a period of political upheaval. Juan Bosch, a progressive, was elected in 1963. But he was soon overthrown in yet another military coup, backed by 23,000 US troops. The new dictator was Joaquín Balaguer, a brutal, racist Trujillo protege. These events prompted the first major wave of Dominican migration to the US, which included both opponents of the regime and people simply fleeing social chaos.

Migration from the Dominican Republic accelerated in the 1980s. It was fueled by a huge Latin American economic crisis, often called the “Lost Decade.” As one historian puts it, “the debt crisis of the 1980s is the most traumatic economic event in Latin America’s economic history.” Those who fled to the US included a mix of very poor people, plus professionals and other middle-class Dominicans looking for economic opportunity.

Economic opportunity isn’t always easy to come by here, though. As of 2017, the median income for full-time Dominican workers in the US is $32,000; 21-23% of the Dominican population lives in poverty. As an Afro-Latinx people, Dominicans are often confronted with white racism and discrimination; many live in fear of ICE raids.

In recent years, the main route for Dominican migration to the US has been through reunification with family members who are already here. Trump’s new “public charge” regulations may have a significant effect on the ability of working-class Dominicans to acquire green cards in the future.

Dominicans in the US actively discuss the politics of anti-Blackness, prompted partly by the Black Lives Matter movement. Dominican student Roderich Martinez gives a personal point of view:

Throughout history, Dominicans have greatly acknowledged the Europeans who took over the island, Hispaniola, while at the same time minimizing the importance of the Africans who were slaves at the same time….There are places I go in New York City where people immediately assume that I am just black. The moment they hear me talk, I get a reaction like, OH MY GOD! I thought you were one of the black people. I am not going to lie, the uneducated me of three years ago would’ve answered: “Oh no, I’m just Dominican with dark skin.” Today, I would say, “Dominicans come in all different shapes and colors and I am black.”

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • Make a digital visit to the Museo Memorial de la Resistencia Dominicana in Santo Domingo, featuring in-depth research on the long Dominican resistance to dictatorship and imperialism.
  • Fight to overturn “public charge” rules that could prevent working-class Dominicans from getting green cards; Support Congresswoman Grace Meng’s No Public Charge Deportation Act, endorsed by over 50 immigrant rights groups.

3. How COVID-19 Impacts Black Immigrant Domestic Workers

Just 10 years ago, the New York State Legislature passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Remarkably, this was the first time that any state included domestic workers in the labor laws protecting other worker categories. Two Queens-based immigrant justice groups, Adhikaar and Damayan Migrant Workers Association, were part of the coalition that rallied and organized for six years to get the NYS legislation passed. A third of all non-citizen women in the U.S. were employed in domestic work in 2010, and over 90% of those workers were women of color.

Intersectional identities such as Black, immigrant, woman, and low-wage worker make these essential workers some of the most invisible and vulnerable workers in our country. Notes From the Storm (IPS, June 2020)

Domestic work reveals contradictions at the heart of the international migration of women workers: it propels women to migrate as entrepreneurial, risk-taking, decision-makers who became primary contributors to household incomes in their home country; and, at the same time, domestic work remains economically undervalued, stereotypically characterized by servility and subservience, and excluded from most formal global labor market reports.

For U.S. white women, between the Civil War and WWI, domestic work was often a transitional role between early adulthood and marriage. Throughout much of the 20th century, for U.S. black women, domestic work was an intergenerational, full-time occupation until the Civil Rights Act of 1964—when black women’s organizing resulted in a shift of this role to Filipino and Mexican immigrants

During May and June of 2020, over 800 black immigrant domestic workers in the U.S. were surveyed about how COVID-19 affected their lives. Workers interviewed were in New York City, Massachusetts, and Miami-Dade, Florida. Most respondents had more than one domestic job with different employers but each region identified its own dominant ‘type’ of worker. In NYC the majority of black immigrant domestic workers are nannies, providing private child care. In Miami-Dade they are housekeepers and cleaners, while in Massachusetts they are paid caregivers in the home. 

For black immigrant domestic workers in NYC, the findings are deeply disturbing:

  • Two-thirds of respondents either lost their jobs or have fewer hours and less pay since the pandemic.
  • Over 80% of undocumented domestic workers (and almost 30% of documented) have no health insurance; the same percentages of workers indicate they will not seek government support out of fear about their immigration status.
  • Over 75% who have jobs indicated their employers do not provide Personal Protective Equipment.
  • Two-thirds of undocumented domestic workers anticipate eviction or having utilities shut off in July, August, or September.

Over the next months, as domestic workers are called upon once more to take up work that is vital but historically undervalued, we must demand federal support for black domestic workers and their prioritization in the economic recovery efforts. Individual employers must take responsibility for protecting the health of workers they employ, providing the needed PPE, and avoiding convenient gig economy apps which will not direct money to the women they employ. 

WHAT CAN WE DO?

