Millions Raised For Immigrants Struggling Through Covid, But Most Will Not See It

While many other restaurant workers are able to apply for unemployment, undocumented immigrants do not qualify for help. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

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A combined funding effort between the state and philanthropies is close to meeting a $125 million goal to help immigrants who are struggling through the pandemic but don't qualify for unemployment because they lack legal status.

The quasi-government initiative is the only one of its kind in the country, and offers the single-largest amount of money to a group of Californians who are ineligible for government help even as the state faces record unemployment. But the demand far surpasses the funds available, and accessing Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants has been challenging.

More than two weeks after the program launched on May 18, the phone lines are still jammed at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of LA, or CHIRLA, one of a dozen organizations designated to take applications from immigrants in their respective communities.

CHIRLA is getting 800,000 calls daily from potential applicants dialing repeatedly but finding phone lines jammed, said Luis Perez, director of legal services.

"This is not because CHIRLA's phones don't work," said Perez, dispelling some complaints in the community that the staff have not been responsive. "The phone company is having issues with the amount of calls that is coming to go to our organization."


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In Southern California, the other community organizations handling applications for the state fund are Central American Resource Center, which like CHIRLA is providing Spanish-language assistance, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, which is helping applicants in multiple Asian languages.

The state has set aside $75 million for these organizations to disburse — money that would already be depleted given the need, if not for the time it's took to process the 49,000 applications submitted. Nearly 24,000 applications have been approved so far. Recipients can get $500 per individual and up to $1,000 per household.

The program is supposed to run until the end of June or until the money is gone, according to representatives at the California Department of Social Services, which is overseeing the state funds.

Another $50 million is being raised in the non-profit sector by the group Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR). Board co-chair Efrain Escobedo said the group has already secured $40 million from more than 30 foundations mostly in California. They include the Blue Shield of California Foundation and James Irvine Foundation. More than 600 individual donors have also given.

Escobedo said nearly $10 million has already been distributed to 55 partner organizations around the state. A vice president at the California Community Foundation, Escobedo said he was confident they would hit the $50 million goal post soon.

"Even that doesn't help every family in need in California, but it's been a huge help," Escobedo said.

The money from the Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants is the single-most important source of help for immigrants lacking status. But there are smaller grants being made by groups like the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

Evelyn Garcia, a senior program officer there, said her organization has raised about $400,000 that has been distributed among groups such as Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition, Inner City Struggle and Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA). The money is helping day laborers, street vendors and restaurant workers.

"Unfortunately, when you look at economic forecasts, it does appear that a lot of the (industries) in which these undocumented workers relied on for wages will continue to be affected, at least for for the remainder of the year," Garcia said. "We want to continue to be a source of support."

State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, had weeks earlier voiced hope that the state would expand funding for the immigrant relief program, but she said no such effort has moved forward.

"As far as government resources are concerned, there's very few programs that they have access to," Durazo said.

The city of Los Angeles was also providing cash assistance to residents, regardless of immigration status, but the Angeleno Card program is no longer taking applications, after receiving hundreds of thousands of applications.

Durazo's focus now has been on finding other ways to help Californians without status. She is among the legislators pushing to extend Medi-Cal to immigrant seniors in 2022. Originally, the plan had been to adopt the change in 2021, but the state is suffering a major budget gap because of the pandemic.

"I still believe that we need to do it now," Durazo said. "If they don't get coverage now when we're in the middle of this pandemic, I think we're hurting all of our communities."