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California's Undocumented Workers to Finally Receive Aid for Storm Damages

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An orange and white construction sign reads, "Road closed," next to flooded streets and dilapidated wooden fences. A green, wooden home is seen in the background.
Signs block off the stretch of Murphy Road that crosses the Pajaro River in Watsonville on March 19, 2023. In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom said state relief would soon help flood victims who don’t qualify for federal emergency relief. But the state has yet to name nonprofits that will dole out the aid. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

California will send $95 million to flood victims in a long-awaited program to assist undocumented residents suffering hardship and damage from the recent months of storms.

The money will be available in many affected counties starting in June, according to the state’s Department of Social Services.

The announcement comes two months after Gov. Gavin Newsom promised flood victims that help would come from the state’s Rapid Response Fund. Since then, his office provided few details despite repeated queries and criticism.

Alex Stack, a spokesperson for Newsom, said state officials were trying to ensure the program would be accessible to a population that is often hard to reach, while also protecting taxpayer funds from fraud.

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“This program is going to serve folks who might be reticent to take advantage of public benefits for fear of it affecting their immigration status, and this is a population that moves around a lot because of farm work or other issues,” Stack said. “We’re trying to make sure folks can access this program without hurdles, and do it the right way.”

Eligible households could qualify for up to $4,500 — each qualifying adult receiving $1,500 and children receiving $500. Stack said a percentage of the $95 million will go to launching and administering the program.

The funds would be available to residents living or working in counties that were federally designated major disaster areas and that were approved for individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Applicants for the state funds must show they are not eligible for FEMA assistance but experienced hardship from storms beginning in December 2022 to April 2023.

In March Newsom’s office said the state would use its Rapid Response Fund to assist undocumented workers and residents who do not qualify for individual aid from FEMA because of their immigration status.

Originally the Legislature allocated $175 million to that fund for the 2022–2023 fiscal year, to assist with migrants at the Southern California border and to fund other needs. Now state grants are expected to go to nonprofit organizations to provide financial assistance to people recovering from floods or storms, the governor’s office said.

The nonprofit organizations will interview applicants in person “to minimize the risk of fraud” and provide preloaded debit cards or a check, said Scott Murray, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services.

The announcement follows weeks of inquiries from CalMatters and others about assistance to undocumented residents affected by the storms.

Local elected leaders say hundreds of residents don’t qualify for FEMA funding because of their immigration status but have lost work or sustained damage to homes and vehicles. Many agricultural workers suddenly lost work income due to flooded fields yet must provide for their families and pay for medical care, advocates said.

Since Newsom’s March statements about Rapid Response, state officials had been tight-lipped about when funds would be available. As of Wednesday, the state had not announced which nonprofit organizations it would send grants to.

Less than rapid

Luis Alejo, a Monterey County supervisor, has been outspoken about needing more state and federal assistance for Pajaro. This small, mostly farmworker community was severely flooded when a levee failed in March. On May 4, Alejo tweeted photos of damage in the community, noting there still was no on-the-ground assistance for undocumented flood victims and little word from the state.

“Here we are, going into the end of May, and there’s still no Rapid Response Fund money,” Alejo told CalMatters on May 22. “Maybe we’ve got to take out the ‘rapid,’ because it doesn’t feel rapid.”

State Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Democrat from Bakersfield, said farmworkers and others impacted by flooding in her district also need assistance. During a recent visit to the still-flooded Tulare Lake region, Hurtado learned that 1,300 farmworkers in Kings County had been laid off, she said.

“Folks that have been impacted by the floods and the drought are really struggling,” Hurtado said. “They’re really struggling to get the resources they need to be fine.”

Some nonprofit officials said the state has contacted them about being contractors or subcontractors, to help reach people who need funds.

Undocumented workers are, by law, ineligible for federally funded programs such as unemployment benefits or disaster aid from FEMA.

To counter that, in 2020 Newsom allocated $75 million to disaster relief for undocumented Californians affected by COVID but who were ineligible for federal aid programs.

Hurtado said some of her constituents already were discouraged by long delays in other forms of promised financial assistance.

For instance, she said, it’s rare to find a farmworker who didn’t wait in long lines earlier this year to receive a $600 check or debit card from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Programfor having worked in frontline agricultural or food industry jobs in 2020.

Some who waited never received the funds, she said, while others were targeted by scammers who posed as farmworker organization employees charging fees to “process” the $600 relief payments.

Who gets flood help

People who live or work in Kings County — which encompasses the town of Corcoran and a large swath of the floodwaters filling the resurgent Tulare Lake — still do not qualify for individual assistance from FEMA, regardless of undocumented status. Neither the county nor the state applied for Kings County to receive that assistance.

Kings County got approval only for FEMA’s public assistance program, which reimburses local and state government agencies for such expenses as emergency response, debris removal and restoration of damaged public facilities and infrastructure. But it doesn’t provide options for individuals. This means Kings County residents will not qualify for the state’s program either.

A flooded field full of crops is pictured. The ground is muddy and full of water. Plants manage to still poke out above.
Water covers Whitley Avenue in the reemerging Tulare Lake outside Corcoran on May 3, 2023, in the Central Valley. Residents of Kings County, which encompasses the town of Corcoran and a large swath of the floodwaters filling Tulare Lake, still do not qualify for individual assistance from FEMA, regardless of undocumented status. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

However, qualifying families and individuals living in other flooded counties, such as Kern, Tulare, Madera and Monterey, can apply for FEMA help to repair damaged homes or property. Because the White House declared major disasters in several California counties, those residents also can seek help from state and federal disaster assistance centers.

Preliminary numbers from FEMA show many who thought they qualified for emergency assistance didn’t initially get it. As of May 30, FEMA approved for assistance:

  • about 43% of Californians who applied due to the December and January storms.
  • that includes 39% of applicants in Merced County, where the unincorporated community of Planada flooded in January.
  • 40% of those who applied after the February and March storms.
  • including 35% of applicants in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, including Alejo’s district and the town of Watsonville.
  • plus a little more than 47% of applicants in Kern County and 53% of applicants in Tulare County, in Hurtado’s district.

Pending legislation

Funds for the state’s program — called the Storm Assistance for Immigrants Project — will be available through May 31, 2024, or until all funds are exhausted. Assistance will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis and applicants can only seek help from the nonprofit organization assigned to their county or area.

State officials also urged storm victims — including those unsure about their eligibility — to seek guidance in the state’s disaster resource guide (PDF) for immigrants on the social services department’s website. It says households with at least one member with legal status can qualify for federal aid.

The deadline for individuals to register with FEMA for disaster assistance is June 5. Once registered, they can access a number of other programs such as legal servicesunemployment assistance and crisis counseling.

Local and state officials say more needs to be done. Hurtado said she has repeatedly sponsored legislation to help farmworkers and other immigrant workers survive severe climate changes in California.

Alejo said he supports pending legislation, called the California Individual Assistance Act, which would establish a grant program to financially assist local agencies, community-based organizations and individuals affected by disasters. The bill faces a vote in the Assembly this week and requires two-thirds approval to pass.

“If we’re waiting months after a storm to get any help to the victims, then we’re not serving our residents,” Alejo said. “The plan is not being carried out by whatever program that is there in philosophy, but it’s not on the ground helping anyone out.

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