In collective struggle and mutual care,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network

Follow @JHSolidarity on Facebook and twitter and share this newsletter with friends, families, neighbors, networks, and colleagues so they can subscribe and receive news from JHISN. 

JHISN Newsletter 05/23/2020

Dear Friends,

Greetings to you as spring returns to warm us all again. We are learning how to change seasons in a pandemic. How to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan while physically distancing. How to have birthdays while staying-at-home.

We will mark Memorial Day in the shadow of over 6000 coronavirus deaths in the borough of Queens; 1200 deaths in Jackson Heights and neighboring areas. With terrible clarity, we know that people are dying more often in immigrant communities, working class neighborhoods, and communities of color throughout New York City. How can we memorialize this almost unimaginable loss? How do we struggle together locally for immigrant rights, and economic and racial justice, so that we are all protected equally from the ravages of a global pandemic?

Newsletter highlights:

  1. Urgent Need for Deportation Moratorium
  2. NICE Fights for Recently-Arrived Immigrants and Leads in Local Food Support
  3. Food Politics are Immigration Politics

1.  End Covid Cruelty — Stop Deportations Now

Our newsletter readers are aware that immigrants have been subjected to staggering forms of discrimination and abuse during the Covid-19 epidemic. Immigrants face higher rates of infection, hell-hole conditions in detention centers, racist attacks in public, denial of unemployment benefits and urgently-needed aid for immigrant households, small businesses and undocumented people—the list goes on and on. What’s also become clear is that the Trump regime is using the coronavirus as a pretext for achieving what it always wanted: to exclude and deport as many immigrants as possible.

The Trump administration now denies entry to virtually all refugees, supposedly because of the pandemic. But this is only their latest attempt to manipulate “public health” issues to seal US borders. In 2018, the architect of Trump’s most vicious anti-immigrant policies, Stephen Miller, used an outbreak of illnesses and deaths in unhealthy detention centers to attack immigrants. In 2019, he again highlighted “health concerns” with immigrants when mumps broke out among detainees. Later that year, he politicized a flu outbreak at Border Patrol stations. In each case, Miller hoped to leverage the extraordinary powers given to the president in times of public health emergencies. With COVID-19, he and Trump have hit the jackpot:

The administration has weaponized an arcane provision of a quarantine law first enacted in 1893 and revised in 1944 to order the blanket deportation of asylum-seekers and unaccompanied minors at the Mexican border without any testing or finding of disease or contagion. Legal rights to hearings, appeals, asylum screening and the child-specific procedures are all ignored.

More than 20,000 people have been deported under the order, including at least 400 children in just the first few weeks, according to the administration and news reports. Though the order was justified as a short-term emergency measure, the indiscriminate deportations continue unchecked and the authorization has been extended and is subject to continued renewal. (NYTimes, May 11, 2020)

Meanwhile, green card applications for 358,000 people trying to join their loved ones in the US have been frozen. In a private phone call, Miller clued in his supporters that this “temporary” Covid-19 order is part of a larger strategy to reduce overall immigration.

Despite obvious health dangers, deportation from ICE detention facilities grinds on in the form of dozens of flights to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Many deported immigrants are Covid-positive, meaning that the US is effectively exporting the virus. This exposes the ultimate in hypocrisy: a regime claiming to act because of a health emergency is causing the pandemic to spread around the world. In a bitter rebuke, the Health Minister of Guatemala has labelled the US “the Wuhan of the Americas.”

The United Nations Network on Migration has called for the suspension of migrant deportations during the pandemic. Doctors Without Borders insists that the US halt deportations to Latin America and the Caribbean. And a coalition of more than 100 groups has demanded that Trump stop deportations to Haiti. JHISN has long called for a moratorium on all deportations and migrant detentions. Today this call is more critical than ever.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

 2.  NICE: Fighting for Low-Wage Immigrant Workers

Several weeks ago, the New York Times reported on Manuel Castro’s dilemma with food distribution. Castro, the executive director of NICE (New Immigrant Community Empowerment), had secured 100 boxes of food to distribute to the immigrant day laborers and domestic workers the group supports. But who should get it? His method of selection was randomly fair, and by no means preferential. Names were pulled from a hat.

One month later, the Jackson Heights-based NICE is still working on food distribution to thousands of Queens residents excluded from COVID-19 federal stimulus, unemployment, and other supports because of their immigration status. This time the NICE4workers team are working alongside local street food vendors, labor unions, and State Senator Jessica Ramos, giving out free fresh food secured from New York state farms. NICE also partners with the NGO Khalsa Aid USA–founded on the Sikh principle to “Recognise the whole human race as one”–bringing healthy grains, lentils, beans, vegetables, fruits, and rice (in a reusable canvas tote!) to undocumented families in Jackson Heights.

Somehow, NICE also finds time to actively protest wage theft and exploitation of immigrant workers with their #TakeItBack campaigns. With a membership composed largely of newly-arrived immigrants, and undocumented immigrants in the construction and landscaping industries (including a growing number of women transitioning to construction work), NICE organizes some of the most vulnerable and precarious workers in NYC.

