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A Tale of Two Recoveries: How Immigrant Families Survived COVID-19

Lately, we’ve been hearing in the news how most American households are doing much better financially today than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. From stimulus checks and unemployment insurance to the expanded Child Tax Credit, federal COVID-19 relief played a critical role in helping families survive, and even improve their financial footing.

But this picture misses another lesser-known story of recovery: the experience of immigrant families who were excluded from federal pandemic relief. 

On December 2, 2021, we came together to uplift the stories and experiences of immigrant families left behind. We reflected with partners and asked ourselves, how can we help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives? Watch the recording below.

11.5 million immigrants and their families were denied federal COVID-19 relief.

As an undocumented person who has filed my taxes for twelve years, it has been hard to have to accept that in times when we struggle, we are unable to receive anything back.”—Juan, Immigrant Families Fund recipient

Immigrants have long been excluded from this country’s social safety net. Despite paying billions in federal taxes every year, undocumented immigrants remain ineligible for nearly all federal protections, from health insurance to food and housing subsidies.

During the pandemic, three in four undocumented immigrants filled frontline essential roles, risking their own lives to help keep us fed, safe, and healthy. Yet, even as they stepped up for the country, they remained excluded from federal relief. It’s estimated that an immigrant family of four was denied upward of $11,400. Without this critical support, immigrant families’ lives took a devastating hit. 

Essential, invisible, and excluded. 

Drawing on our unparalleled survey of more than 11,000 immigrants excluded from federal relief, we got an honest and painful look at how immigrant families survived.  

Without a social safety net to fall back on, many immigrants had no choice but to show up for work. The costs for workers on the frontlines was immense: not only did workers put their families’ health at risk, but those who did get sick faced a downward spiral of financial hardship.

Families where a member got sick with COVID-19 were not only more likely to lose income and fall behind on bills than households where no one got sick, but they were also more likely to face penalties, have their utilities shut off, and be evicted.

Many immigrant families walked into the crisis with limited access and few financial options. Families who were invisible to the formal financial system prior to COVID-19?lacking a Social Security Number or Tax ID?were less likely to have checking accounts or credit cards.

And with fewer financial strategies, these families had fewer options to draw on during COVID-19. Indeed, we saw that immigrants who had a Tax ID were 45% more likely to pay their monthly bills in full than immigrants without a Tax ID. 

So how did families survive in a system that treated them as essential and invisible? Many went without, as 6 in 10 families reported being unable to cover their basic needs. Despite these sacrifices, many families still had to take on debt. In the depth of the pandemic, families who had fallen behind reported having $2,000 in unpaid bills, representing zombie debt that families will carry with them even into the recovery.

Our calls to action.

So, where do we go from here?

We invited advocates and practitioners to talk about how we can show up, do more, and do better. Across the board, we heard that while steps are being taken to help people rebuild, more needs to happen for a truly equitable and inclusive recovery.

A Tale of Two Recoveries, webinar panelists

SHOW UP: Make policies inclusive of all immigrants. The federal government has set a damaging precedent of excluding immigrants from critical social safety net policies. However, there are choices we can make at the state and local levels to help offer relief with the resources we have available now. Policy is a choice, and it’s in our power to advocate for more inclusive protections and services for all immigrants across all levels of government.

DO MORE: Remove structural barriers. Without legal status, immigrants continue to be left out of critical resources that could help them rebuild. But accessibility runs even deeper: from language to technology barriers, we need to ensure programs and services are delivered in-language, in-culture, and in ways that help families use resources when they need them.

DO BETTER: Change mindsets together. From COVID-19 relief packages to the growing recognition that giving people cash works, we’re encouraged by the progress that has been made to better support people at the margins. But we need more allies in this fight so that we can build systems that create more equitable pathways of opportunity. When we harness our collective power, we can create lasting change.

We know the work is far from over.

Immigrants have been excluded from our nation’s support systems for too long, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated many of these existing inequities. This is why our work is more important than ever.

When we look ahead, we’re anchored by José’s reminder: “We have to rely on one another to keep ourselves whole and keep our spirits up. We can’t let the devastation of our reality overtake our spirits.” Together, with respect and mutuality, we can help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives with dignity.

Demand Lasting Change: Reacting To The Latest DACA Court Ruling

After a tumultuous nine years, DACA—and the immigrants it supports—are under attack. Again. On Friday, July 16, a Texas federal court ordered the DACA program to partially end. We’ve been here before, and frankly, we’re tired.

