Cynthia Jasso’s work in philanthropy—including five years with Teach for America and a current post at the George Kaiser Family Foundation, which aims to provide an equitable education for youth in Tulsa, Oklahoma—allowed her to see firsthand the impact of the coronavirus crisis on immigrant families, through job losses or reduction of hours.
Now she’s leading a private relief fund for undocumented immigrants, aiming to raise $5 million through philanthropic donations. The Tulsa Immigrant Relief Fund will provide direct cash relief, just as citizens and resident taxpayers are receiving under the CARES Act. It’s especially needed when federal and state governments have excluded these workers from stimulus bills, but even more so in a city that has some of the strictest laws in the country regarding public assistance for immigrants.
The logistics are tricky in a red city in an even redder state, whose 2007 “anti-illegal immigration” law, signed by a Democratic governor, calls for measures such as the outright denial of education to the undocumented community. It also requires officials to check immigration status when anyone over the age of 14 applies for public benefits.
In the absence of state help, Jasso aims to raise up to $5 million to help 10,000 undocumented families in Tulsa. So far, she has raised almost $1 million—$942,856 as of May 21—including large sums of $15,000 to $500,000 from six local nonprofits such as the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Smaller, grassroots donations from the public have totaled about $6,000. Anyone can mail a check or donate online.
Funds will be disbursed through grants to nonprofits that are trusted by immigrant communities; those funds are then channeled to families in the form of cash payouts. Community churches will also play a role, in a city where faith leaders have been instrumental in leading food assistance efforts so far. It’s down to the organizations to decide how much people receive, but the amounts will likely be between $500 and $1,000 per family, depending on household size.
This process appears to be the safest way, because of valid fears from immigrants about investigation and deportation. “Every single one of our partners who’s involved is very sensitive to that fear,” Jasso says, “and are doing as much as they can to put into place processes that protect our immigrant community.”
It’s a similar distribution process to that of California, the first state to implement a public-private cash relief program, of $75 million, to undocumented immigrants. Other cities and localities around the country have instated government relief programs; the Migration Policy Institute found at least seven, in Austin, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, St. Paul, Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Maryland, though these are available to all low-income residents, not just immigrants. Many cities are having to rely on private funds—even New York City, where $20 million is coming from the Open Society Foundation.
Jasso personally feels the government is responsible for helping immigrants who “contribute so much to the fabric of our community and the economy.” Undocumented immigrants in Oklahoma paid $74,385,500 into unemployment insurance funds from 2010 to 2019, according to a study by David Kallick of the Fiscal Policy Institute. Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, says it’s a “cruel irony” that many are unconcerned with immigrants’ status when they are doing essential, front-line work—”but when we have to give these immodest benefits, we suddenly become very aware of the morality of illegal status.”
Jasso says she is in communication with the city of Tulsa, which has previously been proactive in welcoming new immigrants; the mayor’s New Tulsans Initiative, for instance, offers citizenship clinics, toolkits, and resources for newcomers. For Jasso, that’s a sign of community leaders invested in this work and of a strong network that can work together to rally around immigrants.
“There’s this misconception about a red state like Oklahoma, that we maybe don’t care about our immigrant community—and that isn’t true,” she says. “It is a true testament to Tulsa’s generosity and mobilization efforts to rally around our fellow citizens and neighbors.”