The Fed and Main Street: The Immigrant Experience during COVID-19

June 11, 2020


This event was the third installment of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Fed and Main Street series, which convenes business, community development, nonprofit, and policy leaders to discuss the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and efforts to support the recovery. The series kicked off with an event on April 23, The Fed and Main Street During the Coronavirus Pandemic and was followed by a second webinar on May 27, Too Important to Fail: Minority-Owned Businesses Navigating COVID-19 and Beyond.

Immigrant workers make up a significant portion of essential infrastructure workers yet they have limited access to resources, including healthcare, housing, economic assistance, and business support that could help mitigate the heightened health and financial risks of the pandemic. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York convened a webinar with key advocates and community organizations to highlight:

  • The experiences and challenges of immigrant populations during the pandemic
  • How local municipalities, grassroots organizations, immigrants' home countries and the private sector are working to tailor solutions to address financial and economic disparities
  • The pandemic's effects on immigrant families' financial wellness and the flow of remittances across borders
A Message from Dr. Rosa M. Gil

President & CEO, Comunilife, Inc. and Deputy Chair of the Board of Directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Listening to our communities has always played an instrumental role in the New York Fed’s efforts in fostering economic mobility but it has never been more relevant than now when households and businesses continue to navigate the compounding effects of the pandemic. Among the communities that we need to hear from, perhaps with an even greater sense of urgency, is the immigrant community. Immigrant workers make up a significant portion of essential workers, yet they have limited access to resources, including healthcare, housing, economic assistance, and business support, that could help mitigate the increased health and financial risks of the pandemic.

As policy discussions turn from crisis to recovery, we ask ourselves, what should an effective equitable recovery include? First, it must provide fair access for the immigrant community to available resources. Second, it must also aim to build longer-term resilience to reduce the immigrant community’s vulnerability to the health and economic shocks brought by crises such as the pandemic and limit the chances to amplify the effects of such shocks in the future.

The following takeaways from The Fed and Main Street series’ third installment, The Immigrant Experience during COVID-19, explores this premise and presents the reflections of leading community voices that have been working tirelessly to support the immigrant community through the pandemic. Distinguished speakers highlighted the significant barriers to access resources and funds facing immigrants that consequently dim their prospects of recovery and presented innovative ways to narrow the disparities exacerbated by the pandemic. By publicly sharing these takeaways, we hope to increase opportunities to work together on shared solutions toward a more equitable recovery.

I remain thankful for the continued partnership that community representatives extend to the New York Fed to help shape our approach to helping the communities we serve, especially to our distinguished panel who participated in the latest installment of The Fed and Main Street series.

Key Takeaways from the Event

On June 11th, the New York Fed hosted a virtual public forum featuring leading community voices to highlight the experiences and challenges of immigrant populations during the coronavirus pandemic and discuss how local municipalities, grassroots organizations, nonprofit groups and the private sector are working to tailor solutions to address financial and economic disparities. The forum also explored the pandemic’s effects on immigrant families’ financial well-being and its impact on the flow of remittances across borders. Below is a summary of key messages presented at the forum.

The pandemic compounded existing challenges and barriers to equitable access to resources for immigrants.

Bitta Mostofi, Commissioner of NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, opened the event by providing an overview of New York City’s demographics to make the case for why it is critical for New York City to support immigrants. When talking about the significance of advancing the civic, economic, and social inclusion of immigrants in our communities, she says, “We’re really talking about the well-being of New York City.” Of a population comprised of 8.6 million people, 3.1 million New Yorkers are foreign-born, representing roughly 40% of the city’s population, and they have contributed $232B to the city’s gross city product (GCP). Over half of small businesses are owned by immigrants and immigrant populations make up 44% of the city’s workforce. Of the 1 million New Yorkers designated as essential workers during the pandemic, over half are immigrants. There are 500,000 undocumented New Yorkers, many of whom are employed at higher labor rates than native born citizens or foreign born population as a whole. Despite a large population and subsequent contributions, Commissioner Mostofi acknowledges pervasive barriers to health care and health access, housing, food security, and stable employment. While her office has worked to provide several solutions, she recognizes that more should be done in partnership with federal and state government as well as philanthropy to begin an equitable recovery.