We know from experience that the DACA program has helped recipients secure higher wages, pursue an education, and work toward their dreams. Moreover, its impact ripples out to the families and communities of recipients. Over the years, families, students, and business owners have shared with us the impact DACA has had in their lives:

Nine years ago, DACA was, at best, intended to be a temporary fix to a broken system, a house of sticks to hold the nation over while we lay a concrete foundation for lasting immigration reform. Defending the DACA program and supporting its recipients is crucial.  However, it’s not enough. It’s time to end that fight for good.

It’s time for citizenship for all.

Now is our time to be loud, be heard, and create real, lasting change by passing a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. We’re fighting for the millions of immigrants – including over 640,000 DACA recipients – who stepped up to care for our nation’s sick, feed our nation’s families, and lead our nation forward throughout the pandemic. They are, and have always been, essential.

We need action. Here are five things you can do today to make a difference. Given the fear and uncertainty cascading through immigrant communities after the latest ruling, every action matters.

How To Support DACA Recipients

1. Spread the word about MAF’s DACA fee assistance

At this time, current DACA statuses remain valid, and renewal applications will continue to be processed. MAF remains committed to ensuring that the $495 filing fee isn’t a barrier. If you are eligible to renew your DACA status, pre-apply for MAF’s DACA fee assistance to cover the filing fee. If you are a first-time DACA applicant, we encourage you to consult a trusted legal service provider about your case.

If you know anyone who could be eligible for renewal, please invite them to apply! These are a few stories from clients who have recently received MAF’s DACA fee assistance.

“This grant is important to me because it will allow me to safely continue to support myself and my family financially. Through DACA and the associated work permit I am able to practice a career I care about with the employee benefits and rights I deserve.” — Delia

“This grant will help my family so much in giving me a chance to be able to renew my DACA without having to fall behind on other payments I have. It will reduce some stress we have right now trying to figure out how to pay my renewal. It’s a great opportunity because I will also be able to pay back on a payment plan which makes it so much more accessible for us to do so.” — Gloria

“This grant is really important to me so I can continue with my DACA card and be able to work and help my parents out, I also want to set money aside to go back to school and continue with my career to be a Pre-school teacher.” — Yaritza

2. Share credible information

It can be hard to know what and what to trust in an age of misinformation. That’s why we created a resource with the latest information on DACA. If you know anyone who is wondering what the latest ruling in Texas means for them, please share this page.

The main take-away: USCIS will NOT grant DACA status to first-time applicants if their applications were not already approved before July 16, 2021.

3. Contact Congress

We encourage you to join us in contacting your member of Congress today to demand a pathway to citizenship for all immigrants. The Senate has already included legalization in its budget resolution, now it’s up to the House of Representatives to do the same. Writing your Representative is a fast, easy, and impactful way to make your voice heard. This resource includes a letter already drafted for you! Be sure to send your letter ASAP.

4. Sign a petition

Add your name to an online petition from United We Dream. This petition calls on lawmakers to include a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the reconciliation package before Congress goes on recess in August. 

5. Donate to MAF’s DACA Fee Assistance campaign

The $495 filing fee shouldn’t stop young immigrants from renewing their applications. We’re stepping up with a national campaign to provide partial and full grants to cover the application costs for DACA recipients with the greatest need. But we can’t do it alone.

We’ve already raised $1 million. Join us and help us double our reach. Stand with immigrants today.

MAF is proud to stand with immigrant communities. Follow us on social media for the latest updates on how to show up and do more for immigrants.

MAF Awarded $45 Million To Support Immigrant Families During COVID-19 Crisis. It’s Still Not Enough — Congress Must Act.

Building on MAF’s nationwide COVID-19 Rapid Response campaign, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott awarded MAF $45 million to provide direct relief to those hit hardest by the pandemic. MacKenzie Scott’s generous gift enables MAF to continue providing financial relief to immigrant families excluded from receiving help. Over the past year, MAF has already distributed direct cash assistance to 48,000+ individuals to help them weather the crisis—and today the organization is poised to do even more. 

In spite of these efforts, the reach of a single organization like MAF is nowhere near enough to meet the staggering financial devastation faced by millions of immigrant families left out of federal relief. We need leadership and action at a national level to ensure the last and the least are a part of a sustainable recovery.

Congress has taken meaningful steps in recent months to expand the safety net when families needed it most.

