The Excluded Workers Fund: New York’s Reckoning with Undocumented Labor During the Covid-19 Pandemic

March 6, 2023
By: Martha Guerrero

New York’s “New” Migrants: 1980-2020

During the late twentieth century, New York City’s longstanding history of international migration witnessed a new wave of Mexican, Central American, Caribbean, and South American arrivals.[1] Besides Puerto Ricans’ postwar “Great Migration” and rising Dominican immigration in the Cold War period, New York became an increasingly popular destination for various Latin American and Caribbean populations starting in the early 1980s. Most prominently, Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Haitian, Ecuadorian, and Colombian diasporic communities burgeoned across Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, concentrating at the bottom of the city’s labor market and powering a rapidly diversifying service industry.[2]  

Multiple structural factors contributed to rising Latin America emigration at the turn of the twenty-first century, particularly from Mexico and Central America. The region’s dramatic debt crisis in the 1980s, better known as the “lost decade,” brought economic collapse amid accelerating deregulation, urbanization, foreign investment, and globalized markets. In Mexico, the crash of the brief petroleum boom of the late 1970s triggered a deep recession, stoked political crisis, hampered economic growth, and threatened household sustenance for millions. In the wake of Mexico City’s devastating earthquake in 1985, secure employment and basic income became increasingly inaccessible to rural and urban communities alike.[3] As more Mexicans adapted informal means of survival and support, a revival of  U.S.-bound migration shaped new patterns of economic mobility to sites like New York City. Simultaneously, a rise in migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras cast a spotlight in a region marred by violent civil conflict, years-long U.S. military intervention, environmental catastrophes, and profound economic crisis. Refugee advocates, human rights activists, and public officials have underscored Central America’s long history of economic exploitation, as well as the American government’s pivotal role in supporting violent military regimes and “death squads.”[4] Tripling between 1980 and 1990, the Central American migrant and asylum-seeking population in the U.S. settled in New York City at considerable rates, particularly Guatemalan and Salvadoran communities. 

In addition to growing Mexican and Central American migration to the metropolitan Northeast, economic and political crises across Ecuador, Haiti, and Colombia pushed many to leave home. Building on previous Ecuadorian emigration to New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s after the fall of the Panama hat trade, arriving populations during the “lost decade” made use of communal networks to settle into the city.[5] In Haiti, nearly three decades of autocratic rule and violent repression by Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and then by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc,” sparked an exodus throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, which coincided with Cuba’s Mariel boatlift mass migration.[6] While a lower proportion of Cubans ended up in the Northeast, New York hosted a significant Haitian diaspora by the early 2000s. Lastly, the Colombian armed conflict, chronic inflation, and mass unemployment drove emigration during the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, rendering Colombia South America’s largest migrant-sending nation to the U.S. by the early 2010s.[7] 

Anonymous migrant. Photo courtesy of Make the Road. 

Scholars have outlined some of the broader social, economic, and political transformations embodied by post-1965 immigration to the United States, including New York’s “new” migrants. First, most arriving populations during the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries were people of color from Global South nations, with Asia and Latin America as top sending regions. Migrants’ national origins have both conditioned their incorporation into American society to pre-existing ethnoracial hierarchies, while also transforming the country’s demographics.[8] Additionally, Global South migrations have included more women and young children, diversifying the male-dominated flows of the twentieth century’s earlier decades.[9] As social expectations became increasingly feminized across countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, and Haiti, mounting economic pressures called for mobility-based mechanisms of adaptation, survival, and profit-making, prompting an exodus of women and unaccompanied minors. 

Invisible Workers & Informal Labor

As multiethnic migration to New York City consolidated, those arriving to the city since the 1980s encountered new occupations and labor conditions in an age of global financial markets and a weakened American organized labor movement. Disrupted traditions of farmwork and manufacturing led a diverse population of Mexican migrants into low-wage work at restaurants, hotels, laundries, garages, construction sites, residential areas, nursing homes, transportation and delivery services, and industrial and commercial cleaning businesses. Asylum seekers from Central America and Haiti, as well as “newer” migrants from countries like Colombia, joined Mexican undocumented workers in New York’s labor-intensive service sector. 

While unauthorized workers have often been targeted as the cause of decreasing labor standards, scholars have illustrated how the late-twentieth century surge of low-wage immigration emerged as a byproduct of neoliberal labor market transformations, largely driven by de-unionization, deregulation, and deindustrialization.[10] In a period marked by economic restructuring, an eroding regulatory state, powerful corporate campaigns to externalize market risk, and the rise of mass subcontracting to substitute positions formerly carried by wage and salary workers, New York’s multiethnic migrants became a ubiquitous, yet largely invisible service workforce. Overrepresented in labor force participation, earning lower wages, and facing substandard conditions and various forms of workplace abuse, unsanctioned workers from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America filled the vacancies of gradually degraded jobs from the 1980s into the late 2010s.  

Affluent New Yorkers increasingly sought in-home workers, restaurants, goods delivery, and other services, driving employment growth at the bottom of the labor market. This surge in demand coincided with an African American labor exodus in the 1970s and an influx of foreign-born workers to metropolitan destinations. New York’s service and hospitality sectors came to depend on a growing number of Latin American and Caribbean workers, who in turn, faced irregular hours and earnings, lacking opportunities for career advancement, uncompensated overtime, and no benefits. 