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Manuel Castro, Executive Director for grassroots organization New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), noted that nearby Elmhurst Hospital was heavily impacted by the virus and “the emergency is not over; we continue to live at the epicenter and experience the outcomes of them.” Mr. Castro shared the story of Susana, an essential worker, like many of their members. She secured a job but became unemployed after the pandemic hit. Although she faced personal challenges, she continued volunteering to help other members in difficult situations. Susana finally secured a job to clean the MTA subway through a hiring agency. The subcontractor hired twelve other employees of the same nationality; Mr. Castro noted this was standard practice in hiring low-wage workers. Although she got the job, it came with risks that could potentially affect her health. She did not get the adequate personal protection equipment specifically mandated by law to be worn to protect against COVID-19. The disposable mask disintegrated after one hour of use and she had to make her own mask and buy her own gloves to keep the stable income. Finally, she decided to leave the job after suffering irritated eyes and lightheadedness from chemical exposure. In addition, she was paid $8 per hour but should have been paid more given the contract with the MTA and should have been refunded the expenses on the personal protection equipment. Susana’s story is one of many other immigrant workers in New York City.

In Brooklyn where Gabriel Rincon, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Lutheran Family Health Centers, holds his private dentistry practice, he has seen enormous losses for the families and individuals in their area. He pointed to an issue of trust between the immigrant community and government, hospitals, and health agencies. The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have differing opinions on how the virus is transmitted which then poses a further challenge on how to relay the information to immigrant communities who are more exposed to the risks of the pandemic given their roles as essential workers. Immigrant communities also do not want to go to the hospital because they fear dying in the US; instead, they would rather go back to their own countries if they were to pass away. These ongoing challenges lead to a significant mental health problem that will take a long time to address. All these challenges, Dr. Rincon notes, erodes immigrants’ trust in the broader community. He urges everyone to ask, “How can we regain the trust of the immigrant community? How can you overcome the issues?”

Jennifer Sun, Executive Director of Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) relayed some of the challenges the community is facing and what actions her organization has taken. The Asian American community, prior to COVID-19, had one of the highest poverty rates across all racial groups in NYC with over a quarter living in poverty. Twenty five percent of seniors were living in poverty and displacement pressures were elevated because of high commercial rent and more competition from online shopping. The health crisis has laid bare increased discrimination against Asian Americans based on the false assumption that they are to blame for the spread of COVID-19. As a result of COVID-19, the NYC Commission on Human Rights reported over 350 complaints of discrimination sparked by fears of the pandemic since February, with 40% in March and April representing anti-Asian complaints. Ms. Sun says, “The current health crisis has unleashed a new boldness in how openly people are displaying harassment and discrimination against Asians.” It has created a real fear among Asian American immigrant workers to stay in or return to their jobs. Many of these workers are particularly vulnerable because they are older and typically harder to employ. Twenty percent of Asian American immigrant workers in employed in healthcare and social services, 15% in retail and 11% in accommodations, hospitality, and food services. These industries lead with the highest unemployment insurance claims. The housing impact ranges from illegal harassment, pressure, and eviction when household members test for COVID-19. Landlords and neighbors are forcing them out of their housing, which has resulted in Asian street homelessness.

Through AAFE’s CDFI, Renaissance EDC, the Small Business Emergency Loan Fund was created in March, which has deployed $1.2M that was funded by private bank contributions and philanthropy. They have also helped over 70 small businesses access PPP loans. We have seen the importance of CDFI intermediaries who have been able to leverage relationship with immigrant owned small businesses to assist in the navigation of complex application processes. Asian and Latinx immigrant small businesses prior to COVID-19 had low cash reserves, thin margins, poor credit, and lack of documentation, the pandemic only exemplified these hardships. The CDFI has reached 90% Asian, 4% Latinx, and 7% white borrowers. There is a need for the federal government to provide income support for small business immigrant owners, regardless of immigration status. Finally, Ms. Sun calls for all levels of government to focus on affordable housing acquisition and preservation development.