The December 2020 COVID relief bill and 2021 American Rescue Plan extended the latest rounds of financial relief to more than 3 million people in mixed-status households left out of the 2020 CARES Act. Yet, an estimated 11 million people in immigrant families continue to be denied assistance even as they keep the economy afloat in essential work.

“As an undocumented person who has filed my taxes for twelve years, it has been hard to have to accept that in times when we struggle, we are unable to receive anything back.” 

Juan, Rapid Response grant recipient

This exclusion comes at a time when our economy rests on the shoulders of essential workers who cannot access support to weather the pandemic even as they are suffering higher rates of COVID infections and deaths. Essential workers are immigrant workers and many have no access to relief. They are going hungry, falling behind on rent, missing monthly bills for no fault of their own. 

More must be done. 

In meeting this moment of crisis, Congress must advance desperately needed relief and include everyone—regardless of immigration status. Over the last year, we have seen how the health and economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic have fallen disproportionately on the marginalized, excluded, and invisible. Congress must expand support to all immigrants, putting equity front and center to deliver relief to the least and last. This intentional focus on equity is at the heart of MAF’s Rapid Response Fund, and the means by which the organization has provided nearly $30 million in direct cash assistance.

“We’ve spent 14 years building scalable platforms, relevant products, and a national network of community based organizations to help low-income and immigrant families improve their financial security. Now, we’re using our platform as pipes to effectively and with dignity distribute the crisp waters of relief into the hands of those most parched, those who have been denied and forgotten.”

MAF CEO José Quiñonez

MAF’s capacity to act and scale quickly is a direct result of the partners who have and continue to believe in its vision of leveraging the best of technology and finance in service of those left in the shadows.  Their sustained support has enabled MAF to pioneer new ways of meeting people where they are, in the fullness of their complexity and their humanity.  MAF is now expanding its equity-centered work helping low-income and immigrant families directly during this unprecedented crisis. 

MAF applauds MacKenzie Scott for showing up, with urgency and conviction, to do more for families relegated to the shadows. Now it’s time for Congress to do the same. 

Immigrants are essential, risking their lives to keep our country afloat during this pandemic. 

They have stepped up for us, and now it’s our turn to step up for them. If we really want a more permanent and prosperous path to recovery, Congress needs to eliminate the structural barriers that have long stood in the way of people’s abilities to reach their full economic potential. 

Today, we have not one but five proposals on the table that could help us get there. We have proposals that would provide legal status and protections to millions of Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, farmworkers, and essential workers and their families. While these bills can be the critical building blocks to move us forward, they are not the end goal. Congress must ultimately push forward with the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which offers a sweeping reform that would grant 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. 

By removing these long-standing barriers which have for so long pushed millions into the shadows, immigrants can have the opportunity to rebuild their financial lives more fully and with dignity. They can have financial stability in their lives to rebuild their financial security, and have a fighting chance in a post-pandemic recovery. 

Our work is far from done—it is our collective responsibility to urge our representatives to take immediate action. We need to offer relief and citizenship for all if we truly seek to rebuild an equitable world that works for all.

Four Years of Possibility: The Legacy of Sustained Organizing

The attack on the Capitol was horrifying. Devastating. Yet the narrative dominating the headlines is only one side of this historic month. When we flip over the decaying face of hatred and fear, we see another face of our nation emerge, fresh as rain and hopeful as a dream. We celebrate, despite tragedy, because this vital face is powerful and dynamic. It continues to nourish those of us who believe in a world where all people can be accepted and can be loved.

The historic, unprecedented, monumental victories in Georgia bring us one step closer to that world.

Warnock, the first black Senator of the South, and Ossoff, the first Jewish Senator of Georgia, represent the hopes of a richly diverse community of supporters. Their victory ensures that these hopes might soon become manifest for those in the state of Georgia, the nation and, we can say without hyperbole, the entire world.

A victory of such epic consequence did not, could not have come overnight. It was instead the culmination of a decade’s long, herculean effort in organizing lead by the inimitable Stacy Abrams, Deborah Scott, Felicia Davis and many others from the “next iteration of organizers” who trace their heritage to the civil rights heroes of the last century.  We lift up the names of these catalytic black women who lift up the voices of so many others, those who’ve been forgotten, denied and left in the shadows for far too long. 

Their voice, their power manifest, is the shot heard ‘round the world.