No one was truly prepared for this pandemic. But NICE was ready to take action, with its founding purpose to “prioritize the leadership and voices of low-wage undocumented immigrant workers who are often excluded and/or marginalized from other spaces.” Low-wage undocumented workers have been multiply marginalized during the pandemic crisis, receiving no federal support (even when deemed ‘essential’ workers), and having to fight for resources from state and city agencies–all while continuing to risk hard physical labor when other New Yorkers have the luxury of working remotely and remaining physically isolated.

NICE promotes the welfare of their members with regular Occupational Safety and Health training programs, focussing attention on employees’ legal rights in the workplace. NICE also provides job training videos on subjects like plumbing, painting and English-language wording commonly used in the construction industry. They have ensured that COVID-19 information is available to workers in their own language. 

NICE recently supported the May 20 Town Hall demanding an Excluded Workers Fund in New York State. Working with a coalition including New York Communities for Change and Make the Road NY, NICE is calling for a $3.5 billion state relief program, funded by taxing billionaires and corporations, to support immigrants who have been systematically excluded from government assistance legislation. Meanwhile, one of the founding members of NICE, Jessica González-Rojas, is running for State Assembly District 34.

On May 19, NICE announced that almost $4,500 was raised from 64 donors to fund NICE’s front-line community support efforts. JHISN applauds the sustained efforts by NICE to support, train, advocate for and provide services to our immigrant workers, fighting for an economy that works for everybody.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

3.  Food, Immigrant Labor, and the Politics of Hunger

The signs are clear: lines for local food banks in Queens stretching for blocks, reports that one in four New Yorkers now lacks adequate food, higher food prices just as more people have less money to spend. Hunger and food insecurity are not new in our city, but the pandemic and its economic fallout have placed an estimated 2 million New Yorkers at risk of not having enough to eat. In Jackson Heights, mutual aid work by immigrant-led community groups is focused increasingly on food assistance.

While the city promises to increase its pre-made meal distribution program to 1.5 million meals each day, mutual aid groups in Jackson Heights note that most immigrant households need groceries and staples for cooking—not pre-made meals. Nourish New York, a $25 million state initiative drawing from public health emergency funds, allows local food banks across NY to purchase agricultural products from upstate farms that were being ‘dumped’ by desperate farmers. In central Queens, over 30,000 pounds of upstate farm food is being distributed weekly in food bank and hot meal programs organized by State Senator Jessica Ramos’s office.

While food insecurity in NYC is certainly not limited to immigrant communities, there are deep challenges immigrant households face as hunger threatens more of us, including accessing resources and provision of culturally-appropriate food. Even before the coronavirus crisis, the number of low-income immigrants nationwide signing up for food benefits was dropping, as recent changes to the ‘public charge’ rules governing legal status for immigrants threaten to disqualify those who access public benefits. Fear is spreading among immigrant communities that any kind of government assistance—even food aid during the pandemic—can block their path to legal status. The anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric of the Trump regime feed that fear, even as immigrant households grow hungrier.

At the other end of the food supply chain—food production—immigrant workers face a new set of dangers during the crisis. With immigrants supplying 30-50% of the labor in the U.S. meat processing industry, Trump’s designation of the meat industry as ‘critical infrastructure’ during the pandemic means that his violently anti-immigrant regime has just acknowledged that thousands of immigrant workers are in fact “essential” workers. Since up to 50% of immigrant laborers in the meatpacking industry are undocumented, Trump’s pronouncement also acknowledges the critical, essential nature of undocumented labor in the U.S. (Note that a mere nine months ago, ICE conducted one of the largest workplace immigration raids in U.S. history at seven poultry plants in Mississippi, arresting nearly 700 hundred immigrant workers.)

Being designated an essential worker during this pandemic is hardly a blessing, despite popular celebrations of their “heroism.” For workers in the pork, beef, and poultry processing industries, becoming ‘essential’ often simply means that corporate employers can make more demands with fewer restrictions or protections. And when an essential workforce includes many undocumented workers, we have “created a workforce largely made up of people who aren’t legally allowed to work and also, now, not permitted to stop” (“The Workers are Being Sacrificed…” Mother Jones, May 1, 2020).

As meatpacking plants across the Midwest and South become hotspots for coronavirus infections, with confirmed cases at 214 plants, thousands of workers testing positive, and at least 59 workers dead, ’essential’ workers are revealed as ‘expendable’ workers. Many plants employ a wide diversity of immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America, Somalia, Sudan, and Burma. With the federal government demanding no interruption to the nation’s meat supply, and employers determined to keep their profits flowing, meatpacking plants are forcing their workforce to stay at grueling jobs, despite anxiety, shortages of PPE, illness and death. Refuse, and face losing both your job and unemployment benefits. 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Gratitude for your collective care in this ongoing moment of crisis and radical uncertainty. Together we will continue to build forms of solidarity and community action, as we fight for a future that embraces us all. 