José Luis Cruz of The City University of New York (CUNY) noted that his institution is a microcosm of New York City. Of the 275,000 students across the five boroughs, 40% are born outside the U.S. mainland, and 45% speak a native language other than English. In total, the students represent 205 countries and 186 languages. CUNY has thousands of immigrant and undocumented students who face a disproportionate effect of COVID-19 due to five main factors. These factors are where they live, with whom they live, density of the living situation, lack of access to adequate healthcare, and essential worker jobs. Dr. Cruz shared, “We are trying to make up for the deficiencies of the way in which federal money has been allocated and left out the immigrant communities we serve.” To address the gap, CUNY created the Chancellor’s Emergency Relief Fund. The Fund allocates financial support to over 2,000 undocumented students through equitable ways. They are also offering a program that provides free, high quality, and confidential immigration law services to help individuals and families on their path to U.S. citizenship. Lastly, CUNY continues to target its resources to bridge the digital divide. Dr. Cruz redirected the focus on the perception of immigrant essential workers, which should account for how they serve the economy and move society to a better place.

Recovery programs and interventions should take into consideration the unique circumstances of immigrant populations to be effective in addressing the challenges of immigrants.

Capital needed to support the immigrant population should be responsive to the unique circumstances of their community. Immigrant entrepreneurs, as noted by Nathalie Molina Niño, CEO of O³, have a strong entrepreneurial streak and “don’t care about linear progress or incrementalism.” In contrast to more conventional business ownership where individual’s basic needs come first before entertaining growing a business, immigrant businesses often circumvent traditional process and utilize resourcefulness to “control their own destinies” especially if they “come from places where the infrastructure and the national safety nets have been breached or can’t be trusted.” Ms. Molina Niño went on to note how black and Latinx businesses were consequently devastated by the inability to access federal stimulus programs particularly given their representation in the small business sector. She quotes a recent study from Stanford University, which found the number of Latinx business owners grew 34% over the last decade, as compared to 1% for all business owners, making the Latinx community the fastest-growing small business owners in the U.S. To support the immigrant business community, the O³ team provided assistance to business owners trying to access loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Ms. Molina Niño also posed a call of action to the investor community to provide good loans, lines of credit, and equity crowdfunding to immigrant business owners, instead of the limited reach of venture capital.

In addressing financial inclusion for immigrant communities during the pandemic, President and CEO of Inclusiv, Cathie Mahon points to expanding their current capabilities as community development financial institutions (CDFI) credit unions to support immigrant individuals, families, and businesses. CDFI credit unions have tracked expertise in safe and affordable financial services and products tailored to immigrants’ needs, including accepting different forms of IDs for account opening services, flexible loans underwriting criteria, and alternative forms of establishing credit worthiness.1 They also offer emergency loans for ITIN2 holders and wealth building lending like ITIN mortgage originations. To provide relief to their members during the pandemic, CDFI credit unions have also offered low-interest or zero percent emergency loans “to help make ends meet,” loan payment forbearance “to ensure that nobody is having to preference meeting a loan payment over having to pay for essential needs,” increased credit limits, and waived fees. They have also expanded the range of financial counseling initiatives to incorporate access to social services that the CDFI credit unions by themselves cannot provide. On the business lending side, about half of Inclusiv’s over 300 member CDFI credit unions are designated PPP3 lenders and have originated more than $620 million in PPP loans for small and very small businesses in low-income communities and businesses and entrepreneurs of color. Operationally, CDFI credit unions adopted new systems to enhance online and mobile banking abilities. They streamlined remote account opening (important for processing applications for immigrants using alternative forms of ID or limited credit history while simultaneously remaining compliant with Know Your Customer requirements) and increased capabilities around remote deposit capture and online lending i.e. being able to originate loans remotely to access capital without having to go into a physical branch.