While the incoming Biden / Harris administration has a daunting task before it, they will be able to accomplish more, govern better, and lead more boldly because of the groundwork set for them. Put simply, years of diligent, persistent base-building, coalition-gathering, table-setting and dedicated organizing was able to flip a red state blue and unlock an entire horizon of potential progress.

We cannot waste this opportunity.  MAF is calling on accountability for the following policy promises in the first 100 days:

Expanded COVID-19 economic relief

Giving people cash assistance at critical moments in their lives can be transformational. It can be the difference between paying rent for another month, or falling into a downward spiral of financial struggle. Rebuilding starts with financial security. COVID-19 has devastated families’ finances, causing ripple effects of economic insecurities into other areas of their lives. People have had to skip meals, fall behind on their rent, and avoid seeking medical attention during a pandemic. Delaying relief will only make it harder for people to recover. 

When the federal government offered relief, it excluded 15 million people because of their household immigration status. From day one, MAF has advocated for relief for all, regardless of status. MAF stepped up to offer cash assistance to 43,000 people. 

From our research, we see the definitive impact cash assistance can make in people’s lives. In MAF’s survey of immigrants left out of CARES Act relief, we saw a 10-fold increase in the number of immigrant households who have no income today. If these families had been included in the CARES Act, more than one in four would have been able to pay off their bills in full for the month with as little as $1,200. We can’t continue to exclude our essential workers–we need relief for all.  

Immigration reform

We urge the Biden Administration to keep his immigration campaign promises. Reinstating DACA will be a great first step—but we can’t stop there. We need comprehensive policies that will protect and help all immigrants rebuild their financial lives post COVID-19. This means starting with a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom have lived in this country for decades and many counted among essential workers fighting at the frontlines of this pandemic. 

This also means keeping families together, giving asylum-seekers the opportunity to seek safety, and ending discriminatory Muslim bans. If we truly want to rebuild this country after this pandemic, we need to invest in people. Let’s start by extending protections to our essential workers and their families–millions of immigrants who have stepped up for us in our time of greatest need.  

The lesson we draw from Georgia is that these policies are only possible when built atop the victories of joyful, inclusive organizing. For this reason, we’ve been investing in the mobilization work necessary to create a true culture of engagement for all people, regardless of status. In 2020 we engaged our community of over 100,000 about the census and election, listening to their stories and needs.  In 2021 we’ll continue to organize more boldly and fearlessly because the fight for the next election, the next mid-terms, the tomorrow of our dreams, has already begun.

The headlines may very well continue to be dominated by the scowling faces of loud, white men. Yet we’ll continue to keep our eyes on that other face, steady at the head of the march towards justice, the light of hope that keeps us warm in the bitter fight for equality, ever forward.

SB 1157 Becomes Law: California’s First-in-the-Nation Rent Reporting Bill

This fall, Governor Gavin Newsom signed California Senate Bill (SB) 1157, creating a historic new avenue of credit-building opportunities for low-income families in the state. At a time when so many households are struggling to make ends meet in the midst of a pandemic and recession, this law offers a credit-building lifeline. Authored by Steven Branford (D-Gardena), the new law will give tenants living in subsidized housing an opportunity to have their rent payments reported to major credit bureaus, enabling them to continue safely building credit even after this crisis.

MAF sponsored SB 1157, in partnership with the Credit Builders Alliance and Prosperity Now, because we believe in the lasting impact that rent reporting can have in helping many Californians establish or build their credit scores. For over 15 years, we’ve led the charge to bring low-income and immigrant communities out of the financial shadows by offering non-traditional paths to credit-building opportunities. From Lending Circles to SB 896, MAF has continuously strived to not only meet people where they are in their financial journeys, but uplift the strategies that recognize their strengths and help them participate in the financial mainstream with dignity. Through SB 1157, we continue to act on a vision of honoring good practices already taking place by formally recognizing them and elevating them to the mainstream.

Over 45% of Californians rent their housing, and unlike homeowners who can build credit through their mortgage payments, renters cannot do the same even when making on-time payments.

Failure to pay rent, however, has a negative impact on a renter’s credit score. Without a decent credit score, renters stand to be left out of essential services, such as loans for buying a house, obtaining basic utility services or cell phone plans, and getting credit cards. As a result of current uneven credit reporting practices, renters are seven times more likely to have a minimal credit history deemed unscorable by credit bureaus compared to homeowners. The monetary and logistical barriers associated with reporting requirements often discourage landlords from submitting full rental payment histories to credit bureaus. Yet, the evidence on rent reporting data shows clear and consistent results: full rent reporting plays a critical role in helping people without credit scores establish one and helps those with low scores improve theirs.

