Many of Oregon’s more than 110,000 undocumented immigrants work in agriculture. (Photo by Malheur Enterprise)

A nonprofit founded at the beginning of the pandemic to help undocumented immigrants is poised to distribute safety net grants to thousands of people.

The Worker Relief Fund announced this week it has received $65 million approved by the Legislature in February. The money will be doled out to undocumented workers who’ve lost work or wages due to Covid-19.

“The pandemic isn’t over,” Martha Sonato, the fund’s board president, told the Capital Chronicle. “It’s still impacting our community across the state.”

She said the virus has caused thousands of undocumented workers in Oregon to lose wages due to illness. Many have had to choose between buying groceries and paying for internet services to enable their children to access educational materials, Sonata said.

Undocumented workers
can apply online at the
Worker Relief Fund website.

The fund is also trying to reach people through Facebook. The payouts won’t be huge: $625 to $2,500, depending on how long a worker has been out of work or had lower income. Sonato said that money could help up to 40,000 people.

The fund was established in April 2020 with $10 million from the Legislature and with the support of 100 nonprofits, unions and other entities. They include three Portland-based nonprofits that support immigrants: Seeding Justice, the Latino Network and the Innovation Law Lab. 

The Legislature granted the relief fund another $20 million in November 2020 and followed up with $46 million in 2021. Workers were only allowed to apply once. That money helped 40,000 undocumented immigrants, Sonato said. The average grant amounted to $1,700 and was given to workers who had no income for a month, Sonata said.

When the fund ran out of money, it shut down. That’s happened three times since April 2020, with the latest pause happening in February.

With this fourth round of money, the relief fund will allow immigrants to apply for help a second time.

Oregon is home to tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants. The latest analysis by the Pew Research Center estimated around 110,000 lived in Oregon in 2016. Sonata said they work in agriculture, food services, manufacturing, landscaping, cleaning services and construction. 

Most don’t qualify for unemployment or federal stimulus money but do pay state and local taxes, experts say. The nonprofit and nonpartisan Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy based in Washington D.C. estimated in 2017 that undocumented immigrants paid $11.74 billion in state and local taxes nationwide, including more than $80 million in Oregon.

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Lynne Terry has more than 30 years of journalism experience, including a recent stint as editor of The Lund Report, a highly regarded health news site. She reported on health and food safety in her 18 years at The Oregonian, was a senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting and Paris correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years. She has won state, regional and national awards, including a National Headliner Award for a long-term care facility story and a top award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for an investigation into government failures to protect the public from repeated salmonella outbreaks. She loves to cook and entertain, speaks French and is learning Portuguese.