This Op-Ed or draft is co-authored by King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci and King County Executive Dow Constantine
One of the starkest outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to highlight just how inequitable our communities have become. While everyone has faced health and economic impacts, immigrants – particularly those without full legal status – have faced the staggering challenges of the pandemic with limited or no access to supportive resources.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. Our communities and our region will only fully succeed if we have an equitable recovery. This means helping our immigrant neighbors access legal status, financial resources, and the security they need to continue to be successful partners in our communities and our economy, whether they are documented or not.
To that end, we at King County have made two important down payments on a better future that will help immigrants who are often excluded from federally funded programs.
First, we invested $5 million to help pay for filing fees and other costs for people applying for legal status.
We know that financial barriers to gaining legal status for those who are eligible contributes to the injustice the immigrant community experiences and that removing those barriers would help families build toward a more stable future. Lack of money for filing fees and associated costs should never be the reason why someone can’t access immigration rights and protections. Our immigration fee scholarship program allows up to $3,000 per person or $6,000 per household to pay for costs associated with applying to become a legal permanent resident or US citizen, and other filing fees associated with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Executive Office for Immigration Review. As far as we know, this is the first program of this scale in the nation to provide relief for immigration costs and we hope other jurisdictions will follow our lead.
Second, we created an $11.2 million grant fund dedicated to immigrants and refugees.
During the pandemic, many people were forced to empty their savings accounts, pile up debt, or decide which bills not to pay, putting them into a financial hole that may be too deep to climb out of alone. Our grant program will provide direct payments to undocumented immigrants and refugees, residents who have been particularly hard hit by the health and economic effects of COVID-19. Between February 2020 and April 2020, the unemployment rate for immigrants was about 3% higher than for US-born workers. Many immigrants are also un- or underinsured, exacerbating the health and financial impacts of getting COVID-19. Immigrant and refugee communities often relied on each other throughout the pandemic, rather than government resources, for support as they struggled. Infusing these small grants will go a long way in helping these self-reliant communities who have received limited government support during the pandemic.
This total $16.2 million investment is part of King County’s commitment to building a future where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. The pandemic has taught us that we are connected to one another and that our success and our failure is linked. Just as King County has led the nation in preventing COVID-19 deaths and getting people vaccinated, we can lead the nation in supporting our immigrant and refugee communities so that we can, truly, build back better.