Rent reporting to major credit bureaus will offer low-income renters an opportunity to build credit as a financial asset while helping them rebuild for a post-pandemic world.

SB 1157 is tailored to tenants most likely to receive the greatest benefit from establishing or improving their credit scores. It offers a first of its kind solution to rent reporting credit discrepancies, opening up lines of credit-building access for tenants living in subsidized housing and giving them the opportunity to enter or stay in the financial mainstream during this pandemic. In keeping with our values, this bill meets people where they are by giving tenants the financial tools they need to exercise them at their own time and within their own context.

Having good credit is an asset that needs to be cultivated and sustained, especially during unexpected financial shocks where low-income families are most likely to be hit hardest.

People’s financial lives have been unraveled by COVID-19. In a state where there is already a massive shortage of affordable rental homes and where an increasing number of tenants are at risk of eviction due to the economic downturn, California’s low-income families should not have to bear the brunt of this pandemic any further. People’s livelihoods continue to be on the line, and SB 1157 can give low-income renters an opportunity to maintain some semblance of a financial footing as they continue to tackle asset-building barriers. This new law will allow low-income Californians to not let their credit histories fall through the cracks, giving them a fighting chance in the recovery of this pandemic.

From direct relief to state-wide systemic changes, we continue to put clients at the forefront of the products and policies we advocate for. With SB 1157, we’re another step closer to providing the low-income and immigrant communities we serve with access to the tools they need to increase their financial well-being.

Insights from Census Outreach Campaign

Immigrants, like other marginalized communities, are labeled as “hard-to-count” by the United States Census Bureau. The implication is that immigrants are in some way lacking, whether in information or interest. Our work says otherwise.

This spring, MAF lead a thoughtful, targeted census outreach campaign. By crafting emotionally engaging, culturally relevant messaging and building on the foundation of trust that connects non-profits to the clients we serve, MAF moved the needle. The Census Bureau estimated a 60% response rate for the 2020 census, the lowest in decades. After our week-long, digital-first outreach campaign, we saw MAF clients bring that number up to 83%. This was driven in large part by immigrant clients who turned out to be most engaged, responding to SMS outreach at an incredible rate of 54%, more than twice the industry standard. Immigrants, we found, were in fact the easiest-to-count.

We offer this insight to the field to inform the work of the wide coalition of organizations fighting hard to lift up the voices of marginalized communities in the census. MAF believes that the unique role of non-profits in this effort is rooted in the relationships of trust cultivated over time. As a beacon of light in the fog of today’s misinformation war, non-profits are critical messengers of crucial and reliable information.

Time is running out before the deadline of September 30th so we’ve compiled actionable insights to inform the needed and critical efforts of partners in the MAF network and beyond. What follows is the story of our census campaign, detailing what we did and the lessons we learned. We hope you find these learnings useful, apply them to your own work, and that you’ll consider joining us as we continue to lift up the voices of the incredible people we serve every day.

MAF begins with the lived experiences of our clients.

In the context of a census outreach campaign, the messaging we used had to be both timely and relevant. It quickly became clear, though, that standard messaging from the Census Bureau was neither. The two most common messages we found from the Census Bureau described the importance of the census in terms of power (congressional representation) or money (federal budget allocations). For people who are being told that they have no place in the democratic process in the first place, and who are routinely denied social services, these points are, at best, meaningless or at worst, insulting.

Based on our rich understanding of the lives of our clients, we knew improving the messaging would be simple. The key was to craft emotionally engaging and culturally relevant language centered on themes of belonging and community.

To test our intuition, we designed a campaign to compare the results of 2 standard census messages against 2 messages we created in-house. Another non-profit, the immigrant advocacy organization OneAmerica, joined in our campaign. Together, we delivered these messages to 4,200 clients across English and Spanish-speaking communities using a combination of email and SMS.

The results came in: the single most effective messaging angle in our campaign was not power or money, but belonging.

This result implies that messaging to lift up the experience of truly being accepted is powerful. Perhaps its because it runs counter to a dominant national discourse that actively denies the humanity and rejects the validity of immigrant communities as full participants in American life. As an organization, MAF has never shied away from pushing back on dominant discourse and the results of this campaign demonstrate why.