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network

Follow @JHSolidarity on facebook and twitter and share this newsletter with friends, families, neighbors, networks, and colleagues so they can subscribe and receive news from JHISN.

JHISN Newsletter 05/09/2020

Dear friends,

Warm greetings to each of you, as Spring arrives in full force during the ongoing pandemic. In this strange mix of blooming flowers, economic anxiety, lush green trees, and local grief, we hope you are finding ways to be safe and to feel connected. 

To celebrate the return of light and warmth, we want to share with you a public art project that one of our newsletter readers just shared with us. ‘Queensbound’ is “poetry for the people online,” a collaborative digital project that brings together recordings of poetry by Queens writers, many of them first or second-generation immigrants. One poem is selected for each subway stop in Queens–click on the green dot for ‘Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Ave’ stop and you will hear Meera Nair, local writer and community activist, reading her wonderful poem “In These Streets”. 

Newsletter highlights:

  1. How to practice Mutual Aid 
  2. New York Taxi Workers Alliance: Essential Workers
  3. Local small businesses in danger as federal programs offer little relief

1. ‘Solidarity not Charity’ — Practicing Mutual Aid

Mutual aid is a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions … by actually building new social relations that are more survivable. There is nothing new about mutual aid—people have worked together to survive for all of human history. “Solidarity Not Charity…” March 2020  

Many of us first heard the phrase ‘mutual aid’ in the early weeks of the pandemic, as neighbors in Jackson Heights quickly mobilized in the face of a frightening threat. Working at the local level, often through all-volunteer actions, mutual aid starts by respecting and nourishing our basic interdependence—the deeply ‘mutual’ ways in which we rely on, care for, and shape each others’ everyday lives. 

The origins of mutual aid are many. Some would remind us that thousands of years of communal ownership and collective action among indigenous communities embody the core values of mutual aid. Some would point to the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program for children, free health clinics, free ambulance services, and transportation programs for elderly folks in the community. Some of us remember how here in NYC, after the devastating hurricane of 2012,  Occupy Sandy organized emergency relief, food and essential supplies delivery, clean-up crews, and house rebuilding that exceeded what Bloomberg’s municipal government was willing or able to provide. 

Mutual aid steps in to say that we can’t wait for government or philanthropy or power elites to meet our needs—especially in disaster or crisis situations. Mutual aid says that we will cooperate and work together for the sake of our common good, our shared and very ‘public’ health, our interdependent economic lives, our cultural survival. Mutual aid knows that the new social relations that we create through intimate material support for each other can be a building block for sustained social movements and political change. 

Locally and globally right now, there are countless mutual aid projects taking place, sharing resources and power, redistributing money and the tools for protection in a pandemic. Many of them don’t call themselves ‘mutual aid’; nor do they need to. Here in Jackson Heights, immigrant-led and frontline community groups are organizing essential workers, delivering food and needed supplies, mobilizing rent strikes, strategizing small business survival, sharing public health information, providing burial assistance, and collectively mourning community members lost to COVID-19. All of this and more is mutual aid.

We invite you to explore some of the mutual aid projects taking place in our neighborhoods (see below), and consider how you might participate. Mutual aid requires us to move beyond the language of gifting or donating or helping those in need, by recognizing that the people you are ‘aiding’ have already aided you, and will aid you again. It is, profoundly, mutual. As those of us with food security think about how to participate in food assistance for community members threatened with hunger and food insecurity, we can remember how important immigrant, and often undocumented, labor is at supplying us with access to food. Those of us who can redirect some or all of a stimulus check to local immigrant-led groups can reflect on how the money can be more ‘mutually’ distributed in the face of a federal government that systematically excludes many immigrants, and all undocumented households, from emergency federal relief. 

WHAT YOU CAN DO

2. NYC Taxi Drivers — Essential Workers Fighting for Essential Rights

The Queens-based New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) was featured in 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting detailing the predatory loans that have crushed the NYC taxi industry. In August 2019 the NYTWA successfully lobbied to ensure that a cap was extended on the number of for-hire vehicles in NYC, and was taking the next steps to demand guarantees for a living wage, job security for app drivers, and a raise for all drivers. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

The NYTWA was forced to shift priorities. They are now focused on advising their nearly 20,000 members–almost all immigrants, from over 100 countries–on ways to deal with the ongoing health and economic crisis. The NYTWA’s comprehensive guide to help drivers and their families get through the pandemic covers the full range of needs: from unemployment advice to burial assistance, stimulus checks and medallion loans, business loans, and food access. 

The group’s activist work also continues. NYTWA is gathering signatures for a petition against Uber’s employment practices, including the company’s misinformation about drivers’ eligibility for unemployment benefits. They are using Twitter to report on the large number of food deliveries by NYTWA members, and to share the announcement that TLC drivers will now be paid $53 per route by the city, rather than an hourly fee for these food runs.

