When COVID-19 shut down much of the Colorado economy in 2020, Mark Newhouse, an electrical engineer who’d spent his career in the technology industry, was worried. He saw how efforts like the federal Paycheck Protection Program, rental assistance, unemployment compensation and other forms of emergency relief were missing tens of thousands of vulnerable Coloradans.
The employers of many of these workers had paid for unemployment compensation and other safety net programs, but the workers were ineligible for any of that help when they were laid off because they are among the 5% of the state’s workers who are undocumented.
He calls them the “left behind workers.”
He felt compelled to do something and he had an idea that in mere months became the Left Behind Workers Fund.
Less than three years later, Newhouse and a group of nonprofit leaders, including Impact Charitable founder Ed Briscoe, have put Colorado in the forefront of efforts to support workers through the state’s new Benefit Recovery Fund, which provides access to unemployment compensation and other wage-replacement programs regardless of immigration status. They also have developed AidKit, a technology platform available to other organizations that deliver direct cash payments to needy families.
But to understand how these programs came about and why helping undocumented immigrants was so important to him, you have to know some history.
“It’s complicated,” Newhouse explained. “If we rewind a generation or two, you’ll see how the circles are closing.”
Jewish refugees in Mexico
His story begins in the 1930s, when his Jewish grandparents and his father were living in an increasingly hostile Germany.
As the Nazis tightened their grip on the country, his grandmother worried about their safety. Her husband, who had fought for Germany in World War I, was dismissive, believing that as a loyal veteran, he would be protected. But as conditions worsened, her fears intensified.
She arranged for their son, then 11 years old, to take the Kindertransport alone to Great Britain in 1939.
They gave him up to save his life.
Then, around 1940, his grandmother insisted that they leave Germany. They abandoned their home in Mannheim and escaped the Nazis through Russia, traveling across the vast country to the Pacific port city of Vladivostok and then on to Japan.
“There they got on a Japanese freighter with what they thought were entry visas to Chile,” Newhouse said.
His father, alone but safe in Great Britain, knew little of his parents’ plight. Separated from them for years, he never was able to rekindle a close relationship with them after the war, and until recently knew only the vaguest details about the trip.
While the family’s Jewish roots ran deep — Newhouse’s mother was the granddaughter of a rabbi in Leeds, England — after the war, they moved to the U.S. and made the decision to quit Judaism.
“They were surprised to find that anti-Semitism was alive and kicking in the U.S, and my mother didn’t want to put her children through the trauma they had experienced,” Newhouse said.
They quit going to synagogues and joined a Unitarian church. There were no bar mitzvahs for their kids.
“It’s common, you know, to be an unpracticing Jew, but to leave like that is quite a big move,” he said.
In recent years, however, Newhouse began to reconnect with Judaism, and sought to learn more about his ancestors.
“My family is the type that writes a lot down, so there were biographies of relatives around and I began to read them. I became active on genealogy sites, and out of the blue, I got an email from a second cousin, Silvia Benuzzi, who told me about a German historian who had researched the family.”
One thing led to another. He discovered a book, “Unwelcome Exiles: Mexico and the Jewish Refugees from Nazism, 1933-1945.”
Then his sister-in-law tracked down the manifest for the Japanese freighter and identified the names of all six Jews onboard. One of them had written an account of the trip and she found it and shared it with the family.
The reason his grandparents had never talked about the trip became obvious.
It was a nightmare.
They traveled by sea for three months, never knowing where they would land. When the ship arrived in Kauai for supplies, the Jewish passengers were not allowed to disembark. The same thing happened at a stop in San Francisco.
No Jews allowed.
When they arrived in Chile, they were told their visas were invalid and were denied entry.
“The freighter continued up the west coast of the Americas, stopping at country after country,” Newhouse said, “and after all this time the captain just wanted to get rid of the six Jews onboard.”
The last port of call before the ship was to return to Japan was Mexico.
“The captain wrote a note saying that if he took the Jews back to Japan, they would die.”
The petition went all the way to the office of the President of Mexico, who granted asylum to Newhouse’s grandparents and the four other Jews on the Japanese freighter.
Mexico would be their safe haven. His grandparents lived there until his grandfather died and his grandmother returned to Germany.
Still, the family was forever grateful to the country for saving their lives.
Returning the favor
Over the years, Newhouse’s life has been blessed by the generosity extended to the refugees in his family.
He has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and worked in high tech during the go-go years of innovation and advancement. His career took his family to China, where he developed business activity for Corning.
“I’d had a lot of success,” he said, but it was time for a change.
So, he and his wife returned to the U.S. and drove around the West until they came to Colorado, where they decided to stay.