Art by Layqa Nuna Yawar

While women were predominantly employed as nannies, domestic workers, and home care aides, both male and female migrants were increasingly hired in “back of the house” jobs as line cooks, bussers, dishwashers, choppers, prep cooks, hotel workers, and couriers. Construction, repair services, and industrial and commercial cleaning also recruited a significant segment of this working-class population. Despite New York’s status as a sanctuary city and its relatively liberal enforcement of restrictive federal immigration policies, multiethnic undocumented workers were still relegated to an underground economy of cash payments, unregulated shifts, and most prominently, substandard and even dangerous working conditions.  

In 2018, former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio presented a report assessing the economic profile of the estimated 3.2 million immigrants in the city, including an undocumented population surpassing 500,000. While the approximate 672,000 undocumented migrants registered in 2008 dropped over 20 percent by 2016, half a million people continued to work across the city’s service industry. Revealing how over three-quarters of undocumented immigrants remained active in the labor force, the report illustrated this group’s lower median annual earnings in relation to U.S.-born workers, as well as their higher poverty rate and lack of access to social benefits. 

Besides Latin American and Caribbean migrants’ overrepresentation in labor-intensive, low-wage sectors, scholars have brought attention to the broader role of “illegality” in making undocumented labor prone to undercompensation, workplace abuse, and harassment. Coined by anthropologist Nicholas De Genova, undocumented workers’ “sense of deportability” has strengthened assumptions about a legally vulnerable, relatively tractable, and “cheap” reserve of laborers – both for agricultural and nonagricultural employers.[11]

Migrant protester in March, 2021. Photo courtesy of Make the Road

“Essential Workers” & the Covid-19 Pandemic

When Covid-19 swept through New York during the spring of 2020, devastating closures, extended lockdowns, and rising infections and deaths brought unprecedented disruption. Multiethnic undocumented migrants established over the last four decades were among the city’s hardest-hit communities, facing disproportionate exposure to Covid-19, mass unemployment, economic precarity, and exclusion from federal and state emergency assistance. According to a report by The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, nearly one in six New York City jobs lost due to the pandemic was held by an undocumented worker, who on average, experienced twice the rate of displacement than local workers. The survey estimated that at least 192,000 undocumented workers lost their jobs as of mid-April, 2020. However, even while facing severe displacement, Latin American and Caribbean migrants were also overrepresented across face-to-face and essential sectors, including hospital maintenance, commercial and household cleaning, private transport, and grocery, delivery, and food services, along with Bangladeshi, Chinese, West African, and Korean workers. Migrant-dense neighborhoods such as Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island hosted large shares of New York’s essential workforce servicing Manhattan and other areas.  

During the summer of 2020, a collective of over 200 community-based organizations began to coalesce around a simple, yet radical notion: undocumented workers deserved the pandemic assistance that both New York and the federal government had denied them. The migrant-led Excluded Workers Coalition (EWC) would spend nearly a year fighting for a multi-billion retroactive state aid package for unauthorized workers, forcing the city to reckon with its decades-long reliance on a marginalized, and in many ways “invisible,” undocumented workforce. By the spring of 2021, New York approved the largest relief fund for undocumented workers in modern U.S. history – a victory brought about by sustained migrant-led protests, including a three-week hunger strike. 

The Political Battle for New York’s Excluded Workers Fund

In June 2020, the Excluded Workers Coalition launched a campaign demanding Covid-19 relief for workers left out due to their immigration status – a population spanning day laborers, restaurant, hotel, and construction workers, taxi and app-based drivers, domestic workers, and street vendors, among others. 

“We were driven by the urgency and desperation we were seeing across immigrant communities,” recounted Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, deputy director of Street Vendor Project and Coalition organizer. “There was incredible pushback. Misinformation, racism, and xenophobic sentiments blended with austerity rhetoric, so those refusing to help dismissed these folks in all sorts of ways.” 

The EWC organized multiple caravans to Albany, shut down bridges, held food distribution drives, and even protested outside Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s penthouse on 5th Avenue to highlight the clashing realities of billionaires who upped their wealth during the pandemic against low-income workers who fell through the cracks. 

“We put on these incredibly big, bold, colorful, and many times deeply emotional direct actions that confronted New Yorkers with people who were struggling to buy a bag of rice while the state left them behind,” remembered Bianca Guerrero, the Coalition’s campaign coordinator.

Migrant day laborers take over the Brooklyn Bridge during the spring of 2021. Photo courtesy of the Workers Justice Project.

As a final push to pressure the New York legislature, organizers and migrant workers launched a rolling hunger strike on March 16, 2021. Timed to run parallel to state budget negotiations in Albany, the three-week collective fasting broke upon the passage of a proposed $2.1 billion package for undocumented workers. 

“To actually get the money, we needed workers from across the state and from different industries, which resulted in having construction and factory workers fast upstate, in solidarity with house cleaners and restaurant workers in New York City,” said Nadia Marin-Molina, co-director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and EWC organizer. 