NYTWA also announced recently the good news that the MTA will pay for taxis for essential workers during subway shutdowns. Between 1 am and 5 am, trips will be dispatched via Curb, Arro, and other apps that are now contracted for Access A Ride taxi trips. The Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network values the services that taxi drivers provide throughout our city and applauds the work that NYTWA is doing to ensure they are recognized and rewarded for their essential work.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

  • Add your support to the petition calling on Uber to stop misleading drivers about their employment rights
  • Listen in to the special community radio program held every Sunday night at 9 pm by dialing in to Radio Samatiguila at 712-770-5345; Code 123843#

3. How the PPP has Failed Small Businesses

The vibrant street-level commerce of our local neighborhoods has been transformed into stretches of urban desert, as small business after small business stands empty, indefinitely closed during the pandemic. The Queens Chamber of Commerce recently warned that up to 50% of Queens restaurants and bars may not reopen. The emergency federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP), hailed as offering stimulus money to aid small businesses,  ”has been a disaster” for Queens businesses, according to CoC President Tom Grech. Many immigrant-run small businesses, the cultural and commercial backbone of Jackson Heights, face a precarious future as federal relief remains out of reach.

The PPP was initially funded by Congress with $349 billion. The idea was to generate forgivable loans to small businesses so they could pay current employee wages, plus rent, utilities, and mortgage interest. However, the way the program was structured and implemented turned it into a bitter farce. 

The PPP plan had two critical problems. First of all, the definition of “small” business, as crafted by lobbyists, was ridiculously broad. Loans of up to $10 million were available, offered to businesses with up to 500 employees. PPP eligibility regulations were riddled with giant loopholes. For instance, wealthy owners of large hotel or restaurant chains were allowed to qualify for PPP loans if each of their franchises or outlets had fewer than 500 employees. One absurd example was Ashford, Inc. Made up of several subsidiaries owning or operating 130 hotels, it received $126 million. Shake Shack, a parent company with many different stores, also received a multi-million dollar loan.

The second major problem was that PPP loans had to go through a complicated application process at private banks before being forwarded to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for approval. Banks favored their long-time customers–usually what we would consider mid-sized businesses with access to accountants and lawyers. This favoritism effectively put true small businesses at the end of the line. Many ended up on long waiting lists, and couldn’t even get their loan applications reviewed by the banks.

With funding quickly running out, and millions of small businesses facing disaster, there was a huge outcry about the unfairness of the PPP. As a result of public pressure, the regulations were tightened; many big companies “voluntarily” returned their loans. On April 29, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin said that large public companies would have to prove they met the revised criteria or face criminal liability. He promised to audit any company that received more than $2 million. More than 100 companies have disclosed loans of $2 million or more; as of April 30, about 20 will return the money.

All $359 billion of the original PPP funding is gone. It wasn’t enough, and it wasn’t distributed fairly. Look around your neighborhood. Don’t you think the shuttered small businesses you see are the ones Congress should be helping? The SBA says it approved 2 million loans. They say that the loans they did make averaged around $206,000 each–far more than most local mom and pop businesses were asking for. One-quarter of all the PPP money went for loans of more than $2 million. If the PPP money was spread around, almost 7 million small businesses could have gotten a $50,000 loan. Instead, small local businesses in our neighborhoods–many of them immigrant-owned–are struggling to survive, their viability undermined by favoritism, bureaucracy and corporate greed.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Thank you for supporting the many forms of collective care and political power that our communities so deeply need right now. We wish you well-being and spring breezes.  

In solidarity,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network

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JHISN Newsletter 04/25/2020

Dear friends,

Greetings in this ongoing moment of crisis. And gratitude for continuing to help JHISN and Queens-based immigrant groups mobilize local solidarity during a global pandemic. We hope that our newsletter can be one small route to connecting, organizing, and providing mutual aid in our community, one of the hardest-hit areas in New York City and the nation.  

Newsletter highlights:

  1. How to donate “stimulus” money in solidarity with local immigrants
  2. Damayan, local Filipino workers rights organization, responds to the emergency
  3. Fighting for rent and mortgage cancellation as May 1 looms

1. Getting “stimulus” money to immigrants abandoned by the government

Last week we discussed how millions of immigrants—including those who need it most—are excluded from getting COVID-19 stimulus checks. Grassroots immigrant rights groups in Queens are providing ways, for those of us who can afford it, to redirect all or part of our stimulus checks to our neighbors who are abandoned by the federal government, who are facing job loss, hunger, and the inability to pay essential bills, including burial costs.

What can you do?

The following six trusted frontline organizations are mobilizing aid to our local immigrant neighbors during this pandemic crisis, especially undocumented people cut off from receiving other forms of assistance. We encourage donations to one or more of them. If you are able to donate stimulus money to these groups, please consider doing so in the name of the Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network.

