New COVID-19 Relief Benefits Leave Out Millions Of Undocumented Immigrants

Patricia, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, stands near her home in Richmond, California, on March 30, 2020. Patricia lost her job weeks ago because of the coronavirus crisis but is unable to collect unemployment insurance benefits because of her immigration status.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For more than three years, Patricia cleaned homes in the Bay Area for a living. But as the coronavirus pandemic ramped up and shocked the California economy, she — like many others in the state — lost her job.

Now, the undocumented immigrant from Honduras spends her days confined to the room she rents out of a house in Richmond. As her savings have run out, she worries for her survival and that of five relatives in Honduras who depend on the income she can no longer send, she said.

“My fear is that this situation could last a lot longer. If I don’t have work, I don’t know how I’ll be able to eat and pay bills,” said Patricia in Spanish. (She requested KQED not use her real name because of her immigration status and to call her Patricia instead.)

The $2 trillion federal aid package signed by President Trump last Friday will expand unemployment insurance and send cash to Americans hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn. But immigrants who lack work permits won’t benefit from those provisions.

Even though many undocumented workers collectively pay billions of dollars in taxes, they are excluded from unemployment insurance benefits — which require applicants to show federal work authorization.

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Immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status get a valid Social Security number and may be eligible for unemployment aid and a check for as much as $1,200 per adult in the COVID-19 stimulus package.

State programs such as paid family leave and disability insurance are available to workers regardless of their immigration status. But those benefits don’t help the vast majority of undocumented workers who lost all income, said labor experts.

“I feel like I’ve been forgotten,” said Patricia, 29. “I don’t have the same options for help that legal residents can get.”

As the coronavirus crisis paralyzes parts of California’s economy and results in massive layoffs, workers who lack legal immigration status are particularly vulnerable, said Derek Schoonmaker, an attorney who directs the workers’ rights practice at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland.

Many of the state’s nearly 2 million undocumented workers labor in industries pummeled by the COVID-19 crisis, such as restaurants, hotels and the garment industry, he said.

“Undocumented workers are getting hit the hardest,” Schoonmaker said. “Many of those workers now without work are undocumented folks who have nowhere to turn for support.”

People who are desperate for income will venture out for work, said Schoonmaker, even if it means disregarding California’s stay-at-home order that public health officials say we need to control the spread of the virus.

“In order to enable people to stay at home, we need to make sure that everybody can meet their basic needs while they are at home,” Schoonmaker said.

Patricia is one of nearly 2 million undocumented workers in California. These workers are particularly vulnerable as California's economy is hit by the coronavirus crisis. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Last week, more than 120 organizations called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and California legislative leaders to designate emergency funding to support undocumented residents and others who are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits.

The request came in a letter urging the state government to strengthen job protections so that employees who take time off to care for their health or a relative are not fired, a concern that — while highlighted by the current pandemic — low-wage workers have struggled with for years, said advocates.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the request. But state officials are considering alternatives to help residents left out of unemployment insurance, said Crystal Page, a spokeswoman with the state's Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

“We are coming together across agencies and industries to try to address the needs of those who may not qualify for other traditional programs, and meet this moment together,” said Page in an email.

Meanwhile, cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose are raising funds for nonprofits to give cash assistance and other services to impacted residents, regardless of immigration status (see resources below).

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San Francisco’s Give2SF COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund, with more than $5 million in donations, will prioritize providing financial assistance for vulnerable residents and workers to pay for groceries, rent and other basic needs, said Mayor London Breed.

"We are committed to supporting all San Franciscans during this incredibly challenging time, including those who are most vulnerable," said Breed in a statement.

In Contra Costa County, where Patricia lives, the Board of Supervisors will consider this week whether to advance millions of dollars to groups that serve undocumented and other residents, said county Supervisor John Gioia.

“We are trying generally to help those nonprofits to the extent we can continue to provide those really vital services,” Gioia said.

But he acknowledged a lot more resources will be needed to help people whose livelihoods have been wiped out by the health crisis and measures in place to try to halt it.

“We are going to be dealing with the negative impacts of this pandemic long after the pandemic ends,” Gioia said. “And there's going to be a need for a major public investment to make families whole.”

In California, undocumented residents contribute $3 billion annually in state and local taxes, according to the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

Immigrants who are not eligible for a Social Security number, including undocumented ones, can use an Individual Tax Identification Number to pay taxes. The federal government collected $13.7 billion from taxpayers using an ITIN in 2015, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Patricia said she hopes some of the money she’s contributed in taxes using an ITIN can help support her during this crisis.

“It would be good if the state supported us, if they remembered us,” Patricia said. “We (undocumented) are very vulnerable.”

Cash assistance for undocumented workers

You can find a list of relief funds offering financial assistance (in English and Spanish) here.

Centro Legal de la Raza is planning on offering $500 in relief grants to impacted workers who live or work in Oakland. Apply here.

Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco will offer $500 grants or zero-interest loans to impacted immigrant families, students and low-wage workers. Applications are scheduled to open on April 1.

The Silicon Valley Strong Fund offers cash assistance to residents of Santa Clara County. While $11 million in contributions have currently run out, those interested can add their name to a list in case more funds become available.

For help referrals and other resources:

The city of San Francisco encourages all workers and business owners impacted by the COVID-19 crisis to contact the Office of Economic and Workforce Development for assistance at 415-701-4817, email workforce.connection@sfgov.org or call the city’s 311 number.

Officials in Oakland and Contra Costa County recommend workers call 211, a free statewide number providing access to local community resources.

You can find more information on the state’s paid family leave and disability insurance here.