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Activists Stage 'Die-in' at Newsom Residence to Demand More Relief for Immigrant Workers

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Activists from across California staged a 'die-in' at Gov. Gavin Newsom's home to bring attention to what they see as a lack of equitable COVID-19 relief for immigrant workers. (Courtesy of Brooke Anderson (@MovementPhotographer))

Activists held a die-in on the street in front of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Sacramento home early Wednesday to demand COVID-19 relief for undocumented workers who they say are largely excluded from unemployment benefits.

Fifty-eight people, mostly immigrant workers and activists from across California, laid down in the street to bring attention to the disproportionate share of pandemic-related deaths borne by workers and their families in sectors the state identified as the most high-risk for COVID-19 spread, including agriculture, warehouses and restaurants.

In 10 industries in California, the first 10 months of the pandemic saw a 30% increase in deaths of essential workers in those industries compared to the previous year, according to a study from the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

“As an immigrant, I’ve seen how we’ve been excluded from all the benefits the government has provided to workers,” said Mirna Bueso, 45, who worked two part-time jobs, one at a warehouse and one at a restaurant before losing both jobs during the pandemic. Bueso, who lives in San Francisco, was unemployed for eight months but did not qualify for assistance because she is undocumented. Through an employment agency she was eventually able to find work a couple of days a week, but work is still unstable.

Bueso said she is not afraid of identifying herself as undocumented, because she contributes to the state and federal governments by paying her taxes.

“We are also part of this state. We pay taxes. We pay them in each of our paychecks," she said. "Even if they don’t let us qualify for certain benefits."

“Every week, charges are taxed on our income for unemployment, disability benefits and social security ... but we don’t get to see that. We are not asking for charity, we are asking to get back what we have given to this state."

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Bueso has been volunteering at food banks as a way to feed her family. Last year, she received $1,000 from a nonprofit organization providing assistance to undocumented immigrant workers, but given the cost of living in San Francisco, the money hasn't gone far.

“We [essential immigrant workers] should not be feeling so unprotected as we are now. We don’t have a guarantee … if we lose our employment, we are practically left with nothing, in the streets, because many of us have been evicted from the places we live because we owe more than eight months in rent,” Bueso said.

The state Legislature is currently in the final stages of deciding how to spend a $75 billion budget surplus. Some believe the surplus should include more support for immigrant workers.

"The issue of political will is always a question, but financially it’s viable," said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, which organized the protest. "The rich have gotten richer in this pandemic."

Zucker said the state of New York has shown leadership on the issue with its establishment of an excluded workers fund, which is a direct payment for low-income workers who don't qualify for other benefits. Zucker said he'd like to see that same kind of leadership in California.

“In terms of the recovery, California’s recovery won’t be complete if families are still left behind,” he said.

Bueso said that through today’s action, she would like to see the inclusion of immigrant workers in the state budget "because we are essential parts in the state’s economy." The current plan doesn't include workers like Bueso, she said, even though "we are a fundamental part of the state’s economy."

Gov. Gavin Newsom's office did not respond to a request for comment.

This year, undocumented workers were for the first time eligible for the California Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax credit for Californians who earn up to $30,000 and which may provide as much as $3,027 depending on the number of dependents in a family. But since those benefits are dependent on an undocumented worker filing taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), and since getting one can itself be an ordeal, advocates say this means an unknown number of undocumented workers are still left out of California’s current stimulus plan.

“Too many of our families lost our entire life savings, went thousands of dollars in debt, or risked our lives in deadly jobs to make ends meet, while the rich continued to get richer,” said Jennifer Alejo of Trabajadores Unidos Workers United, who helped lead the die-in.

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