  1. New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE)
    Donate to: www.nynice.org/donors
    NICE is a non-profit that focuses on assisting vulnerable and precarious workers, especially day laborers, domestic workers, and newly arrived immigrants.
  2. Queens Neighborhoods United (QNU)
    Donate to:  paypal.me/qnu
    QNU is an all-volunteer community-based group that battles gentrification and police abuse. Its Facebook page is now a hub for donations to local families who have lost a loved one to coronavirus. QNU also works with Centro Corona as they build out a mutual aid network, based among immigrant families, including direct food delivery.
  3. Damayan
    Donate to: bit.ly/STPCampaign
    Damayan Migrant Workers Association organizes low-wage Filipino workers, including undocumented workers who have no safety net. They are providing direct COVID-19 support to the ill, the elderly, the unemployed, and families with small children.
  4. Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM)
    Donate to:  drum.ourpowerbase.net/civicrm/contribute/transact
  5. DRUM has been building the power of South Asian and Indo-Caribbean low wage immigrant workers, youth and families since 2000. In the face of the pandemic, they are initiating a multifaceted campaign called Building Power and Safety Through Solidarity.
  6. Adhikaar
    – Donate to: www.mightycause.com/organization/Adhikaar
    Adhikaar is a social justice, legal advocacy, and workers rights organization serving the Nepali community. Their emergency work includes virtual unemployment clinics and supply networks to deliver food and necessities.
  7. Make the Road New York
    – Donate to:   connect.clickandpledge.com/w/Form/9a139c0d-d9fb-418e-8e96-117f0e0c841c   
    Make the Road carries out extensive organizing to empower local immigrant communities. The linked fund is for direct coronavirus support to vulnerable workers, undocumented households, and low-income immigrant families.

2. Damayan Migrant Workers Association: “The real heroes of this pandemic …”

Damayan is a non-profit with strong roots in Queens among immigrant Filipino low-wage workers, including domestic workers. Domestic work is essential work, Damayan’s lead organizer Riya Ortiz explains, “Filipino domestic workers–babysitters, elder caregivers and housekeepers … care for the elderly and children, the most vulnerable during the pandemic, in the homes of their employers … Domestic work makes all work possible.” Damayan also fights labor trafficking, recovers wages from exploitative employers, and participates in a range of campaigns promoting health, labor, gender, and immigrant rights. 

Many local Filipino workers are undocumented, living in crowded housing with no health insurance. COVID-19 has hit this community hard, taking its toll on the families of unemployed and essential workers alike. Concerned about the prospect of mass casualties in the community, Damayan swung into action, providing direct material support to their members.

In recognition of the response, Ortiz was recently praised as a “Hero of the Pandemic” by Newsweek. A queer immigrant daughter of a domestic worker, Ortiz prefers to put the spotlight on her community:

While I see this as an honor to be recognized for the work that I/we do in Damayan, in our eyes, the real heroes of this pandemic are the Filipino migrant worker members, the lifeline of our organization. They—the infected, elderly, sick, women, children, unemployed and underemployed, undocumented, and trafficked—are the ones who are the most scarred, marginalized and abused, and are deemed as disposable in this society. Despite their difficult circumstances, they have been fighting not just for their right to live with dignity but also their community’s. We continue to honor and serve them through our organization and our work.

The goal of Damayan’s emergency fundraiser (noted in our Share the Stimulus article) is to raise $20,000 in tax-deductible donations. Damayan will prioritize assistance to those already sick, the elderly, the unemployed, the underemployed, and those with small children at home. Besides basic food and housing needs, Damayan is gathering laptops and distributing wifi hotspots to workers with no internet access. 

What can you do?

3. Growing outcry for rent and mortgage cancellation

The banks who caused the 2008 financial crisis were bailed out by the federal government, despite their risky and often fraudulent lending practices. The result: giant banks remained obscenely profitable while ordinary people had their homes taken away through foreclosure. Renters got no assistance. In the current crisis, history threatens to repeat itself. The Trump Administration and Congress have given trillions of “relief” dollars to banks and major corporations, while offering extremely limited help for renters and homeowners: a short-term and short-sighted 60-day moratorium on foreclosure and eviction. 

Taking another path, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is co-sponsoring a bill to cancel rent and mortgage payments for the duration of the pandemic. The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Ilhan Omar, notes, “This time, it’s time to bail out the American people who are suffering.” The proposed legislation aims to help renters and landlords, not just mortgage lenders and banks. 

The bill would constitute a full payment forgiveness, with no accumulation of debt for renters or homeowners and no negative impact on their credit rating or rental history. The legislation will establish a relief fund for landlords and mortgage holders to cover losses from the cancelled payments and create an optional fund to fully finance the purchase of private rental properties by non-profits, public housing authorities, cooperatives, community land trusts, and states or local governments—in order to increase the availability of affordable housing during this downturn.   Source:  Rep. Ilhan Omar website

Local neighborhood immigrant activist groups such as DRUM and Adhikaar are gearing up to defend besieged renters in our community. Both organizations promote the May Day: Can’t Pay! campaign, which demands that Governor Cuomo:

  • Cancel rent for four months, or for the duration of the public health crisis – whichever is longer.
  • Freeze rents and offer every tenant in New York the right to renew their lease. No one’s rent should go up during this epidemic.
  • Urgently and permanently re-house all New Yorkers experiencing homelessness and invest in public and social housing across our state.

