More 'Peace of Mind' for Undocumented Californians, Still May Not Be Enough

“As an undocumented immigrant who was raised in California and call the Bay Area my home, thank you” wrote undocumented journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas on Twitter responding to Newsom’s announcement of a relief fund for undocumented immigrants. “Thank you for remembering that undocumented Californians are an inextricable part of our state.”  (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Aurelio, a 41-year-old undocumented Oakland resident, has worked for 15 years as a server at a hotel. But a month ago, as California’s stay-at-home order pushed Aurelio’s employer and thousands of other businesses to close, he was furloughed with no pay.

The father of three kids hasn’t earned any income since. His family is relying on food pantries to get by, and won’t have the money to pay bills or rent, he said.

“I have faith that the economy will recover,” said Aurelio. “For now, I have hope that someone will help us make ends meet.”

That hope came closer to reality Wednesday, when Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state is providing an unprecedented $75 million in cash payments to undocumented adults impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting next month, undocumented Californians will be able to apply for a one-time emergency grant of $500 dollars per adult, with a cap of $1,000 per household.

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The Disaster Relief Fund, which will be distributed through nonprofits, is expected to help roughly 150,000 people left out of unemployment insurance benefits and federal stimulus aid because of their immigration status.

“Every Californian, including our undocumented neighbors and friends, should know that California is here to support them during this crisis,” said Newsom in a statement. “We are all in this together.”

The governor also announced a network of private foundations, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), an immigrant-focused philanthropy organization is raising $50 million dollars to provide financial assistance to struggling unauthorized immigrants in the state.

An estimated 1.5 to nearly 2 million workers in California are undocumented, and many work in industries hard hit by shelter-in-place orders, such as leisure and hospitality.

A coalition of more than 120 immigrant and workers rights advocates applauded Newsom’s initiative as a “crucial stopgap for the survival of many immigrant families.” But they also said it won’t be enough to cover everyone who needs help.

“We need to do a lot more,” said Kim Ouillette, an attorney at Legal Aid at Work, a member of the Safety Net for All coalition. “A single one-time payment of $500 that's only going to be available for some portion of the workforce is not going to solve the problem that a huge portion of the undocumented workforce is out of work and has no means of support.”

In a letter, the coalition called on Newsom to establish a fund that provides weekly payments of $600 to jobless undocumented immigrants until the emergency proclamation is lifted. The proposal is supported by the Latino and Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucuses.

Aurelio, the undocumented server in Oakland, has applied for cash assistance from One Fair Wage, which offers $213 for restaurant and other service workers impacted by the pandemic.

One Fair Wage has distributed more than $1 million and received 143,000 applications for relief nationwide, including more than 15,000 applications from California, said Saru Jayaraman, the organization’s president.

She called California’s plan to provide checks to undocumented immigrants “a huge step forward.”

“But even with our $213 and California's $500, this will not be enough for families to live on,” said Jayaraman. “We need universal unemployment insurance… and living wages when workers go back to work, so that they are in a better situation the next time a crisis occurs.”

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Aurelio, a dad to two U.S. citizen daughters, said he intends to apply for the state’s cash assistance.

“For me, as an undocumented person, it gives me more confidence and peace of mind to know that California cares about us," Aurelio said. "Even though the federal government doesn’t care we contribute.”

Unauthorized immigrants in California collectively pay about $3 billion in state and local taxes each year, according to the nonprofit Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

To be eligible for aid from the Disaster Relief Fund, undocumented adults must have experienced hardship as a result of COVID-19 and not be eligible for federal emergency help.

The list of nonprofits that will screen applicants and provide them with checks will be available in May, said Scott Murray, a spokesman with the California Department of Social Services.

The state has put together a guide for immigrants in California with information about assistance related to COVID-19, including public benefits.