116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — For Heydi Cortez Martinez, receiving a $1,400 check from Johnson County’s direct assistance program was “something wonderful” at a “moment of crisis.”
Cortez Martinez, an Iowa City resident who works in roofing, said work had been slow, making it hard to pay rent and bills. She shared the challenges of finding stable work while being undocumented.
She used the one-time government aid to pay rent, bills and buy food for her two kids.
“It was something of beauty because I didn't think it would happen,” Cortez Martinez said through an interpreter.
Cortez Martinez was one of 2,238 Johnson County residents who received the one-time payment earlier this year. It came at a time when she needed it most. Because of her immigration status, Cortez Martinez was excluded from the COVID-19 relief checks most people received from the federal government early in the pandemic and other public assistance.
At the forefront of advocating for payments for excluded workers has been Escucha Mi Voz — or Hear My Voice — from Iowa City, a group expanding to other areas. Excluded workers are individuals who are excluded from receiving public services — such as federal stimulus, unemployment insurance and health care — usually because of their immigration status.
Since April 2021, Escucha Mi Voz has highlighted how immigrant workers have been disproportionally impacted during the pandemic and how direct cash assistance would help them with rent, utilities and groceries, among other expenses.
Cortez Martinez, a member of Escucha Mi Voz, said her motivation is her two kids and fighting for a better future for them.
City and county officials have highlighted how the direct assistance program is the only one of its kind in Iowa. The University of Iowa will look at the impact of the program through a study that could help inform future local policy.
Escucha Mi Voz is working to ensure voices of immigrant workers are heard by elected leaders and is planning next steps. One of the issues most important to immigrant workers in Iowa is making it so they are able to obtain a driver’s license. Iowa is one of 32 states that require individuals prove lawful status when getting one.
Johnson County’s direct assistance program was approved in February and funded by American Rescue Plan Act aid granted to Johnson County, Iowa City and Coralville. The local program provided one-time checks to low-income residents negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including residents excluded from receiving the federal stimulus.
County staff have previously said administering the program was an “ambitious undertaking.”
Now that the program has concluded, the county can “move into the phase of understanding the impact,” said James Bechtel, the county’s project and systems analyst.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors in August unanimously approved an agreement with the UI to evaluate the impacts.
One of the reasons Dave Frisvold, the study’s principal investigator, was interested in evaluating the direct assistance program is because it provided cash payments instead of in-kind assistance.
There’s work from low-income countries, Frisvold said, where assistance is more cash-based and “tends to be quite effective in boosting individual’s outcomes.” Frisvold is an associate professor in the UI Department of Economics, as well as director of Social and Education Policy Research in the Public Policy Center.
Something the study could further explore is the trade-offs associated with different types of assistance, Frisvold added.
Research could contribute to ‘national conversation’
Frisvold’s team began the study last month by mailing a survey to applicants to the program. Its focus is on understanding how people spent the money and what impact it had. The survey includes questions about spending, savings, debt, employment, food and housing insecurity, among other topics.
The team is getting close to wrapping up the initial survey, Frisvold said. Other phases will include conducting in-depth interviews, as well as analyzing administrative data. A follow up survey will be sent out next summer.
“We hope that this (study) will provide information to you all to help in your policymaking ability,” Frisvold told the board in August. “We also hope this helps to inform the U.S. Department of Treasury to the variety of different uses of ARPA funds.”
Donna Brooks, the county’s grants coordinator, said Johnson County is in an “interesting position to be able to contribute to a national conversation.” It’s an opportunity to understand how this type of investment impacts community need, she added.
Getting the check was ‘emotional’
Receiving a check from the direct assistance program was an “emotional experience” for Rosalba Gudiel, who has lived in Iowa City for 10 years. It was the first time she has received this type of support. Gudiel has a taxpayer identification number and pays taxes, but due to her immigration status was excluded from the COVID-19 relief checks.
Gudiel told The Gazette in February she was going to apply for direct assistance and use the money to pay bills that accumulated during the start of the pandemic when her hours were cut at Micky’s Irish Pub.
After receiving the check, Gudiel was able to pay off about two months of electricity and water bills. She was also able to use some of the money on rent, but still is catching up on that payment.
“Even when it took so much time (to get the money), it was good because I have accumulated many bills, so that was very useful to have that money,” Gudiel said recently through an interpreter.
Driver’s licenses for immigrants
After advocating for direct payments, Escucha Mi Voz is planning next steps. Gudiel said one of the next issues the group will be fighting for is driver’s licenses for undocumented residents.
Escucha Mi Voz co-chair Sophie Banegas said driver’s licenses for undocumented Iowans is among the issues most important to immigrant workers. Other topics include creating a permanent direct assistance program, expanding general assistance, health care and access to higher education.
The topics were used to craft questions for local and statehouse candidates during a candidate forum on Oct. 23.
“You have to fight for things that you want, and that’s what we’re seeing now and thinking about when it comes to driver’s licenses,” Cortez Martinez said.
A total of 17 states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses regardless of their immigration status, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Individuals still need to provide certain documentation and evidence of residency in the state.
These states include: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and Washington. Massachusetts voters will decide on Election Day if undocumented immigrants can obtain a driver’s license.
Santos Rivas, an Iowa City resident who immigrated from El Salvador, said a driver’s license is indispensable.
“The most important thing that we need when we come here is a way that we can move around,” Rivas said through an interpreter. “We need a way to get ourselves to work, to get our kids to school and to be part of this community.”
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