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COVID-19 Relief Resources for Undocumented Families Like Mine Are Extremely Limited

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Gabriela CruzJuly 1, 2020

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COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color, with Black and Latinx populations dying at faster rates than white populations, according to NPR. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Latinxs account for 34 percent of cases in the U.S. (Latinxs represent just 18 percent of the entire population). And as The New York Times illustrates, counties where at least a quarter of the population is Latinx have seen a 32 percent increase in cases compared to a 15 percent rise in other counties in the past two weeks alone.

So far, the virus has killed over 126,000 Americans and plummeted the U.S. economy into a recession. And while there are conversations about the Trump administration greenlighting a second stimulus package for citizens, one population has largely gone uncared for: undocumented immigrants, which were excluded from receiving financial assistance via the president’s $1,200 relief check, despite collectively paying billions of dollars in federal taxes annually.

Undocumented immigrants were excluded from receiving financial assistance via the president’s $1,200 relief check, despite collectively paying billions of dollars in federal taxes annually.

According to the Pew Research Center, 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the U.S. as of 2017, 66 percent of whom had lived here for over 10 years, making up 4.6 percent (7.6 million folks) of the U.S. workforce. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 6 million immigrant workers have jobs that face the brunt of the coronavirus (fieldworkers, housekeepers, grocery store employees), making it more difficult for this population to practice the privilege of working from home, much less seek medical help because of fear of facing retaliation from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is quick to practice deportation under the Trump administration.

So far, California is the only state to provide relief for undocumented immigrants. In April, Governor Gavin Newsom passed a $75 million disaster relief fund that allows 150,000 undocumented adults in the state to apply for a one-time $500 check (there’s a $1,000-per-household max) if they’re ineligible for federal relief, unemployment benefits, or assistance through the CARES Act (all undocumented folks are exempt from these three benefits).

The state identified 12 “immigrant serving” nonprofit organizations that, since May 18, have been assisting these adults in the application process, which is accessed through regional, hard-to-get-a-hold-of hotlines. (The deadline to apply for the first-come, first-served fund was June 30. According to CalMatters, 82,000 undocumented people received the fund.)

Representatives from organizations such as United Farm Workers of America and TODEC Legal Center told me that undocumented people spent over eight hours on hold in hopes of receiving assistance to no avail—and that a large majority of these folks are fieldworkers (48 percent of America’s fieldworkers are undocumented) or people in essential services who have either lost their jobs entirely or continue working without face masks or other modes of protection against the virus. Some carry letters from the Department of Homeland Security that deem them essential and “critical to the food supply chain.” But not all undocumented folks suffering from the effects of the coronavirus fit that bill.

Gabriela Cruz, who turns 31 this month, and her family immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico when she was only one year old. Growing up in the predominantly white community of Santa Cruz, California, south of the Bay Area, Cruz didn’t perceive herself as different from her peers until the eighth grade, when she really understood the implications of her undocumented status after her mom prohibited her from attending a class trip to Washington, D.C.

Cruz, a graduate of Cabrillo College and the first in her family to pursue higher education, now works as an organizer for United We Dream, a nonprofit which advocates for the rights of immigrant youth. (The organization is raising money to help undocumented people through its National UndocuFund, but she’s not eligible as an employee). But as immigrants, she and her family have been disproportionately affected by the effects of the virus.

Her mother lost her job as a restaurant worker at the onset of COVID-19, and Cruz has since stepped in as the sole financial provider for her mother and younger sisters, who are of mixed status. Cruz herself is eligible for federal COVID-19 relief funds as a recipient of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which was upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this month despite the Trump administration’s efforts to disassemble it. However, she’s keenly aware of the financial hardship undocumented individuals face in the U.S., especially under a president that regularly attacks immigrant populations. 

Below, Cruz tells Well + Good what the process of seeking COVID-19 relief funds for her mother was like—and what she’s worried about in the months ahead.

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As a result of COVID-19, I’ve become the sole provider for my family. My mom, an undocumented restaurant worker, was laid off indefinitely. She’s currently raising my two younger sisters, 15 and 21, and our cousin, who’s 8. My mother is someone you would consider at-risk; she has diabetes and we have a family history of it. At first, I didn’t want her to expose herself to the virus or take on another risky job. I’m blessed to be able to assist her and keep her safe, but it’s been a struggle trying to get her help.

It’s only been about two weeks since state aid became available for undocumented families and we’ve yet to get an answer on the hotline. The fund is specifically for folks who did not benefit from the stimulus package and do not qualify for unemployment benefits in California; I qualify for both through DACA. My mom and my aunt—a restaurant worker who also lost her job along with her husband, a landscaper—have been calling to apply for the fund for two weeks, every single day.

The first two days were exhausting. My mom was on hold for four hours, and when the call finally started ringing, it dropped. It’s been frustrating. Not getting an answer or a place to leave a message with your information feels very discouraging. There’s such desperate need right now in this moment of crisis and every minute they wait feels like a missed opportunity. Even though the aid is not going to be enough to pay one month’s worth of bills, it definitely helps. Organizations like the one I work for, United We Dream, are doing the best that they can do to help folks seeking assistance, but the fund itself doesn’t begin to cover the needs of people in our state.

My mom and aunt both feel helpless not being able to provide for their families for the first time. Within the first few weeks of COVID-19’s outbreak, my mom felt overwhelmed at not knowing what would happen. She’s been an entrepreneur in many ways—selling food when she first immigrated here—but because she had a steady income as a restaurant worker, wrapping her mind around having to start over again to make end’s meet has been stressful. I encourage her to keep calling and try to keep her spirits up, reminding her to please be patient with the people she’s waiting to speak to on the other end of the line. As long as the line isn’t disconnected, there are funds there.

In addition to supporting my family financially, I’m also helping emotionally. Because they’ve been at home for so long, they’re kind of driving each other crazy right now. I make sure to take them out for walks, which relieves a lot of the stress of feeling cooped inside the house. They’re all women in one household sharing one bathroom, so you can imagine what that’s like under shelter-in-place. We went for a hike in our community on Mother’s Day and it helped my mom’s spirits, made her feel less helpless. I make sure that when I hear about aid or healthcare services for undocumented people, that I tell my family and also post about it widely on social media in English and Spanish, so that anyone undocumented who’s affected by this can access this information.

The restaurant my mom works at is having conversations about reopening, but my concern is very real. I am worried about restaurant owners getting too excited and not necessarily following the guidelines and safety measures that need to be set in place to keep customers and employees safe. I worry about us not being prepared for a second wave of people falling ill again. If that happens, will there be another shelter-in-place order that we have to prepare for? It’s been three months. I don’t know if I can continue to provide for my mom for another three, another six, or another year. We’re clearly not gonna have a vaccine soon.

Our family is struggling to survive just like yours, but unfortunately for us, there are limitations—more barriers, less help. Undocumented people are being left out of very needed aid in this moment. Sheltering in place really is a privilege—I’m lucky to be able to work from home—that undocumented people in this country cannot afford. Yes, Governor Newsom has made healthcare and testing available for those who are undocumented, but there’s still inequtity in available resources.

So many undocumented people are on the frontlines. We see farmworkers and grocery workers who have not stopped working under shelter-in-place orders. They do not have the proper equipment to keep themselves safe. These are all people that are vital to our economy and to our survival, but we are leaving them out of the conversation—and that is unfair.

As told to Jonathan Borge

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