How Immigrants Are Being Kept Out of the Coronavirus Recovery

Federal relief measures have included provisions that exclude them from much-needed help.

In the United States, small businesses account for half of all jobs, including the handful created last year by Hatib Joof. In January 2019, Joof, a Gambian immigrant, tapped his modest bank account to pursue his dream of opening an African restaurant. He hired a couple of waiters, a dishwasher, some cooks, and opened Mansa Kunda in Takoma Park, Maryland, an airy space where diners loved to linger. On a typical Friday night, patrons clustered at the bar, seated on chairs fashioned from djembe drums. Others chatted amiably at the spacious tables of burnished wood, savoring grilled fish, goat meat, and variety of Gambian specialties seasoned with tamarind and lime.

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic. These days, his restaurant, like so many others, has had to pivot to a carry-out-and-delivery model because of public health measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Joof’s restaurant now only brings in a small fraction of what it did before the outbreak.

JoofHe has sought federal funds that would have helped him continue to pay his staff, but like many small business owners, his application for an SBA loan under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) went unanswered. In March, Congress allotted nearly $350 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. A second round of funding, totaling $310 billion, was allotted in April.

Unfortunately, Joof’s experience is not an anomaly. Federal COVID-19 relief legislation has done appallingly little to help small business owners like himself, who are the backbone of the U.S. economy. Data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau found that 74.9 percent of small business owners sought relief under the PPP program, but just 38.1 percent received any.

As a consequence, business owners are left with little-to-no support to make it through the coronavirus crisis. That has a deep effect on the immigrant community. Research shows that immigrants are twice as likely to form a business compared to U.S.-born entrepreneurs. In fact, immigrants account for almost 30 percent of all new entrepreneurs in the United States. They supply a needed lifeline to the millions of workers they employ.

Joof, 50, said that furloughing his workers has been the hardest part of the pandemic. “I kept them around, paying them out of my own pocket until I couldn’t do it anymore,” he told me. “I haven’t gotten a penny from the government. I don’t know anyone who has.” He has recently reapplied, now that new funds have been approved. “If it comes, it comes, but I’m not expecting it.”

He can be forgiven for being pessimistic. So far, federal coronavirus rescue efforts have barely helped immigrants—and some provisions in the enacted federal relief measures even seem to go out of their way to exclude them. For instance, coronavirus relief money can only go to individuals with a social security number. Immigrants have therefore been locked out of receiving stimulus checks intended to soften the economic blow suffered by those who have lost jobs. That has not only hurt the immigrants themselves. It has hurt communities all across the country, many of which are now losing their favorite restaurants.

A disproportionate share of small businesses are minority and women-owned. So when the SBA failed to administer needed assistance as widely as promised, people of color, women, and immigrants were largely among those on the outside looking in when it came to the first tranches of federal aid.

A national survey of small businesses released this week by two non-profit groups, Color of Change and UnidosUS, found that 51 percent of black and Latino small business owners applied for government-based loans of $20,000 or less, but just 12 percent of business owners said they received the support they asked for. Nearly half said they feared they might have to close down for good in the next six months if relief doesn’t come soon.

“This ground-breaking poll shows that African American and Latino small businesses—the economic engines of many cities, small towns and communities across America—are suffering greatly but are being left out of relief efforts,” said Janet Murguía, President and CEO of UnidosUS. “The next stimulus and relief package must have targeted help to minority-owned businesses and nonprofits so we can save these vital enterprises.”

Such disparities have seemed inevitable in an administration whose singular legislative achievement in the months after taking office was to provide massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Looking after the needs of average working people has never been high on this administration’s list of priorities. That’s why the Center for American Progress called last month for Congress to consider allocating $100 billion or more for very small businesses like Joof’s that seek funds from the PPP program for them to pay cash advances to their sidelined workers. 

It also urged lawmakers to provide dramatically expanded funding for community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and minority depository institutions—which are in the best position to get funds to needed recipients quickly.

Like most states, Maryland, home to Joof’s restaurant, is in the process of slowly re-opening, but restaurants —given their confined quarters with patrons sometimes seated mere inches apart—will likely be among the last establishments allowed to welcome back customers.

When they do, it’s far from certain that they will be able to survive under social distancing guidelines that will drastically reduce the number of patrons permitted to enter the premises.

The return of customers, of course, hinges on the public’s faith in the safety to eat in restaurants. “I’m nervous, honestly speaking,” Joof said. “I’m not quite sure exactly how confident people will be to sit and dine in a restaurant like they used to. And whether we can fill our capacity in order to be profitable,” he says.

That underscores just how misguided it is to promote a public narrative—like we’re seeing out of the White House—that equates promoting public health with opening up the economy. It’s simply not a decision that business owners can make.

Efforts to rescue the economy will be futile if they don’t include even more specified and targeted help for small businesses, many of which are immigrant and minority owned. And there has to be measures in place to ensure effective implementation of the assistance.

Joof, who is also black, obtained his U.S. citizenship two decades ago, after coming to this country as a young adult to study. A lifetime of work in the food industry, most recently as a restaurant manager, helped prepare him to set up his own shop. His restaurant Mansa Kunda thrived in its first year, which is often said to be the most challenging for a new business. It earned rave reviews and quickly became a favorite neighborhood hangout. Residents of Takoma Park loved its injection of cultural diversity—and, of course, its delicious food.

“A business like mine, selling food from West Africa, it is not something that’s mainstream,” he said. “It’s not like sushi or Indian food. We’re trying to get people to understand and accept our cuisine, like everyone else’s. We finally began gaining traction, then this thing happens.”

Joof invested his life savings in his business—meaning he can’t afford to fail. But as he looks ahead, he faces more uncertainty with a radically altered landscape for restaurants: Paper menus instead of laminated in the post-shutdown era; huge spaces between customers instead of the barely separated tables that had made the restaurant so convivial.

Until then, he’s waiting in agony over whether any government support will come fast enough to help him stay afloat. “I’m hoping that this time around, things will happen,” he said. “Anything would help at this point. Anything.”

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Stephanie Griffith

Stephanie Griffith is a Washington D.C.-based journalist who frequently writes about immigration. She is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.