To craft messaging at MAF is not simply a matter of disseminating information but, rather, is an effort to speak to the soul. We maintain that messaging must speak to the core of our clients because everything we do, from announcements to new services, starts with the assumption that our clients are complex, unique human beings who are far more than a data point can ever capture. When we articulate messaging that speaks to our clients’ lived, emotional experiences, we are reaching for their hearts, not minds. The campaign results show that this is a fundamental strategy for success.

SMS was the most effective method of communication, especially for clients who speak Spanish.

The second insight of the campaign was around methods. Clients who selected English as their preferred language were more likely to respond to an email than those who preferred Spanish. Yet for SMS, the reverse was true. English-speaking clients responded at a rate of 41% while Spanish-speaking clients responded to our SMS at a staggering 52%

These results push back against the prevailing narrative that Spanish-speaking communities are difficult to reach or “hard to count.” What we found was the exact opposite. With the right message and targeted through the right medium, Spanish-speaking clients are far from disengaged, but in fact the most engaged. The responsibility, then, is on outreach managers to inform their campaigns with these insights in order to most effectively meet our communities where they’re at.

With these results in hand, we began speaking with other non-profits about their civic engagement strategies.

What we found across the board was a shared understanding of the importance of civic action. Yet for overworked and underfunded organizations, there was no excess capacity to run multi-channel campaigns given that SMS tools in particular were either too expensive or time-consuming to manage. Simply put, the existing tools on the market were not built for non-profits.

We decided to change that. In partnership with a highly skilled team of technologists at the software studio super{set}, we built our own digital tool that makes it easy for nonprofits to effectively mobilize their communities. The results were striking.

Our 3-step campaign to 4,200 clients lead to an impressive 36% response rate and, by our estimates, secured $6 million in funding for communities that deserve it. All within one week and managed by one staff member. The technology we built can allow non-profits to lead effective campaigns without a full-time campaign manager or breaking the bank

MAF’s Invitation To Partners

In early conversations with other non-profits, we found that most were relying 80-90% on in-person outreach for their census campaigns. With the onset of COVID, those plans have gone out the window. Now that the White House has cut a precious month off of the census timeline, the clock is ticking.

MAF is showing up by utilizing our tested messaging and developed technology to scale up census outreach efforts. With the support of The Grove Foundation, we’re making final push to ensure that all of hard-working clients in the MAF network are counted, seen and receive the resources they deserve.

Building on this momentum, we’re planning a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign informed by the insights gained from the census work. Continuing to develop MAF’s mobilization efforts is a necessary step because we are staring down the most historic election of our lives. The moment is calling us all to step up, punch above our standard silos and lift up the voices of the communities we serve.

If you’d like to join our growing community of partners sharing lessons learned and shaping the future of our new Beacon platform, please email us. Our goal is to ensure that the technology made by a non—profit remains timely and relevant for other non-profits. You can learn more about MAF’s focus on civic action in this conversation between CEO, José Quiñonez and Director of Mobilization, Joanna Cortez.

PS We’ll leave you with our take on a lesson from history, to ensure it’s mistakes are not repeated.

First they came for the immigrants

And I chose to speak out

Because we are family

Then they came for the poor

And I chose to speak out

Because we are family

Then they came for me

And there were others

So many others

Mobilizing Communities Into Action

A key lesson from the past 14 years is that improving people’s financial security has to do with much more than their personal financial choices. In most cases, it has everything to do with their civic lives.

Here’s the thing — Financial security is intimately linked with the political winds and economic structures that keep many of the people we serve in the shadows and at the margins of society.

For some clients, it’s also about the barriers immigrants in this country face when opening a bank account or asking for fair pay. For others, it’s about the way they’re judged and treated based on the amount of money they have. On a day to day basis, across all clients, we see that political realities and cultural narratives impact their financial lives in real and everyday ways.

Nothing makes this more evident than the federal government’s response to COVID-19. There are millions of immigrants who pay into the U.S. tax system and contribute to communities in meaningful ways. Yet, many of them were shut out of the CARES Act. This is a prime example of how current unjust political systems fail to recognize the intrinsic value in us all.

MAF’s direct programs and services anchor the mobilization work that we’re leading. As long-time believers that low-income and immigrant communities are the experts in and advocates of their own lives, we’re listening to them.

They’re frustrated with a national discourse that actively denies their humanity, a system of institutional racism that perpetuates a cycle of poverty, and exclusionary immigration policies that block people’s access to essential services and opportunities that they deserve.

