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Border & Immigration

Aid For San Diego's Undocumented Workers Dwindles As Pandemic Continues

A sign blinks in the entrance of a clothing store that closed as part of efforts to combat the spread of the new coronavirus Thursday, April 9, 2020, in San Diego.
Gregory Bull / AP Photo
A sign blinks in the entrance of a clothing store that closed as part of efforts to combat the spread of the new coronavirus Thursday, April 9, 2020, in San Diego.
With many businesses unable to reopen because of rising numbers of Coronavirus cases, the situation for San Diego’s undocumented population, without jobs or government assistance, remains perilous.

North Park resident Luis R. immigrated to San Diego from Mexico and had worked at the same restaurant as a line cook for six years. He was fired in March when the restaurant shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Obviously for my situation, it’s kind of hard to find a job. I just [don’t] like to jump and jump for jobs, so after six years, they just let me go by email,” he said. KPBS is withholding Luis’s last name because he’s undocumented.

Aid For San Diego’s Undocumented Workers Dwindles As Pandemic Continues
Listen to this story by Max Rivlin-Nadler.

Luis is one of the many undocumented people in San Diego in a perilous situation because of the pandemic. As businesses remain closed, they don't have jobs and can't get government assistance.


Luis has always paid taxes, but undocumented people are ineligible for unemployment benefits. His husband, an American citizen, didn't get a stimulus check either. That's because they filed taxes jointly.

“The stimulus check for every single American, they didn’t give it to people who are married to an immigrant person,” Luis said. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.”

Luis began looking into relief funds for those laid off from the food service industry, but to no avail. Then, the state said it would be giving $500 to $1,000 to some undocumented people.

“I was checking the news all the time, when it’s going to be this, when it’s going to be this, because I want to have a little bit of money,” he said.

The non-profit Jewish Family Service of San Diego distributes the state payments in the form of prepaid debit cards. They go to undocumented people impacted by the pandemic in San Diego and Imperial Counties, where around 7% of the state’s undocumented population lives.


The program began in May. Immediately, service providers across the state were inundated with calls. By the end of June, Jewish Family Service had distributed $5 million in funds to 10,000 undocumented people in the region.

RELATED: California To Start Sending Relief To Undocumented Immigrants

Video: Aid For San Diego’s Undocumented Workers Dwindles As Pandemic Continues

Luis was one of them. After waiting almost a month for it to arrive, he received a prepaid debit card for $500, his first type of assistance in four months.

“For buying groceries, like Costco, Wal-Mart, like basically for food, food, food, I was still not working for like three months and I don’t know when I will be,” he said.

Restaurant worker and immigrant Rosalba was also laid off during the pandemic. KPBS is also withholding her last name because she’s undocumented.

Like Luis, she's been paying taxes while she’s been working in the United States for the past 18 years.

“It made me feel sad, frustrated,” she said in Spanish, speaking about being excluded from unemployment insurance and federal stimulus checks. “Because we’re a community of workers more than anything, and we’re supporting this country with our taxes. But we don’t have the same rights as citizens, and we don’t have opportunities to take account of our contributions, so I’m frustrated about that. I’m angry because we contribute to this country.”

Rosalba ended up getting $1,000 from the state through its emergency fund. It helped her pay her cell phone bills and buy cleaning supplies to stay safe during the pandemic, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for her lost income. She was making $500 a week before the pandemic.

“With the passing of time, we’re now right back in almost the same situation,” she said.

While the state’s fund helped more than 100,000 undocumented people, the problems facing the state’s 2 million undocumented people remain.

Private philanthropists are also supplementing state funds, but there is far more demand than they can meet, said Kevin Douglas, the director of national programs for one such philanthropist, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, or GCIR.

“The organization supplemented the state government’s response with private donations to reach as many undocumented people as possible during the early days of the pandemic,” he said. “The demand was huge. We know the gap was going to be pretty large and the goal was to stop the bleeding for some number of families.”

The state and GCIR are in the process of sending out $125 million in aid.

“Direct relief was a necessary and important first step. But it was just that, a first step,” he said. “There’s a lot of systemic issues underlying the disparate impacts of COVID on communities and who is impacted. And it really speaks to the need for broader systemic change.”

But without some assistance soon, advocates said undocumented people will return to unsafe working conditions and get exposed to COVID-19.

“People should be clear that we’re not doing anything except increasing our negative health risk for all of us,” said Dr. Kyra Greene, the director of the working family advocacy group Center on Policy Initiatives. “We’re seeing outbreaks of COVID-19 in fields and other places where we force undocumented people back to work when we don’t provide protections for them.”

Greene said the state should raise taxes on the wealthiest Californians to expand a social safety net to undocumented people, who make up 10% of the state's workforce.