Diego De la Vega, managing digital director for the Coalition, said that because of the time crunch imposed by spring budget negotiations, the hunger strike was a pivotal campaign to turn the Excluded Workers Fund (EWF) into a reality. “Our goal was to make excluded workers and their plight harder and harder for the legislature to ignore.” 

Progressive Democratic legislators who championed the Excluded Workers Fund faced increasing pushback during the last stages of budget negotiations. “It was a long ride,” recounted Assemblymember Carmen De la Rosa (D-Manhattan), lead sponsor of the fund bill along with State Senator Jessica Ramos (D-Queens). De la Rosa narrated difficult conversations with both Republicans and Democrats across the legislature. “Even though we were in the middle of passing a budget to bring Covid recovery to all New Yorkers, for some legislators this simply didn’t include undocumented New Yorkers.” 

According to public officials and advocates, the fund became a sticking point in final budget discussions. “It was by no means an easy win,” remembered Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas (D-Queens). “It took over a year of organizing, fighting against pushback from legislators and Governor Cuomo, and ultimately, having the actual people affected by our policies out in the streets, starving in a hunger strike.” 

While Republicans led opposition efforts, the proposed package also revealed cracks among Democratic legislators, particularly between progressives and moderates. Tensions manifested early in 2021, when former Governor Andrew Cuomo left the fund out of his executive budget proposal, even though both the state Assembly and Senate incorporated plans for a $2.1 billion relief program. At least 30 Democratic Assembly members and 13 senators were reported to hold private meetings to express reservations about the EWF.

On March 16, 2021, organizers launched the “Fasting for the Forgotten” hunger strike at the St. John the Divine Cathedral in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Photo courtesy of Make the Road.

When negotiations stalled in early April 2021, hunger strikers and EWC organizers staged protests outside the offices of Assemblymembers Thomas Abinanti (D-Westchester) and Amy Paulin (D-Westchester), two of the most vocal critics of the fund. 

“In the Assembly, there are many people who demand allegiance to soundbites,” said Abinanti in defense of his opposition. The Westchester legislator said that while he’d been in favor of “the concept of allocating $2.1 to folks who struggled,” the fine print concerned him and other Democrats, including flexible requirements to prove residence, loss of income, and tax withholdings, as well as potential fraud and distribution challenges. “It wasn’t just me. There were 35 of us. But the others grew quieter when they saw how I was attacked. But not less concerned,” he recounted.  

When asked about his constituents, Abinanti, who referred to himself as “a strong supporter of immigrant rights,” said he worried about how such a large investment for undocumented workers could improve election prospects for Republicans in Westchester and other upstate New York counties, which have often leaned to the right. “When you’re hearing the right-wing constantly saying, ‘Why are Democrats giving money away to ‘illegal people’ and encouraging them to come to this country? We’re not doing anything to dispel that argument.”

The threat to repeal the fund lessened as progressives negotiated with upstate Democrats and Coalition strikers staged an intense final round of protests outside Governor Cuomo’s Manhattan office and the Executive Mansion, pressuring legislators to come to an agreement. Abinanti ultimately voted in favor of the fund after pushing for language that gave the Department of Labor “vast regulation faculties.” 

Photo by Make the Road.

“These are people that are good enough to cook and deliver our food, to care for our children, to build our city, but not good enough to receive our help?”, lamented De La Rosa. ”I was deeply disappointed about my colleagues’ continual efforts to stop this fund from existing.”

Shortly after the EWF’s passage, Republican state legislators, New York conservatives, and even federal representatives Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Steve Scalise (R-LA) denounced the package. Many state legislators and pundits spread disinformation regarding the size of payments, threats of potential fraud, and eligibility requirements. In an op-ed for the Hudson Power Broker, a now inactive digital site, Assemblymember Kieran Lalor (R-C,I-East Fishkill) attacked the $2.1 billion “for illegal immigrants claiming they were unemployed” during the pandemic. “New Yorkers are footing the bill for a government that puts them at the back of the line behind illegal immigrants,” he said in a statement. 

While political struggles and protracted budget negotiations determined the scope of the EWF, legislators and public officials were largely responding to the direct demands of migrant workers from Latin America and the Caribbean, who in turn, represented a broader coalition of undocumented laborers spanning South Asia, West Africa, China, and Korea. As hunger strikers from Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, and Haiti fasted for up to three consecutive weeks in Washington Square Park, their determination became a symbol for thousands of migrants who cheered on the EWC.

The stories of migrant strikers, Coalition members, and EWF recipients reveal the unabating pressures and compound challenges experienced by undocumented communities during the pandemic, a period that bared New York’s paradoxical exclusion of “essential” migrant workers. Firm believers in the power of their labor to survive in the city, the Diaz family from Colombia and Merced Aguilar from Mexico saw their worlds collapse as they lost their ability to work for several months. As many other strikers and supporters of the EWC would later recount, their traumatic experiences during 2020 and 2021 led them to either directly fast for the Coalition or demand relief by attending protests and supporting hunger strikers. 

EWC strikers protest extended budget negotiations in April, 2021. Photo courtesy of Make the Road.