Meanwhile, housing policy expert Jessica Katz, Executive Director of Citizens Housing & Planning Council (CHPC), laid out the underpinnings of a housing plan for New York City that “would align housing policy with our past, present, and future as a city of immigrants.” Ms. Katz noted the importance of such a plan as “NYC immigrants are more likely to be poor, more likely to be rent-burdened; undocumented immigrants are much more likely to live in overcrowded housing.” CHPC’s recommendations for the next NYC housing plan include enhancing language access and anti-discrimination policies for housing programs, enabling basement apartment conversion, equitable code enforcement, and inclusive zoning. On a broader scale, Ms. Katz pointed out that housing regulatory frameworks are currently designed with a nuclear family in mind but in reality, “households are much more diverse than that.” Instead, she posited, the housing plan should serve the needs of intergenerational families. CHPC also recommends enhancing data collection as it allows us to learn more about the needs of the immigrant community. “If we don’t have data,” Ms. Katz noted, “Communities and their needs become invisible to policymakers.”

Lack of data is also a barrier in making effective healthcare policy decisions as noted by Judith Flores, past Chair of the Board of Directors at the National Hispanic Medical Association. According to Dr. Flores, less than half of states in the US report COVID data or any other health data by ethnicity. Current data state that Hispanics make up over 18% of US population but represent nearly 30% of total confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US. Death rates in locations with high immigrant Hispanic populations are nearly 30%. This incidence is higher in many areas. In Arizona, for example, 30% of the state’s population are Hispanic immigrants yet they make up over half of the cases and fatalities attributed to COVID-19. Many of those cases are mostly undocumented immigrants. Even with existing data, the impact of the pandemic is likely underreported because immigrants will not participate in information gathering. Dr. Flores recommends to “have mandatory racial ethnic data built for infectious disease reporting.” It can prove to be an essential tool for understanding the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and immigrants that will help control the pandemic by focusing resources. Dr. Flores also highlighted that COVID-19 has exacerbated barriers to healthcare for immigrants and magnified the inequities of the healthcare system. Factors that promoted these inequities during the pandemic include employment, socioeconomic barriers, health vulnerabilities, and documentation status. In order to reduce these barriers facing immigrants and other underserved populations, it is important to enact “federal relief programs, especially in a pandemic, to ensure financial and health support that is broadly available.” Some examples provided were expanding safety and economic protections regardless of immigration status, addressing food insecurity by initiating a Disaster SNAP program for emergency distribution at the national level, and developing an alternative to unemployment insurance for people currently excluded, specifically when they are undocumented.

Families of immigrant workers both in the US and in their home countries are also affected by the challenges faced by immigrant workers in the US.

In a dialogue with the New York Fed’s Senior Vice President and head of International Affairs and Strategy Michael Schetzel, Jorge Islas López, the Consul General of Mexico in New York, provided a profile of the Mexican immigrant community. In addition, he enumerated some of the challenges that immigrants and their families face both in the US and in their home countries, and solutions that the Mexican consulate have extended throughout the pandemic. While the American Community Survey states that there are around 800,000 Mexicans in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the Mexican consulate puts their estimation at 1.3 million people. Mexicans are the third largest minority community in New York, only behind the Dominican and Chinese communities. Many Mexican immigrants come from Mixteca region which includes Puebla, Oaxaca, and Guerrero and in some cases, do not speak Spanish at all. Instead, they speak local languages. Many immigrant Mexicans work in areas like restaurants, construction, grocery delivery, and cleaning services while over 20% of very highly qualified Mexicans work in legal and financial services.

One of the biggest challenges that the immigrant Mexican community faces is the lack of access to the healthcare system because many cannot afford health insurance. Consul General López pointed to insufficient wages that prevented immigrants from being able to access proper healthcare provided by health insurance. Another problem he identified was the presence of pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity. This, combined with the lack of proper healthcare, likely contributed to why 30% of COVID-related deaths in New York are Hispanic and at the top of that line are Mexicans. These conditions underscore the significance of initiatives from the Mexican consulate like Ventanillas de Salud that provide immigrants and families here in the US an alternative option for those who do not have health insurance. Ventanillas de Salud or Health Windows initiative includes offering mental health services, telemedicine access, and a 24/7 hotline that people who experience symptoms can call into to be directed to the closest available hospital where they can access appropriate medical services.

