Early this month, a group of Denver philanthropists launched the Undocumented Workers Fund as a way to help undocumented Coloradans weather the COVID-19 pandemic and associated financial hardships. In just three hours, the fund generated $85,000 in donations. Within ten days, it had $230,000.
And now, at the end of April, 180 people who've applied to the fund for help have each received $1,000.
"This is a population in profound need that is slipping through the cracks, and I'm really proud that the donors to this fund quickly rallied to this opportunity," says Mark Newhouse, who sits on the board of Impact Charitable, the local organization behind the fund.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started shutting down industries across the country in March, federal and state programs have been trying to keep Coloradans afloat. The feds sent stimulus checks. The state government allocated $3 million for short-term rental assistance.
But an estimated 200,000 undocumented Coloradans, many of whom work in the devastated hotel and restaurant industries, weren't eligible for much of the aid, and found themselves left behind.
"They're doing that work, and now they've lost their job, through no fault of their own," says Newhouse. "They can't go anywhere else under these circumstances. I believe helping people who have no other options is very important."
Two nonprofits are handling the fund's infrastructure: The Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition has been screening applications coming in from across the state, while the Village Exchange Center in Aurora has been sending out close to $200,000 in checks and money orders.
But the demand for financial assistance is high, and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition only has so much capacity. "To take this to any scale, we would need to engage more nonprofits to do the screening," says Newhouse.
Some immigrant-rights advocates want the Polis administration to step in, too. "The real answer to this is that government needs to feel this void. It’s not sustainable for nonprofit and philanthropy to fill this void for the most vulnerable," says Raquel Lane-Arellano, policy manager at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
Denver's Temporary Rental and Utility Assistance Fund doesn't require applicants to say whether they have legal status. The fund is accessible to all of the city's residents, a policy that Denver officials believe complies with a 2006 state law that requires governmental entities in Colorado to verify the legal immigration status of those receiving public benefits.
The State of Colorado, on the other hand, is wary of violating that same law.
While California, for example, is offering stimulus checks of $500 each to undocumented immigrants, Colorado officials are still debating whether the state should, or even can, provide any form of financial assistance to undocumented residents.
In the guidelines for Governor Jared Polis's executive order allocating $3 million for temporary rental assistance, there's a reference to applicants needing to be legal residents that cites the 2006 law.
However, state legislators and lawyers have already pointed out to the governor's administration that the 2006 law has an exemption for "short-term, noncash, in-kind emergency disaster relief," which is the type of aid that would be given out through this state rental-assistance fund, according to Allison Neswood, an attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
But the state is still debating the issue.
"What you’re talking about is interpretation by different lawyers. We’re continuing to look into this and engage legal counsel to try to resolve the issue," Alison George, the director of the state's Division of Housing in the Department of Local Affairs, told Westword earlier this month.
Asked about when it would finish its legal analysis, the Colorado Attorney General's Office deferred to the governor's office, which hasn't responded to requests for comment on this issue.
"We’re really trying to figure out how we can best serve Coloradans. We are in conversations with foundations about whether they can actually fund that same rental and mortgage assistance, but through their programs that don’t have the same statutory requirements," George explains.
Would the Undocumented Workers Fund qualify? Newhouse points out that a majority of those applying to the fund for help list paying rent as their most pressing need, and says that he and others involved with the fund are in early discussions with city and state officials about potential public-private partnerships.
No matter what route they take, the fund's supporters want to keep it growing through the duration of the pandemic, because the need for help continues to grow.
Early on, explains Katrina Van Gasse, a fund co-founder, "we were very focused on speed and getting dollars out as quickly as we could. Now, we are excited [to determine] 'How do we scale this to reach the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands?'" she says.
Find out more about the Undocumented Workers Fund here.