Fasting for the Forgotten: “I Can’t Believe We Did That”

On the afternoon of April 18, 2021, a small group gathered for a Sunday barbecue at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Despite the gloomy weather, around thirty cheerful attendees unpacked baskets of food, coolers, and a large grill. It didn’t take long for people to start dancing on an improvised stage circled by camping chairs. 

EWC members gather in Prospect Park in April 2021 to celebrate the passage of the EWF. Photo by Martha Guerrero.

Hermes Diaz, a sturdy, hazel-eyed man wearing a baby blue baseball cap, was working the grill, seasoning beef strips and turning over warm tortillas. His wife, Diana, pulled her sleek raven hair into a high ponytail and set up a folding table with large platters and bowls filled with corn chips, limes, and hot sauces. 

It was a celebration. Less than two weeks earlier, most of the people at the picnic, including Hermes and Diana, couldn’t eat anything. This group of Latin American migrants had fasted for up to 23 days in a rolling hunger strike in Manhattan and Westchester. A rolling strike meant that participants could enroll for a minimum 3-day fasting period and continue for as long as they wished to, fostering a relay system in which incoming migrants relieved those who had to break their fast because of health concerns or work commitments. 

The “Fasting for the Forgotten” hunger strike began on March 16th and was supported by nearly a hundred rolling participants. Former City Comptroller Scott Stringer fasted for a day in solidarity and Assemblymember Marcela Mitaynez (D-Brooklyn) fasted for over a week. Meanwhile, a smaller core group of around 40 migrants fasted for up to three weeks across two sites. City protesters slept in Washington Square Park’s Judson Memorial Church, and their upstate counterparts stayed at White Plains Presbyterian Church. According to members of the Excluded Workers Coalition, 96 percent of longterm strikers were migrant women of color. Strikers were additionally supported by former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and former mayoral candidate Dianne Morales. The strike broke with a “feast” ceremony on April 7, 2021, a day after New York’s legislature finally approved the nation’s first multi-billion dollar relief package for undocumented workers. 

Hermes and Diana Diaz, a couple who left Colombia for New York City nine years ago because of violence and unemployment, fasted for three days in Manhattan’s Judson Memorial Church. Diana, a 42-year-old meal prepper at a Mexican chain restaurant and mother of two young girls, said work hadn’t allowed her to protest for longer. Hermes, a 42-year-old construction worker, also had to return to his job site after a three-day fast. 

The Prospect Park barbecue marked a special occasion for the Diaz family: weeks after the fund passed, they would finally be able to cook for the strikers who kept fasting to secure the $2.1 billion fund. “It’s the least we can do,” said Diana as she served agua de horchata to attendees. “They put their lives on the line, they risked everything. They were so hungry but they didn’t stop. Not until the city gave us the money.” 

Felipe Idrovo, one of the EWC’s longest-standing strikers, speaks on April 7, 2021, a day after the passage of the EWF.

One of the people the Diaz family cooked for was Felipe Idrovo, a 54-year-old migrant from Ecuador and the longest-standing male protester for the Coalition. Along with female strikers Rubiela Correa from Colombia and Ana Ramírez from Mexico, Idrovo didn’t eat for 23 straight days. The doctors who monitored Idrovo, Correa, and Ramírez during the strike had recommended they ease into solid foods over the subsequent weeks to avoid dangerous metabolic shocks. According to Idrovo, the Brooklyn barbecue was one of his first “real” meals after two weeks of “taking it easy.” The Ecuadorian worker, who lost his job at a food packaging plant to pandemic closures and his brother to Covid-19, was thrilled to finally have something other than chicken broth and jello. 

“Last year was the toughest year of my life. I lost my job, I got very sick with Covid, but mostly, I lost my only family in this country. I miss my brother,” he recounted. “I’m so thankful for today. This is so much more than just a meal.” After coming back from the emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital in the spring of 2020, Idrovo wasn’t allowed back into his apartment for delayed rent payments. “I just lost everything, like that [..] I wasn’t prepared for any of this. My […] small savings are gone. I moved into a small room, and I couldn’t support my kids back home anymore. It was too hard to get out of bed. I realized I was completely alone.” Felipe Idrovo, one of the EWC’s longest-standing strikers, speaks on April 7, 2021, a day after the passage of the EWF. 

Rubiela Correa, one of the EWC’s longest-standing strikers, has her first meal on April 7, 2021 after a three-week fast. Photo courtesy of Make the Road

“I cannot believe we did that,” celebrated Correa, a 51-year-old Colombian domestic worker and home aide. “I thought I would fast for three days, and then I did another, and another, and I just didn’t stop. I fasted for myself, but also for so many others who were silent. We deserve help just like anybody else to pay rent, to afford food. We’re workers who serve this city too, and the pandemic wiped out so many of our jobs.” 

Correa emigrated to New York City eleven years ago. In early March, she lost her main job as a domestic worker. A few weeks later, she was fired from her second job as a home aide for an elderly couple. As work fully stopped and bills piled up, she was ultimately forced to move out of her Queens apartment and slept in shelters. Unable to sustain herself and send money back home to her teenage son, Correa reflected on how the pandemic bore the extreme vulnerability of her life as an undocumented immigrant despite a decade working. “I was just crushed. All I thought was, ‘pack your bags and go home,’” she recounted. “But then I knew there was nothing back home either, it’s a vicious cycle.”