There’s growing sentiment–locally and nationally–for massive, targeted rent strikes to back up tenant demands. As the May Day: Can’t Pay campaign puts it, “On May 1, unless our demands are met, many of us can’t pay. So if we can’t pay, let’s not pay, together!” Make the Road is also discussing rent strikes with their members and supporters.

Ivan Contreras, an organizer with Woodside On the Move, says he is organizing a rent strike in 10 buildings with more than 5,000 tenants.

Basically, my tenants do not have the money to pay rent. Some of them don’t have an immigration status…so it’s been hard for them. The jobs they do to survive are basically jobs they cannot do from home. They are being laid off, but some of them are still working and risking their lives by going outside.

New York landlord groups are reacting with fury to the prospect of organized tenant militancy. “It’s kind of disgusting, “ says one landlord spokesperson. “It seems as if they are trying to use this crisis to further their political agenda.” Actually, May Day: Can’t Pay and many other groups considering a rent strike also support government relief for landlords who need it. But progressive activists are convinced that tenants will continue to be pushed aside by well-funded real estate interests unless they exert their collective power.

Undocumented immigrants, in particular, will have a hard time making up missed rent payments and may face a massive wave of evictions after restrictions are lifted, said Lena Melendez, an activist who said her building was going on rent strike. Landlords “have gotten looked after,” Melendez said. “They have gotten tax abatements and deferments on their mortgages. And tenants have just gotten a temporary freeze, a pause, on evictions.”

What can you do?

In solidarity, with collective care,

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network

Please share this newsletter with friends, families, neighbors, networks, and colleagues so they can subscribe and receive news from JHISN.

 

JHISN Newsletter 04/18/2020

Dear Friends,

We hope this finds you safe and well, surrounded by things that can offer solace and a sense of community. 

As the health emergency continues in Jackson Heights and far beyond, JHISN wants to recognize the incredible emergency work being done by community-based immigrant rights and advocacy groups. In Queens, immigrant-led groups are right now organizing virtual unemployment clinics; home food delivery; quarantine facilities for people with COVID-19; support to renters, small homeowners, and small businesses who need rent and mortgage relief; burial assistance and bereavement support; digital literacy classes; census work via phone banks and texting; and political pressure on electeds for adequate relief aid, including to undocumented and mixed-status immigrant households.   

With media focused on the ravages and vulnerabilities in low-income and immigrant communities, this less visible labor of community care and material support by immigrant-led groups is life-nourishing. We honor their work.

Newsletter highlights:

  1. Supporting immigrants excluded from federal stimulus relief under the CARES Act 
  2. The COVID-19 crisis in US detention centers
  3. Delivering food justice and food solidarity during the pandemic

1. “Stimulus” Discrimination: Another Blow to Immigrants

Excluding undocumented workers in this relief package is a grave mistake, one that will lead to great suffering in our communities, and likely the loss of life. — Manuel Castro, New Immigrant Community Empowerment

Some Jackson Heights residents are already starting to receive thousands of dollars in “stimulus” checks (or electronic deposits) mandated by Congress. But millions of immigrants who desperately need financial help during the pandemic won’t get a penny

The government’s action to exclude many of our neighbors from receiving needed stimulus relief money reveals an inhumane commitment to anti-immigrant policies, even during a deadly pandemic. 

On April 16 the Mayor of New York City announced a $20 million relief program, developed with the Open Society Foundations, specifically to provide emergency monetary relief to immigrant workers, including undocumented workers and their families. While this philanthropy will provide much-needed relief for up to 20,000 undocumented workers facing financial distress because of  COVID-19, it is important to note that there are 360,000 undocumented workers and 48,000 undocumented business owners in this city, none of whom will be receiving federal government support.

Responding to the discriminatory federal aid program, teachers in Oakland, CA have pledged to give their own stimulus money to undocumented families of the children they teach, adding momentum to a growing effort to re-distribute the stimulus money through voluntary actions. Nationally, the prominent immigrant justice group Cosecha is mobilizing a #ShareMyCheck campaign. JHISN is exploring local ways that those of us who are able can share some or all of our stimulus money with immigrants excluded from the stimulus program. Stay tuned for details next week. Together we can make a difference.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  • Discuss the inequities in the stimulus package with neighbors and friends.  
  • If you are getting the stimulus payment, and don’t need some or any of it right now, consider gifting it to aid immigrant communities in our neighborhoods. Our next newsletter will offer suggestions for making your donation count locally.