“I wanted to continue to create new high-tech businesses,” Newhouse said, “but I also wanted to try to contribute in a different way.”
When COVID hit, suddenly, his focus became clear.
“This whole population was doing work that needed to be done,” he said of people living and working in Colorado without proper documents. “They grow our food, serve our elderly, play key roles in how our meals get made and served, how our whole hospitality industry runs. They do grocery deliveries and construction …
“They do essential work. They play an important role in our economy and all the while they are officially discriminated against and constantly at risk of deportation.
“It’s just like how the Jews in my family were treated.”
His first step was to quickly develop a fund to provide direct cash to undocumented workers unemployed by COVID.
“It was closing that circle,” Newhouse said. “It was an opportunity to pay back the people from Mexico who helped my grandparents.”
He built collaborations with dozens of established nonprofits in the community and began to raise money. Before long, the City of Denver was allocating funds to the Left Behind Workers Fund.
“One of the challenges of giving aid is that undocumented workers are not expecting it and they have understandable trust issues,” he said. The Left Behind Workers Fund relied heavily on organizations with a history of working with immigrants, circulating information about the fund through Spanish-language media and seeking help from the community to get needy workers to apply for aid.
In no time, money began flowing to workers to help pay rent, medical bills, and keep food on the table. Between June 2020 and early 2022, Newhouse said $38 million was distributed to about 25,000 workers without documentation.
About $10 million was raised through private donations. The other $28 million came from the City of Denver and the state.
While that was a significant achievement, it was just the beginning.
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As the Left Behind Workers Fund grew, it created demands for more powerful technology systems to track funds, maintain an accurate client database and ensure accountability. Newhouse recruited his son, Ben, “who’s a pretty well-known coder,” to help design the system.
The system they developed is called AidKit. It’s already in high demand among nonprofits and government agencies nationally, where it has been used to provide application and payment systems to prevent fraud while distributing more than $105 million in basic income to needy families and is under contract to deliver another $100 million. (Basic income pilot programs are under way in several states, including Colorado, to see if direct cash payments are more effective than traditional aid programs in boosting families out of poverty.)
Sara Mead, deputy superintendent of early learning for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in Washington, D.C., employed AidKit to launch the Early Childhood Equity Fund in 2022.
The legislation authorizing the program, which provides direct cash payments to child care workers whose wages are extremely low, passed in February.
“With AidKit, we were able to stand up the platform so that applications could begin by August and payments were received starting in September,” she said. “That’s an incredibly fast timeline for a state agency, and we would not have been able to do it without them.”
Mead said this was despite the fact that the targeted community had varying levels of access to technology, spoke three different languages — English, Spanish and Amharic — and some in the community didn’t even have bank accounts.
The platform also has numerous features to prevent fraud or duplicate payments.
“They were able to partner with folks in the community to do outreach and offered a lot of customer service to make it easy for us to administer and for applicants to apply for and get funding,” Mead said.
Making the programs permanent in Colorado
While the Left Behind Workers Fund and AidKit were increasingly successful, Newhouse and his collaborators were still not satisfied.
In 2022, they went to the legislature for more action. They were determined to address the “core inequity,” that all employers were contributing to the unemployment insurance fund, but undocumented workers couldn’t get access to the funds when they needed them.
The result was legislation to create the Benefits Recovery Fund, a permanent system to provide assistance to recently unemployed undocumented workers in Colorado.
To no one’s surprise, the lobbying effort for the fund was a heavy lift.
To persuade the legislators and make the issue meaningful, Newhouse said, “it was back to my family history.”
The parallels he drew between the experiences of Jews during the Holocaust and undocumented immigrants today were vivid and persuasive.
The Benefits Recovery Fund is the first of its kind in the U.S. and AidKit has been chosen to administer it. Newhouse said he and his colleagues are determined to make it a model for the rest of the nation. “It’s very important to us that it is a success,” he said.
Recovering his family history “feels like an opportunity,” Newhouse said. He and his wife plan to spend a month in Berlin this summer, reconnecting with their culture.
When they return, they’ll get back to their advocacy for left behind workers.
“There’s no excuse in my mind for the discrimination they suffer,” he said. “Sure, they chose to come here. I’m part of a group that chose to come here, too. It’s not rational to discriminate against those who play such an essential role in supporting our economy.”
And given his history and that he owes his very life to people who defied the prevailing bigotry of the era to help his family, he has no hesitation about the audacious — often unpopular — stand he has chosen to take.
“It’s simple,” he said. “I feel an obligation to serve.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2:35 p.m. on Jan. 25, 2023, to update the amount of money AidKit has delivered or is under contract to deliver. It was updated at 4:44 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2023, to say it is employers, not workers, who pay unemployment insurance premiums to the state government.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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