Rubiela Correa, one of the EWC’s longest-standing strikers. Photo courtesy of Make the Road

For Ana Ramírez, a 44-year-old restaurant worker from Mexico the fund represented more than just money. “This relief package is also an acknowledgement of undocumented immigrants like me, who break a sweat, who do extra shifts, who work very hard every single day,” she recounted. “It’s an acknowledgement of human dignity. My first meal was spiritual more than anything. I felt nourished by the historic victory we helped secure.” 

The restaurant industry’s free fall left Ramírez out of work for several months, as bills piled up and her savings dwindled. “Your heart starts racing, you start thinking, ‘what if they never call me back into work?,’ she recounted. “I started going to churches to get food […] I had no money. But the scariest thing for me was Covid, that fear of getting sick knowing you’re not a citizen, knowing you don’t have health insurance and your family isn’t around to help you.” 

Ana Ramírez, one of the EWC’s longest-standing strikers, speaks on April 7, 2021, a day after the passage of the EWF. Photo courtesy of Make the Road.

While Merced Aguilar couldn’t attend the Prospect Park picnic because of work, she celebrated the passage of the EWF from her home in Williamsburg a few days later. The 45-year-old house cleaner from Mexico said she didn’t have enough money to buy “special food,” which to her meant buttery shrimp, but was determined to mark the occasion.

Merced Aguilar, a Mexican migrant worker and EWF recipient, April, 2021. Photo by Martha Guerrero

Aguilar served two bowls of instant ramen noodles and two tall glasses of iced water, one for her and one for her 24-year-old son. She then added lemonade mix to the glasses, a habit she picked up during the pandemic to keep herself full. When bought in bulk, a large bag of packets cost $5. “You mix them with water, because water is free, and it tastes sweet, almost like more food.” Aguilar sighed after setting the food on a small table near her kitchen. “I want to remember this moment,” she said. “After a year of crying myself to sleep, the chance to get this money makes me feel like we’re not invisible.” 

The Mexican migrant couldn’t participate in the hunger strike because she couldn’t afford to stop looking for cleaning jobs, but she followed the strike on Facebook and talked to strikers in Washington Square Park. Waiting for employers at “La Parada,” a street corner in Williamsburg’s Hasidic Satmar enclave and a hub for women looking for day work in housekeeping, residential construction, and food processing, Aguilar searched for updates on her phone. “I kept looking for news, until one day they announced they were giving us the money for real,” she recounted. “I still can’t believe it happened, I thought it was impossible.” 

Celebrating the passage of the EWF. Photo by Make the Road.

The Diaz Family: “We Started Living a Nightmare”

Thinking back to the pandemic’s main lessons, Hermes and Diana Diaz had similar reflections. “I learned that in this country, if you don’t work every day, you don’t eat, you don’t live,” said Diana. “I learned that our work is all we really have as people without papers,” complemented Hermes. 

Even though earnings for the Diaz family previously fluctuated, particularly Hermes’s wages at different construction sites, over the last few years they had managed to rent a small apartment in Queens and provide for their two young daughters. “For years, all I cared about was never missing work, always having shifts, picking up extra days when I could,” recounted Diana, who lost her job in March 2020 and was rehired in July at a reduced capacity. “I went from working 40 plus hours a week to 10 hours, sometimes less. I lost my working week, just like that.” 

Hermes remembers the day he was let go from the construction site nearly three years ago. The police officers at the precinct he was renovating started falling sick, as did many of his fellow workers. “As someone without papers, the minute you lose your ability to work, you lose everything. You have nothing to show for yourself, the whole reason they let you be here is your work.”

The Diaz’s spent nearly four months without any income, which resulted in threats from their landlord, wiped savings, struggles to meet basic needs and sustenance, cut services, and the realization that they had no safety net as undocumented New Yorkers. Hermes began volunteering for three food-aid groups, delivering food to those in need. “Every day, I thank God for those food banks,” he recounted. “They fed so many people, including my family.”  

Catalina Cruz (D-Queens), the first DACA recipient elected to the state assembly, represents the district with the highest concentration of undocumented migrants, where the Diaz’s live. “These folks couldn’t access food stamps, rent assistance, state unemployment [benefits], pandemic unemployment [payments], federal aid,” detailed the Assemblymember. “They had absolutely nothing to keep them afloat.” People in Cruz’s district began making hard choices. “They made calculations no one should make, ‘Do I buy food or do I pay for my rent or do I pay bills?’ Many wiped their lifetime savings clean,” she recounted. “Too many people in my district ended up homeless, completely broke, having to borrow money from loan sharks, desperate, and hungry. This money is not only going to help them pay their debts, it’s going to help them survive.” 

By July, 2020, Hermes was able to find odd jobs in construction as it resumed at a slower pace. “We were ‘back’ at work, but we just weren’t making enough to pay the rent we owed, that month’s rent, feed our girls, all these basic things. We still aren’t now.” Even though the Diaz’s were grateful for any income, both alluded to lower-paying hours, reduced shifts, and unreliable schedules. Additionally, as they returned to work before any vaccines were available, both Diana and Hermes constantly feared getting sick at work. “Of course we wanted to work, but it was so scary. We knew it wasn’t safe to do what we were doing,” Diana recounted. 

