The National Guard is helping out at food banks across Washington. Many undocumented families are relying on food banks to survive right now.
The National Guard is helping out at food banks across Washington. Many undocumented families are relying on food banks to survive right now. Karen Ducey/ Getty Images

Despite a statewide moratorium on evictions, MarĂ­a's landlord threatened to evict her and her family of seven.

MarĂ­a, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, and her husband lost their food service jobs five weeks ago. Their last paycheck went to paying bills and paying for food and they're not eligible for unemployment. They're undocumented.

Undocumented people across Washington are acutely feeling the pressures and impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the jobs that undocumented workers can get are in food service or hospitality, industries that have been leveled by COVID-19. With no access to state or federal benefits and the fear of drawing attention to themselves, undocumented families are struggling to survive.

"Do you want to hear the recording?" MarĂ­a asked me. She had recorded her landlord threatening her family with eviction.

Facing eviction during an eviction moratorium

Sahra Perretz-Rosales, a social work intern from the University of Washington who serves MarĂ­a's family, translated the question. Perretz-Rosales is working with many families dealing with the fall-out of the pandemic.

Several of these families, Perretz-Rosales told me, have been threatened with eviction from their landlords. Because of a statewide eviction moratorium, landlords cannot evict tenants currently. Perretz-Rosales suspects that some landlords may be trying to scare their tenants, who may not necessarily know what their rights are in this situation, into paying.

MarĂ­a had recorded the call where her landlord was informed that the family would not be paying rent. They have never been late on rent before.

Except, it wasn't MarĂ­a who spoke to the landlord. It was her 16-year-old daughter who is bilingual.

There was some shuffling. A baby cried in the background. The recording clicked on.

"We don’t got jobs,” a young female voice, María's daughter, said.

"If you don’t pay me, I will lose the house," an older woman, the landlord, responded. "I don’t have any income. I don’t work anymore.”

"Then you know what it feels like," the girl responded, "We don’t have jobs either. We can’t do anything about it.”

The landlord explained that she had a mortgage to pay and that the bank will repossess the house if rent isn't paid.

There was some conferring in Spanish. Then: "In the news right now it says you can’t kick us out because we don’t have jobs to pay rent,” the girl responds, citing Gov. Jay Inslee's eviction moratorium.

The landlord ignored this and told the 16-year-old girl that she and her family could look for emergency housing if they couldn't pay rent.

“I will talk to the bank," the girl said. "I understand the situation. I will explain." She paused. "So, you’re going to kick us out this month if we don’t pay the rent?”

"Exactly," the landlord said.

MarĂ­a had been trying to protect her five children from the reality of their situation. But, she couldn't have had that conversation without her daughter. MarĂ­a described her as her "access to the rest of the world."

"What’s happening," Perretz-Rosales explained, "Is people are bringing children with them when they go to talk to their landlords to translate for them. Children have to be involved in these conversations."

Another mother, Liliana, has a household of eight people, including an adult son who has a developmental disability. Liliana's husband lost his job as a line cook. They have no other income.

Her 20-year-old daughter was there to translate when Liliana spoke to her apartment building's manager about not being able to pay rent. According to Liliana, the manager "didn’t seem angry but didn’t seem sympathetic to the situation," like the pandemic "didn’t seem like a legitimate reason" not to pay rent.

The manager gave them an extra week to pay. She also said that Liliana's husband could, and should, find another job.

Technically, Liliana knew that she couldn't get evicted because of the moratorium, but she didn't know how to have that conversation. Or, what exactly her rights were.

Searching for guidance

For many, information is hard to come by. Perretz-Rosales explained that these families "have informal networks of sharing information" within their communities of other undocumented family and friends. But when everyone is locked down, that information channel stops.

El Centro de la Raza has been fielding hundreds of calls a week, Daniela Lizárraga, a systems navigator at the cultural center, told The Stranger. More than 80 percent of the calls are from undocumented families.

"They are constantly calling in for guidance," Lizárraga said. A lot of that is just updating people on the news as it comes in or changes and letting people know about their food bank. Others, Lizárraga said, have been threatened with eviction.

"I have a couple of landlords' numbers who have been threatening eviction that I've tried to contact," Lizárraga said. She hasn't heard back from them.

El Centro de la Raza will write letters in English for these families to send to their landlords informing the landlords of the eviction moratorium and that the tenant will not be paying rent.

A copy of the letters El Centro de la Raza is providing to help people threatened with eviction.
A copy of the letter El Centro de la Raza is providing to help people threatened with eviction.

Being in bad standing of any kind with her landlord caused "extra danger" for MarĂ­a. That's the norm for the undocumented community, Perretz-Rosales explained.

They "always want to be as compliant with rules as possible," Perretz-Rosales said. That means paying rent on time. "They don’t want to be a trouble maker or attract problems because they're always vulnerable to being deported."

However, Perretz-Rosales pointed out, "Landlords are well aware of how vulnerable their undocumented tenants are and nothing is stopping the bad ones from taking advantage of that."

Fear of being a public charge

While making rent is their biggest concern, the undocumented community, whose workers make up nearly 5 percent of the U.S.'s workforce, is also not eligible for benefits. Both Liliana's and MarĂ­a's children are U.S. citizens, but noncitizen beneficiaries still cannot receive benefits.

"We're aware of this help that isn’t reaching us," Liliana said, "It feels like we don’t matter. We want acknowledgment that we're human beings."

Even more so, the undocumented community is hesitant to take any help or apply for any benefits because of the newly-changed public charge rule instituted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in late February. The rule denies visas and green cards to anyone who could potentially become a "public charge."

There's a fear that receiving publicly-funded benefits at any level—Medicaid, housing assistance, even the Safeway vouchers that El Centro de la Raza is handing out to families in need, Lizárraga said—could jeopardize a family's chance at getting a green card. Or, worse, get them deported.

"The undocumented community is the hardest hit right now," Lizárraga said. "They're completely out of luck. They're just relying on food banks now."

María's biggest fear is that there won't be any work. Her situation—driving all over town to find free food, spending what money she has left on gas or the Internet bill that keeps her kids in their now-online school—is unsustainable.

MarĂ­a was tearful. She and her family were self-sufficient. "I've always been able to provide for them," MarĂ­a said about her family. "Up until now."

"A lot of people who need help now have never had to ask for help," Perretz-Rosales said. "They're feeling vulnerable and dependent."

While she's anxious about her situation, MarĂ­a is also frustrated.

"People know there’s a lot of wealth in this city," Perretz-Rosales said, translating for María, "They see it and somehow there are still people in such desperate financial circumstances. There’s a sense of injustice."