In discussing the impact of the decline in remittances to Mexico, Consul General López noted that remittances are an important source of funding for Mexico but underscored that the country has a diversified economy. Last year, Mexico reported $36B worth of remittances, which translates to about 4% of overall GDP. He looks to the new US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), to be implemented next month, to blunt some of the effects of the decrease of the remittances. While he admitted that the USMCA could face headwinds due to the expected decline in GDP of all involved countries according to projections from the OECD and World Bank, he expects the gains from the agreement to fill some of the gaps left by the decline in remittances.

About The Fed and Main Street series

The Fed and Main Street series convenes business, community development, nonprofit, and policy leaders to focus on the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and efforts to support the recovery.

The aim of these events is to discuss the challenges faced by vulnerable communities and highlight opportunities to work together toward an equitable economic recovery. The series kicked off on April 23 with “The Fed and Main Street during the Coronavirus Pandemic,” followed by “Too Important to Fail: Minority-Owned Businesses Navigating COVID-19 and Beyond” on May 27.

Authors: Carmi Recto, Community Development Finance Associate and Arlinda Berdynaj, Community Development Finance Analyst, Communications and Outreach

Contributors: Chelsea Cruz, Associate Director of Community Development Finance and Adrian Franco, Director of Community Development Finance, Communications and Outreach

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Event Details

Date & Time
June 11, 2020
2:00pm - 3:15pm

This event was open to members of the public including nonprofit and grassroots organizations, foundations, multilateral and international organizations, federal and local officials, community and economic development practitioners and researchers, banks, impact investors and other capital providers.

2:00pm-2:05pm Welcoming Remarks

Rosa Gil, President & CEO, Comunilife, Inc. and Deputy Chair, Board of Directors, Federal Reserve Bank of New York
2:05pm-2:10pm Opening Remarks

Bitta Mostofi, Commissioner, NYC Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs
2:10pm-2:30pm Session 1: Fight of Immigrant Communities

Manuel Castro, Executive Director, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE)
Gabriel Rincón, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Lutheran Family Health Centers
Jennifer Sun, Co-Executive Director, Asian Americans for Equality
José Luis Cruz, Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost, CUNY

Moderated by: Adrian Franco, Officer and Director of Community Development Finance, New York Fed
2:30pm-2:50pm Session 2: Paths to Equity: Innovative Solutions to Assist Immigrants

Cathie Mahon, President and CEO, Inclusiv
Jessica Katz, Executive Director, Citizens Housing & Planning Council
Judith Flores, MD, FAAP, CHCQM Chief of Ambulatory Care, Clinical Associate Professor, NYU/School of Medicine and Past Chair of Board of Directors, National Hispanic Medical Association
Nathalie Molina Niño, CEO of O³, Investor, and Entrepreneur

Moderated by: Chelsea Amelia Cruz, Associate Director of Community Development Finance, New York Fed
2:50pm-3:10pm Session 3: The Impact on Immigrants’ Home Countries

Michael Schetzel, Senior Vice President, International Affairs and Strategy, Federal Reserve Bank of New York in conversation with Jorge Islas López, Consul General of Mexico in New York
3:10pm-3:15pm Closing Remarks

Adrian Franco, Officer and Director of Community Development Finance, Federal Reserve Bank of New York

This event was open to the media. All remarks and panels were on-the-record, unless otherwise noted.


Visit our Community Resources on Coronavirus Hub for helpful resources and relevant research from the New York Fed on COVID-19.

The contents on this page—including third-party resources, hyperlinks and documents—are provided for informational purposes only and do not necessarily represent the views of the New York Fed or the Federal Reserve System.

1 Inclusiv manages a network of 100+ CDCUs under the Juntos Avanzamos initiative with particular expertise in these types of services.

2 An ITIN, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, is a tax processing number only available for certain nonresident and resident aliens, their spouses, and dependents who cannot get a Social Security Number (SSN).

3 According to Ms. Mahon, less than 20% of Inclusiv’s membership were approved SBA lenders before the pandemic.

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