Coco Corona and her husband, who is undocumented, are living with their four children in an apartment above their now-shuttered workplace in Pescadero. It is not an easy time to be out of work, albeit temporarily.
The restaurant owners waived April rent and reduced May’s bill, which Puente de la Costa Sur, a local aid organization, has helped cover. Corona and her husband received four weeks’ pay at the onset of the pandemic and expect to return to work when the restaurant reopens, though with reduced hours and different roles.
Corona and her children, now out of school, are nervous about what the future holds but grateful for the community support. Compared to others — such as her sister, who is caring for her 82-year-old mother and diabetic husband — Corona considers herself “one of the lucky ones.”
As record numbers of people apply for unemployment and Americans across the country await federal stimulus checks, those without documentation are barred from accessing most financial assistance programs.
Given the need to find employers willing to hire undocumented workers, they will also struggle more than the average American in finding new jobs after losing previous positions, and as many as 4 in 10 undocumented immigrants do not have health insurance. That makes them particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus pandemic and its economic ramifications.
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a $125 million disaster relief package for undocumented immigrants on April 15, with $75 million in state funding and the remainder coming from the Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees network. Individuals can apply for up to $500 per adult and $1,000 per household — but applications have yet to open. Newsom’s April 15 press release indicated that the state would announce an opening date within a week, but state officials have not publicized a date one month after making the announcement.
The California Department of Social Services plans to partner with immigrant-serving community organizations to roll out funding in mid-May. Neither Puente nor Coastside Hope — both of which are San Mateo County-designated core agencies for immigrant services — had received information from the state as of May 12.
San Mateo County has also launched a new COVID-19 Emergency Financial Assistance program, which is distributed via core agencies. Eligibility does not depend on immigration or documentation status, but does require “documentation about (the applicant’s) household’s financial and housing situation.”
For most applicants, this takes the form of a W-9 form signed by a landlord — but both Puente and Coastside Hope directors said that some landlords have been unwilling to sign those forms for undocumented renters. While both organizations have worked to connect eligible clients to county funding, San Mateo funds are not an option for many.
“They do share how they’re not working, and still they feel very shy to request financial assistance,” Puente Executive Director Rita Mancera said, referring to a conversation she had with clients in line for food assistance. “Their families in Mexico are dependent on their support, and so they feel pretty restrained that they don’t have a way to support them right now.”
Given limitations on county funding and the absence of a clear timeline from Sacramento, both Puente and Coastside Hope have launched their own programs for undocumented communities. Puente’s COVID-19 Relief Fund, which opened on April 27, adopted the federal government’s adjusted income eligibility requirements and the state’s assistance caps of $500 per individual and $1,000 per household. The fund is not associated with California’s aid package and is made possible by individual donors.
“We just want to make sure that undocumented workers get support through our system,” Mancera said. Puente is capping the program at 400 people as of now, based on the organization’s estimate of need. Puente does not ask clients about their documentation status, nor does Coastside Hope.
For its part, Coastside Hope has $25,000 in “flexible funding” to address the crisis and is distributing that money on a case-by-case basis to those who cannot access other aid programs. That includes undocumented individuals, as well as those who do not receive enough in unemployment benefits to satisfy their need.
Coastside Hope Executive Director Judith Guerrero said that the organization is proactively reaching out to clients they know to be undocumented from past interactions.
Rent is the primary determinant of an individual or household’s aid level, Guerrero said. While the statewide eviction moratorium is still in effect, renters are scrambling to avoid falling behind on bills, as unfulfilled payments could result in eviction at the end of the moratorium period, currently scheduled for May 31.
Guerrero knows one undocumented mother who is paying $800 per month for an apartment for herself and two children — a sum significantly greater than the one-time payment she could receive from California’s relief package. Guerrero added that $500 rent is unheard of on the coast, leading residents to need aid upwards of $1,000 in many cases.
As for other basic needs, Coastside Hope and Puente are among many organizations providing food services to all who require assistance, regardless of documentation status. Mancera and Guerrero both noted that food is a primary concern for families of all backgrounds as many turn to food programs for the first time.
When it comes to health care, undocumented individuals can use Medi-Cal to cover COVID-19 testing and treatment. Federal packages also cover testing for undocumented communities. The CARES Act established a $1 billion testing fund for those who are uninsured and not covered by Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program or the Affordable Care Act. The act also created an optional state Medicaid program for COVID-19 testing only — as opposed to testing and treatment — but these funds are not available to undocumented immigrants.
But some have raised concerns that the Trump administration’s new public charge provision — which allows the government to deny green cards and visas if applicants utilize Medicaid, food stamps or other safety net programs — will threaten access to treatment. The Supreme Court upheld the controversial policy in a 5-4 vote on Feb. 21.
California officials have noted that COVID-19 emergency services do not count as public charges, and the federal government has also reiterated that it will not consider COVID-19 care a “negative factor” in public charge determinations.
Still, some claim that the public charge has deterred people from seeking critical medical coverage. According to doctors cited in a Supreme Court filing that challenges the provision, some immigrants avoid “COVID-19 testing and treatment altogether, even if they might be able to obtain publicly funded care, due to the substantial fear generated by the Public Charge Rule.”
San Mateo County Public Information Officer Preston Merchant said that there is no data available to indicate whether local residents are reluctant to seek coverage due to the public charge provision or COVID-19 concerns. The county led a public information campaign related to the public charge provision while it was being litigated several months ago.
“While the changes (to federal policy) will likely affect only a small number of immigrants, we fear that others may stop utilizing important public benefits that enable them to be healthy, such as medical care, food, and housing support,” Merchant said. “This is especially important now with COVID-19, when the need for medical care, space for isolation and quarantine, and having access to basic necessities is difficult for everyone.”
Merchant urged those who require care to seek it without worrying about immigration status. He added that San Mateo County remains focused on providing medical services to all residents and conducting outreach to vulnerable communities through direct county services as well as in coordination with nonprofits like Puente.
COVID-19 support for undocumented individuals — and a lack of it — has sparked national debate and legal challenges at the state and federal levels.
On May 6, the California Supreme Court sided with the Newsom administration in a lawsuit that contested the governor’s use of taxpayer dollars to fund programs for the undocumented while legal residents face rising economic challenges.