Activist Influence Pushes More Phoenix Leaders To Help Undocumented During COVID-19

By Matthew Casey
Published: Friday, May 29, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, May 29, 2020 - 5:42am

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Poder in Action protest
Poder In Action
Poder In Action led a protest on May 18, 2020, on the eve of a vote on Phoenix’s first proposed budget during the coronavirus pandemic.

This story has some roots in February, when a coalition of activists won a major victory at the Phoenix City Council on the long-standing issue of civilian police oversight.  

Poder in Action was one of the groups at the front of the effort  Fast forward almost 90 days, and it led a protest on the eve of a vote on Phoenix’s first proposed budget during the coronavirus pandemic. The Maryvale-based organization had two goals.

One was to make sure that new police oversight didn’t get axed to save money. The other was pressure Phoenix City Council members to fundraise for undocumented people.

Viri Hernandez
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Viri Hernandez, director of Poder In Action.

“The city of Phoenix, for years, for decades, has profited from undocumented people, whether it’s through the census count or through the billions and millions of dollars from our taxes,” said Viri Hernandez, director of Poder in Action. “City Council committing to raise funds comes after weeks of undocumented community members demanding the city take responsibility and do their jobs."

A state lawmaker says $250,000 have been raised to help undocumented Arizonans not eligible for government aid during COVID-19. The money isn’t enough to go around. But with Phoenix's mayor and some City Council members having agreed to do private fundraising, advocates hope more will donate to help people pay rent, buy food and cover medical expenses.

Donations brought in by council members are for an account called the Arizona Undocumented Workers Relief Fund, which is run through the Arizona Community Foundation. Poder In Action helped organize it. So did Puente Human Rights Movement, which was once led by Phoenix City Council member Carlos Garcia.

“If we don’t realize and kind of open up our hearts and minds during this pandemic, I don’t know when it’s going to happen,” said Garcia, during a phone interview.

Garcia backed the police oversight plan that won, and at another meeting last week, he pitched fellow council members on fundraising for the project he helped organize.  His background of no legal status, and a continued closeness with Puente, led him to get involved with the fund.  

Carlos Garcia
Matthew Casey/KJZZ
Carlos Garcia, Phoenix City Council member

“Obviously, maintaining that relationship is really important for me,” said Garcia.

Garcia knows fundraising when so many Arizonans are hurting will not be easy. Still, he said many of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic run on the backs of undocumented people, who are not eligible for unemployment or federal stimulus money.  

“So I hope that people can reach into their pockets and realize how important it is for everyone to be safe,” he said.

A quarter of a million dollars that’s already been raised will soon go to groups chosen to distribute funds among undocumented people, said state Rep. Raquel Teran, also an organizer of the fund. The No. 1 community need is rent money. But the fund’s current balance can’t reach all in need.

“We’re going to figure out how much more money we’re going to need to make sure we don’t leave anybody behind,” said Teran.

Teaming up with council members excites Teran. The support boosts the overall effort because elected officials know how to fundraise. Next come the details.

“So we want to make sure that we have a goal that we’re working towards collectively," she said.

Raquel Teran
Raquel Teran
Raquel Teran, Arizona state reprsentative

Teran said grassroots groups, like the ones that set up the undocumented relief fund, helped leaders like her and Garcia win office.

“We have a commitment to co-govern with the organizations that have been transforming the state of Arizona,” she said.

Viri Hernandez, with Poder in Action, is one of their community links. She wants the goal for the undocumented relief fund to be the same amount that the city is using to help certain legal immigrants.

“Three-million dollars is a lot for this moment, and also isn’t enough when you compare it to the amount of money that undocumented people bring into the city,” she said.

Hernandez is anxious to hammer out a plan. Still, she said just the commitment to raise money shows that Phoenix is moving in a direction where those chosen to have power recognize and acknowledge the value of those without legal status. 

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