What’s become clear more and more every day is the urgent need for change. And people – the true experts – need to be at the front and center of it.

That’s why we’re re-committing ourselves to our community-centered approach by intentionally adding mobilization as a growing body of work. By doing so, we’ll dedicate more of our energy to thoughtfully design actionable tools, resources, and campaigns that place people at the forefront of change and mobilizes them to take civic action.

In true MAF fashion, our values guide us. We’re building on our programs and services by keeping engagement at the heart of our work. We’re harnessing the power of communities by uplifting their voices and lived experiences as a force for change. We’re also continuing to work in collaboration with other advocates across the country who share our goals of empowering communities through civic engagement.

What we know is that communities are powerful. What they have to say matters and people are their best self-advocates.

We want to help people get loud about the issues relevant to their lives by empowering them to become civically engaged. And our work has already begun. In the last few months, we’ve designed and tested technology to help low-income and immigrant communities participate in the census. Soon we’ll be unveiling a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign to help facilitate an ongoing conversation with clients about how they can take action on the issues most pressing to their lives.

Alongside the low-income and immigrant communities we serve, MAF is re-imagining a world where we celebrate everyone’s strengths, and political systems treat us all with an equal amount of respect and dignity. A world where dominant narratives match our realities, and we can all reach our full economic and civic potential.

There’s a lot of work ahead to create an equitable system that recognizes, uplifts and empowers the inherent strength of all people. Stay tuned for more about our growing body of work and join us so that together we can mobilize communities across the country towards civic engagement.

Making Our Lives Count In The #2020Census

“So yeah,” my housemate said between using napkins for her nose and her tears. “I got laid off with the entire staff at the bar today. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

As much as I wanted to be present for this conversation, I couldn’t stop checking my phone. A chill gripped me, an ice-punch to the gut, as I watched my retirement savings plummet from modest to shreds, as I could do nothing but look on.

The terror of seeing our local economies and global infrastructure collapsing at the same time is, for many of us, all too much.

When we look to the proverbial East toward our elected leaders, aid is slow to come. As of this writing, Congress is locked in a partisan fight over a $2 trillion stimulus package that may very well be the defibrillator needed to resuscitate the bleeding heart of our national economy. Even if it does manage to get passed, though, we already know who will be the last to recover.

The marginalized communities and hard-working immigrant families that we serve every day at MAF will receive, at best, pennies for each dollar needed because they are invisible. The census plays a central role in officially registering them nonexistent given that immigrants have been deemed among the “hard-to-count” populations for decades. This means that every government funding measure for years, from school lunches to (potential) COVID-19 stimulus checks have been guaranteed to be inadequate for those who needed it most.

The 2020 census is expected to exacerbate this even further. The White House has been actively sowing the seeds of fear through violent policies like ICE raids, border community militarization, and the recent, failed attempt to add an immigration question. People are frightened by any knock on the front door for the devastation it could bring to their lives. Add to this reality the current COVID-19 epidemic and the picture turns several tones grimmer.

At MAF, we are doing what we can to step up. In the immediate, we are delivering several million dollars of emergency support through our Rapid Relief Fund to those in need. In the long-term, we are fighting so that the next trillion-dollar government aid package, if there is one in the following decade, goes to fill the right hands. Quick action needs structural change in tandem, if it’s to last. For us, the census is our chance to make a difference beyond the day-to-day.

Our goal is to ensure that 100% of our clients are counted.

To do this, we’ve partnered with a technology studio, super{set}, to build a tool that can help us communicate with more of our clients, faster and smarter. We’ve leveraged automation and analytics to be able to confirm that all of our 3,000+ clients participate in the civic moment that shapes every aspect of our lives. We’ve learned best practices on messaging with our initial coalition of trusted partners who are engaging their own communities of clients with our tool across email, SMS and phone.

Armed with these assets, we’re continuing to move fast in ensuring that every immigrant is counted and knows they belong. We can’t do it alone. Each non-profit organization exists within its own world of influence and, only together, can we cover the patchwork quilt that is the vibrant diversity of our nation.

We are living in an historical moment and can all do more than simply look on. If the communities we serve are to emerge not just ready to survive, but to thrive, we must.

Let’s make our lives count.