Marin-Molina said that construction and restaurant workers were more likely than other workers in other industries to be infected with Covid-19. “Not only were they back at work before it was safe, but they were working indoors a lot of the time, sharing equipment, and cramped in close quarters.”

EWC altar for migrants who passed away due to Covid-19, March 2021. Photo by Martha Guerrero

Undocumented communities constantly battled income-health tradeoffs during the pandemic. “A lot of people had both pathways, they both lost their line of work and then kept working odd jobs that eventually made them get sick,” said Alyshia Galvez, a cultural anthropologist at the City University of New York specializing in migration. “The odd jobs they found to replace steadier previous ones weren’t enough to live on. But they were dangerous enough to continue to expose them to the virus in a way other workers weren’t. They got the worst of both worlds.” 

Hermes and Diana started paying rent in smaller installments during the pandemic. By late 2020, they had fallen behind, and after a positive five-year relationship with their landlord because of Hermes’ repair and maintenance work in the building, the Diaz family never imagined that two months of missed rent would set in motion one of the scariest periods of their lives in New York. 

In early December, 2020, their landlord confronted them over their two-month debt, threatening to “kick them out” despite New York’s eviction moratorium. After one multiple threats, the Diaz’s relied on their daughter, who speaks English, to call 911. When the police came, they filed a report and were told to register any further harassment, which they did. “We called the police again because he cut our heat and would turn off the lights in the apartment for hours. […] Those days are hard to remember,” lamented Hermes. “We started living a nightmare at home,” recounted Diana. ”We had to sleep without heat for a few days, in the middle of December […] it was terrifying to think we might get kicked out of our home.” 

Through filed complaints, photos, videos, and direct correspondence with the city, the Diaz’s documented how their landlord continually cut services like heat, power, and internet in their apartment, sometimes for days straight. “This past December was especially cold,” said Diana. “We told him, what you’re doing is illegal, and it’s wrong to hurt a family like this, to make them scared of their own home.”

After days covered in blankets and carrying flashlights, trying to salvage food that was going bad in a fridge without power, Hermes asked his daughter to call the Department of Housing to report their landlord. An on-site investigation confirmed cuts in power, heat, and internet. “That man hurt us, he made us feel unsafe and small,” recounted Hermes. “There were days where it felt impossible to keep going. We had no money, so any small job that turned up I would take, but leaving my girls alone in that apartment started to scare me.”

Anonymous migrant. Photo courtesy of Make the Road.
Anonymous migrant. Photo courtesy of Make the Road. 

Merced Aguilar: “For Us, It Was Free Fall”

Merced Aguilar had made strides with her clients since she first started working at La Parada in 2015. “They [employers] would usually call me again, and I started getting more stable jobs because they liked how I cleaned, so they’d hire me to come back.” Employed through a day-labor, cash-based system, the Mexican domestic worker fully depended on her informal relationships with employers, largely Hasidic Jewish women, to secure wages, determine her weekly schedule, and produce longterm arrangements for her domestic work. Aguilar went as far as drafting small contracts with the help of “Liberty Cleaners,” a migrant women’s group supported by the Workers Justice Project, a Brooklyn-based worker center and community organization.

“A lot of girls think that we don’t have any rights, that by asking for a mop, or saying I’m not going to clean windows outside because I might fall, or asking for a $12 or $15 wage, they’re going to get kicked out of the country,” recounted Aguilar. “I used to think that too, but I’ve learned it’s not true. I’ve learned how to stand up for myself […]  it’s not easy, but it’s the only way to survive the kind of work I do.” 

However, Aguilar’s already precarious work life came crashing down when Covid-19 first hit in March last year. “I lost all my cleaning jobs in just a few days. I had no way to make money,” Aguilar said. “It hasn’t been an easy time for anyone, but for us, it was free fall. No one ever protected us, not from the virus, not from hunger, not from living without working.”

Domestic workers like Aguilar were among the hardest hit laborers during the pandemic. Nearly 40% percent of cleaning service employees don’t have citizenship status, and were among the first to lose their jobs, according to New York City’s Comptroller Office. Preliminary figures from a study by Cornell University’s Worker Institute showed that more than half of women at La Parada experienced unemployment during the spring of 2020. 

Female day laborers waiting at “La Parada,” a street corner in Williamsburg’s Hasidic Satmar enclave, February 2021. Photo by Martha Guerrero

A single mother for over two decades, Aguilar said Covid-19 embodied two fears. First, the inability to work to support herself and her son. “When you’re the only parent, you know in your bones that you can never stop working. Cleaning houses, wrapping food, waiting tables. Work is life.” Second, the idea of getting sick and having no money for treatment. When Aguilar found out a close friend and fellow house cleaner had died of Covid-19, she broke down. “After she died, I didn’t want to go outside anymore,” she said. “But I never really had a choice.” 

Aguilar was forced to keep looking for odd cleaning jobs despite a nearly nonexistent demand in 2020, assuming a high risk of infection. “Everyone said to stay home, but we had bills to pay, we had to eat.” Exposed to entering strangers’ homes during the pandemic and working in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood with high Covid-19 rates, women at La Parada said that the risk of getting sick was very high. 