2. #FreeThemAll: Release Detainees and Prisoners At Risk

In New York State, infection rates on Rikers Island have reportedly soared to seven times the rates in New York City as a whole. As of April 16, coronavirus infections in NYC jails have already reached a catastrophic 8.5%. The Legal Aid Society warns:

COVID-19 is spreading rapidly at Rikers Island and other local jails, endangering our clients, correction staff and all of New York City …. New York City jails have become the epicenter of COVID-19. It is imperative that Albany, City Hall, our local District Attorneys and the NYPD take swift and bold action. Source: Legal Aid Society, April 16, 2020

Meanwhile, Governor Cuomo has largely ignored calls for clemency for elderly inmates and others at high risk of infection among the 42,000 inmates at NY state prisons–even though at least 700 staff and inmates have tested positive. 

The Thirteenth Amendment kept slavery alive by constitutionalizing involuntary servitude as a punishment for those convicted of a crime. This is what allows inmates to be paid $0.62 per hour to make hand sanitizer while being charged $5.30 to buy toilet paper. Now we have Rikers inmates ‘volunteering’ to don personal protective equipment to dig mass graves for those who died from COVID-19–for $6.00 an hour. The pandemic has exacerbated the human rights issues in the USA’s incarceration industry since physical distancing is not an option for either the jailed or their jailers. 

When it comes to immigrants detained by ICE and CBP–two rogue agencies ignoring Congressional oversight and enforcement–the demand to “Free Them All” makes urgent sense. “ICE has sweeping discretion to release the people in its custody for civil immigration violations at any time.” As we write, over 4,000 doctors have signed an open letter to ICE calling on the agency to release individuals in immigrant detention in order to save lives. Responding to widespread outrage, ICE has recently released several hundred detainees, fitting many with tracking ankle bracelets. But tens of thousands remain locked up in ICE detention, facing imminent threat of infection by COVID-19.

At a privately-owned detention center near San Diego, at least 17 immigrant detainees have tested positive for COVID-19. In Tacoma, Washington, immigrants at the Northwest Detention Center held a protest on April 15 by forming the letters SOS with their bodies in the center’s yard, and launching their third hunger strike in three weeks, as they continue to demand release. At a Chicago shelter for immigrant youth,19 children and two staff members have been diagnosed this past week with COVID-19. 

The brutal consequences of unjust incarceration combined with the deadly pandemic extend beyond the United States. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers across the globe confront national lock-downs and border closures, trapping them in crowded encampments or carceral detention facilities. The Global Detention Project gathers updated information about what different countries are doing to protect–or not–vulnerable migrant populations: “Growing numbers of medical practitioners, NGOs, and international organisations have urged governments to release detainees and provide them with support as they navigate complex and perilous public spaces. While authorities in some countries have released detainees, many others have refused to do so.” 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  1. Food Justice during a Pandemic

Food radically connects humans to each other. The spread of coronavirus vividly exposes the global and local realities of interdependent food supply chains, as well as the power hierarchies that determine who farms and delivers food, who enjoys ‘food security’ and who does not. Today we should all take notice that many food supply chains in the US begin with farmworkers and people who labor in food processing plants. These workers are disproportionately immigrants of color, often undocumented. We are learning, too, that the lack of workplace protections, access to health care, adequate housing and hygiene have made these workforces dramatically vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19 outbreaks.

In southwest Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is calling for immediate protections for farmworker communities—over 2 million workers nationwide—living in dense housing conditions and traveling to work in crowded buses. Farmworkers are laboring without protective gear, hand sanitizer, or access to COVID-19 testing. Farmworkers are clearly “essential workers” although often they have not been recognized as such: without their work, many grocery store shelves would be empty of familiar goods and produce.  

This week, the biggest coronavirus hot spot in the United States emerged in a pork processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where a staggering 598 employees are now infected with COVID-19, among a largely immigrant workforce of 4,000 people. Meat processing plants across the country are starting to close due to the existence or the imminent threat of COVID-19 outbreaks. 

Here in central Queens, food insecurity is causing anxiety for more and more households. Local immigration groups reported last week that some of us are starting to worry about basic needs like food. Hunger, and fear of hunger, is stalking our community.  

On April 15, Mayor de Blasio announced a $170 million emergency food program to address hunger. A select number of NYC public schools are operating as Meal Hubs, offering three free meals daily, Mon-Friday, in one ‘grab ‘n go’ food package. Food is available not only for students but for any New Yorker who shows up.  Below is a list of reliable resources for COVID-19 food assistance for folks in our neighborhoods and the NYC area:

  1. Meal Hub lookup to find a location nearest you.
  2. COVID-19 Food Assistance Resources.
  3. FoodHelp NYC
  4. ACCESS HRA 
  5. HelpNowNYC 
  6. NYC Food Delivery Assistance 

WHAT CAN YOU DO? 

  • Sign and circulate this petition calling on Florida Governor DeSantis to protect Immokalee farmworkers.
  • Share the food assistance information here with neighbors, friends, folks in your synagogue, mosque, church or temple. Post in your coop building or share on a listserv or social media!
  • If you are able, consider donating or volunteering with Hungry Monk Rescue Truck, serving Queens and Brooklyn. 

In solidarity, with gratitude for the collective care that we share.

Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network