The woman, who doesn’t speak English fluently, is from Mexico. She requested anonymity because she lacks legal status to be in this country. Since losing her job during the pandemic, she’s gotten financial help from a church and a grant from the Latin American Association of Atlanta (LAA), but the aid hasn’t been nearly enough to cover all the rent her family owes.
The LAA and other advocacy groups fear many unauthorized residents are in the same situation.
Unauthorized immigrants are more likely to work in low-paying jobs and industries hardest hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality and construction, multiple studies show. Many lost their income but were not eligible for unemployment benefits.
“I haven’t been able to sleep knowing I might get kicked out,” said the Roswell woman, adding that she doesn’t know where her family will go. “This is difficult. It’s the destruction of a family, of a home, and nobody cares.”
Though groups like the LAA are giving out more rental assistance than ever, many worry it won’t be enough to stave off a coming housing crisis.
Among unauthorized residents, those who have leases are eligible to take advantage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium. Congress also allocated $46 billion to states for emergency rent and utility assistance. But barriers to those safety nets are abundant.
Proper documentation of COVID-19 hardships, employment and identification — all of which is needed to access the moratorium protections and rental assistance funds — are harder to come by for unauthorized residents, said Alpa Amin, the executive director of the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN).
Many have faced eviction throughout the pandemic because they don’t know about the protections or are hesitant to use them.
“Our client population isn’t aware of what the moratorium is. They don’t understand what their rights are,” Amin said. “It is very easy to threaten and intimidate them.”
Sarah Saadian, the vice president of public policy at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, shared similar thoughts.
“Immigrant communities, often rightfully so, are very fearful of applying for assistance,” Saadian said. “We have also seen state and local governments impose their own restrictions barring undocumented people (from getting rental assistance), even though we believe that is unlawful.”
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs confirmed that unauthorized immigrants are eligible to receive assistance in paying rent and utilities as part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
Some people question that policy. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said he does not believe that any type of federal assistance is warranted.
“The first word is ‘illegal,’” he said. “If they are here without documentation, then they shouldn’t be here.”
As of 2018, the state’s unauthorized immigrant population was roughly 380,000, while the total in the U.S. is about 11.4 million, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The Roswell resident said she has been a taxpayer since she first moved to the U.S. and began working 25 years ago. One of the boxes that lines the walls of her home contains copies of her many tax returns, she said.
Still, she and her husband were not eligible for COVID-19 relief checks or enhanced unemployment benefits, lifelines that kept millions in the U.S. above water during the crisis.
“It’s just not fair,” she said. “I pay taxes.”
“I know that we are not from this country, but we’ve contributed a lot, lot, lot, lot,” she continued. “If I had papers, I wouldn’t be going through any of this.”
But U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., said the country’s obligation is to its own citizens first.
“Any undocumented immigrant who receives rental assistance from the federal government is reducing the money available for American citizens who need it,” he said.
Cynthia Román-Hernández, managing director of the Family Stabilization & Well-Being Department at the LAA in Atlanta, noted that the struggles aren’t just financial for unauthorized residents. Many have underlying health conditions that go untreated due to a lack of access to medical care, sometimes causing those who get COVID-19 to have more severe symptoms. As of March, Latinos and Hispanics were 1.7 times more likely than non-Hispanic white people to contract the virus, as reported by the Center for American Progress.
“They were the most vulnerable population during the pandemic,” Román-Hernández said.
Often compounding the challenges are language barriers.
“We serve clients from 118 countries around the world. Applications in English and Spanish aren’t enough,” GAIN’s Amin said.
For the Roswell resident, the troubles started when her employer of 10 years, a Fulton County assisted living facility, laid her off in March 2020 after an E-Verify audit confirmed she lacked work authorization.
To make ends meet, she resorted to selling homemade tamales and cleaning homes. But that work quickly dried up as the coronavirus spread. Meanwhile, her 58-year-old husband, who suffers from heart disease, saw his work doing painting and construction reduced to two to three days a week because of his growing health problems.
Since last spring, they’ve been spotty in paying their $1,265 a month rent. “That’s a big sum when you don’t have much money,” she said.
The couple now owes nearly $8,000 in back rent. The woman said she and her husband have gone entire days in the past year without eating. Their 16-year-old daughter, an honors student, has grown increasingly anxious about their living situation.
The LAA and GAIN say they are doing what they can to help unauthorized residents.
There’s been a substantial increase in requests for rental assistance during the pandemic, many coming from single mothers, said Román-Hernández.
In 2019, the LAA distributed $309,213 in rental assistance to 292 families. That amount shot up in 2020 with the pandemic. The organization gave out $752,478 in rental assistance, helping 730 families and 3,589 individuals. The funds came from local governments, the federal government, as well as foundations. As of the end of June, the group had distributed close to $200,000 in 2021 to 260 families.
Additionally, the organization — with support from legal aid groups — has held workshops focused on the eviction moratorium and tenant rights.
“The CDC moratorium helped us a lot,” Román-Hernández said. “We saved a lot of families from eviction with our comprehensive approach.”
The LAA also hosts vaccine clinics and food drives.
And, while Amin’s group is “not historically in the business of providing rental assistance,” she said, GAIN saw a need during the pandemic. It has distributed between $180,000 to $200,000 in rental assistance to nearly 50 families.
It’s a Band-Aid, and many of the families are still struggling, Amin said.
Román-Hernández agreed, expressing worry about how many more people will find themselves with no place to go once the eviction ban ends. “At this point, we know that there is going to be an increase,” she said. “But we have also seen people getting evicted with the CDC moratorium policy.”
Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.
Georgia’s unauthorized population: 380,000
Industries they work in:
Professional, management, administrative and waste management services, 15%
Accommodation and food services, arts and entertainment, 13%
Sources: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Migration Policy Institute, based on 2018 data.