Aguilar arrived at the home of one employer in April 2020 and noticed that the woman’s husband didn’t leave his room. After cleaning the rest of the house, a visibly ill man came out of the room for Aguilar to clean. “When I entered the room, I got goosebumps, I knew what I was about to clean was dangerous.” Aguilar kept expecting her employer to tell her if her husband had Covid-19. “She never said anything to me, I finished cleaning, and left with that fear of, wait am I sick?”

Galvez pointed to a “collective delusion” required for New York to keep functioning while many worked from home and kept safe from the virus. “The word essential became a euphemism for sacrificial,” she said. “Most of us, who have been able to work from home, relied on workers to whom we kept saying, there’s nothing we can do for you. […] These are workers who were already excluded from protections and benefits despite the weight of their labor for a state like New York.”

Aguilar, who began experiencing panic attacks and hair loss as the pandemic wore on, vividly remembers the growing uncertainty she felt through 2020. “I remember being on the empty train, thinking, what am I going to do if I can’t find work tomorrow? What’s going to happen if I get very sick?” she recounted. “My son would ask me about my day, and I would just start crying.”

Merced Aguilar, a Mexican migrant worker and EWF recipient, April, 2021. Photo by Martha Guerrero

“This is Not a Handout:” The Future of Undocumented Workers

        After its contested passage, the Excluded Workers Fund opened applications through New York’s Department of Labor (DOL) in the fall of 2021. A few days after Hermes and Diana Diaz completed their individual applications for the EWF, Merced submitted her documentation to the DOL. All three workers hoped for the fund’s top $15,600 payment, which legislators and experts said would be granted to a majority of applicants through a document-based point system. The fund’s top tier represented a full year’s worth of unemployment, equaling $300 a week, supplemented by a secondary $3,200 payment for applicants unable to provide tax returns and paperwork showing loss of income. 

Photo by Make the Road.

As EWF applications opened, some of the documentation requirements to secure top-tier payments became points of debate among migrants, advocates, and legislators, particularly as New York sought formal proof of loss of income from a population largely working across informal markets, such as Aguilar and the Diaz family. Felipe Idrovo, Ana Ramírez, and Rubiela Correa spoke about the difficulties of asking employers, who often hire undocumented workers surreptitiously, to admit to a working relationship in writing. “The Fund is this incredible thing we achieved, but right away it became clear the city was saying, ‘hey this is a one-time thing,’ assuming we were all lying about being unemployed or something,” lamented Idrovo. “This is not a handout, this money is an acknowledgment of decades of work from many of us […] it’s not charity.” 

Local representatives and advocates increasingly denounced some of the Department of Labor’s regulations, accusing officials of setting many applicants to fail. Bianca Guerrero described them as “intentional bars” for undocumented applicants. “Let’s say it plainly, an Excluded Workers Fund that further excludes excluded workers is a travesty,” said New York City Comptroller Brad Lander. 

Workers were expected to attest to a 50% income loss, which neither unemployment insurance nor stimulus checks required. Paired with the requirement that applicants earn no more than $26,208, a worker making as little as $20,000 over the past year would be ineligible unless they made $40,000 or more the previous year. Other concerns raised by the Coalition included “an overly narrow set of documents for proving prior employment, identity, and residence” and “onerous employment documentation requirements that will push out workers in the cash economy.” 

“There is no other assistance that’s been provided that has had these many restrictions on it,” said NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. 

By November, 2021, the entire $2 billion fund had run out, receiving more than 350,000 applications. An estimated 130,000 of those applications were approved to receive benefits. According to DOL figures, the two most common non-English languages of submitted applications were Spanish with 42 percent and Chinese with 5 percent. Documentation was also received in Arabic, Bengali, French, Haitian Creole, Italian, Korean, Polish, Russian, Urdu, and Yiddish. 

Both Diana and Hermes Diaz secured top-tier payments, as did Aguilar, Idrovo, Ramírez, and Correa. “This is the best day of my life,” cheered Aguilar, for whom the payment represented the ability to pay delayed bills, rent, and buy food. “If you had told me that this would happen a year ago, I would have laughed […] I can breathe again.” 

Photo by Make the Road.

Despite the good news for many tens of thousands of applicants, the fund’s quick depletion raised larger questions about an ubiquitous undocumented workforce that, although exceptionally recognized during the pandemic as a one-time social benefits recipient, would likely be pushed back into invisibility and marginality. 

Critics pointed out that thousands of migrants were likely left out of payments as the EWF stopped accepting applications as early as October, 2021.  The focus was particularly on upstate workers and others without access to New York’s community-based organizations, which provided assistance in filling out applications. 

“I was lucky because I knew about the fund,” recounted Aguilar. “I knew that if I didn’t apply, the city was probably never gonna do that again, because it’s more comfortable for them to have us work in the shadows […] to pretend that we’re not here and the work we do isn’t important.” 

As a rapidly depleted fund pointed to insufficient resources and excluded undocumented applicants, calls for a replenished, more permanent package grew, but were ultimately rejected by the legislature and New York’s incoming governor Kathy Hochul. 