Pushing Back: USCIS Proposed Fee Hikes

On November 14, 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published a proposal to dramatically raise the costs of filing fees. The proposed fee schedule raises unfair and prohibitive financial barriers for individuals applying for U.S. Citizenship, DACA renewal, adjustment of status, and asylum. On top of these fees, USCIS is also planning to eliminate much-needed fee waivers for low income applicants and transfer over $110 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for enforcement purposes. If implemented, this sweeping set of measures would put the American Dream out of reach for many hard-working and financially vulnerable families. MAF is speaking out against this outright assault on low income immigrants and advocating for a more equitable and just system for all.

USCIS is proposing to raise the filing fees for critical benefits that help millions of immigrants establish a path to becoming contributing members of our communities.

In their proposed rule, USCIS is nearly doubling the cost of filing fees for those applying for Green Cards and U.S Citizenship. In addition to this, they are also proposing a new additional fee of $270 for DACA renewals and an unprecedented new asylum fee — making the U.S. the fourth country in the world to charge an application fee for those fleeing their home countries as asylees.

For more than a decade, MAF has witnessed first hand the impact that immigration benefits have on our clients.

In 2017, we helped over 7,600 DACA recipients renew their status following the Trump Administration’s attempt to put an end to the program, threatening to remove protection from deportation and work authorization for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants. When we checked back in with those folks a year later, they shared with us how much the DACA program had affected their lives. In fact, over 50 percent said that DACA has enabled them to pursue more educational and professional opportunities. But the DACA program doesn’t only affect recipients directly, it’s also led to a multiplier effect — over 60 percent of respondents also shared that DACA enabled them to better support their families. 

The new USCIS fee proposal jeopardizes the success of an entire generation. The protections and opportunities provided under the DACA program make it possible for young immigrants to invest in themselves, support their families, and build a stronger future. Implementing higher financial barriers to accessing benefits hurts recipients, their families, and whole communities, that rely on the hard work and investments these individuals are making to our society. 

Immigration benefits, like DACA and U.S. Citizenship offers singular opportunities for people to strengthen their financial security. As documented by the Center for American Progress and Urban Institute, receiving either DACA or becoming a U.S. Citizens are associated with significant gains in household income. On top of the economic gains, we have also heard first hand how legal status helps people gain greater agency, power to advocate for themselves and others, and control over their lives. We have heard comments like this from Karla, for example, a former client and MAF staff member whose life was transformed after becoming a U.S. Citizen. 

We are raising our voice.

If we imagine a world where financial barriers stop people from accessing these critical immigration benefits, we will see classrooms with empty seats, local businesses struggling to fill vacancies, and a country deprived of the rich and vibrant contributions of community members at their best. On a personal level, prohibitive financial barriers would deprive many of opportunities to build financial stability, security, and well-being. 

MAF submitted a public comment letter to USCIS in response to their egregiously unjust proposal in efforts to call attention to the significant and unjust effects it would have on the communities we work with. Read the full letter here.

We should be putting all of our efforts into maximizing the opportunity for all to thrive in our country, regardless of their financial status.

In our day-to-day work, we witness the resilience and resourcefulness immigrants in America display in overcoming barriers. Like many others incredible organizations in our field, MAF wants to ensure that the promise of our country is available to everyone regardless of their origins or financial status. With the well-being of our communities and the success of our nation in mind, we urge USCIS to withdraw its proposed fee increases for crucial immigration benefits.

At MAF, we’re turning our pain and frustration into action.

We’re expanding our Immigration Loan program and committing a $2.5 million revolving loan fund to help eligible immigrants to apply for immigration benefits. 

You can join us! 

  • Share information with your family, friends, and community about MAF’s Immigration Loans — zero interest, credit-building loans to help finance six different USCIS filing fees. 
  • If you know any community-based organizations that would be interested in hosting us to share more information about the program, you can reach out to us directly at
  • You can also donate to support this work by contributing to our Future Citizens campaign. You’ll be contributing to our $2.5 million fund that provides zero interest loans to over the cost of USCIS application fees. 

Be a part of a movement that believes in the ability and potential of everyone, no matter where they come from or how much money they have.

SB 455 Updates: CA Financial Empowerment Fund

MAF is sponsoring SB 455, also known as the California Financial Empowerment Fund, which would create a $4 million fund to support nonprofits delivering effective financial education and empowerment tools.

SB 455 unanimously passed both California legislative chambers unopposed and gained statewide supprot from mayors and a broad coalition of nonprofit organizations. On October 2nd, Californian Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 455 into law!