At the beginning of this year, advocates like Jessica Maxwell of the Workers Center of Central New York (WCCNY) have pushed to expand the fund’s eligibility requirements and transform the EWF into a permanent benefits package for undocumented laborers. The proposed Unemployment Bridge Program would provide assistance to workers not covered under federal unemployment benefits, including freelancers, day laborers, independent contractors, and undocumented workers. 

Previous promoters of the EWF like Senator Ramos have qualified the proposed expansion as a reflection of a new period for American labor in places like New York City. “The Excluded Workers Fund was an emergency bail-out that responded to a crisis,” reiterated Ramos in a statement. “Now, we need to do the structural work of matching our state’s unemployment system to the realities of the labor force. The Unemployment Bridge Project is an update that aims to create a twenty-first-century safety net to match our twenty-first-century workforce.”

The emergence of the Excluded Workers Coalition and the “Fasting for the Forgotten” grassroots hunger strike embodied New York’s dynamic reckoning with undocumented labor during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the racialized conflicts and intense resistance plaguing the subsequent passage of the Excluded Workers Fund revealed deep ambivalences around a contemporary multiethnic workforce that has been coalescing for nearly half a century. As New York struggled to acknowledge Latin American, Caribbean, and other working migrants within and beyond the extraordinary circumstances brought by the pandemic, the Diaz family reflected upon the last three years.

“I thank God for this money every day,” said Diana, whose family was finally able to move into another apartment to avoid further harassment from their landlord. “But I don’t know if people will ever understand what we went through. It was too difficult […] it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever lived through.” 

Ramirez’s thoughts about the EWF resembled those of the Diaz family, embodying migrants’ recognition of their contested roles as workers and New Yorkers. “I think the Fund is a symbol […] I think a lot of people in this country want us to do certain jobs, to show up to the restaurants, the homes, the offices we clean […] But we’re also humans, we have hopes and dreams and needs […] They just want workers who don’t complain or ask for anything, and that’s not who we really are.” 

[1] For more on the geographic transformations of Mexican migration see Hernandez-Leon, Ruben and Victor Zuniga. New Destinations: Mexican Immigration in the United States. For more on Central American migrants see García, María Cristina. Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada. 

[2] Milkman, Ruth.  Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat. 

[3]  Tutino, John. The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000. 

[4] For more on Central American politics and migration to the U.S. see Grandin, Greg. Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Making of an Imperial Republic; García, María Cristina. Seeking Refuge: Central American Migration to Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

[5] Bergad, Laird W., and Herbert S Klein. Hispanics In the United States: a Demographic, Social, and Economic History, 1980-2005.

[6] Loyd, Jenna M., and Alison Mountz. Boats, Borders, and Bases: Race, the Cold War, and the Rise of Migration Detention In the United States.

[7] Batalova, Jeanne, et al. “South American Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute.

[8] Zepeda-Millán, Chris. Latino Mass Mobilization: Immigration, Racialization, and Activism; Milkman, Ruth. Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat.  

[9] For more on changing patterns of Mexican migration see Minian, Ana Raquel. Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration. For more on the “feminization” of Global South migration see Sassen, Saskia. “Strategic Instantiations of Gendering in the Global Economy,” in Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (ed.), Gender and U.S. Immigration: Contemporary Trends. 

[10] Waldinger, Roger David, and Michael Ira Lichter. How the Other Half Works: Immigration and the Social Organization of Labor; Milkman, Ruth. Immigrant Labor and the New Precariat; Stein, Judith. Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance In the Seventies.

[11] For more on “deportability,” see De Genova, Nicholas. “Immigration ‘Reform; and the Production of Migrant ‘Illegality.’” In Menjívar and Kanstroom. Constructing Immigrant ‘Illegality’: Critiques, Experiences, and Responses.

Martha Guerrero

Martha Guerrero is a doctoral student in History at Yale University. Her research broadly focuses on U.S. immigration restriction in the twentieth century. Guerrero is particularly invested in examining how federal policy since the late 1960s has disproportionately impacted Latin American and Caribbean low-wage unauthorized workers and asylum seekers, a research agenda sparked by her time as an undergraduate research fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. At Yale, she has broadened her understanding of the stakes of immigration federal reform, particularly through her work as a graduate fellow for the Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity, and Transnational Migration (RITM), Elizabeth Hinton and Beverly Gage’s Workshop in Modern U.S. History, and Prof. Hinton’s Challenging Racism in the Law Clinic. Beyond Yale, Guerrero has strived to bridge past and present when it comes to the history of immigration. Besides publishing several public-facing pieces on immigration, Guerrero has assisted The Atlantic immigration correspondent Caitlin Dickerson with research on the long-term effects of deportation. This broader interest in connecting academic research and investigative journalism stems from Guerrero’s time at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. While completing the M.S. program under the sponsorship of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize Scholarship and the Jack R. Howard Fellowship in International Journalism, she reported on New York’s unauthorized migrant workers and their servicing of various consumer industries. Her reporting on the labor organizing of migrant app delivery workers was shortlisted for Columbia’s Louis Winnick Prize in 2021.

Back to all posts

Write for Not From Here

Become IEHS Digital Publication contributor. Submit your article!