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

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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.

Speaker 1: 00:00 In April governor Gavin Newsome announced a plan to send one time payments to thousands of undocumented people across California. Now, with those payments mostly sent and spent KPBS reporter max Rivlin Nadler tells us the economic situation for San Diego's undocumented population remains desperate. A note to our listeners. We're only using some first names to help protect identities of undocumented people.

Speaker 2: 00:27 North park resident, Luis are immigrated here from Mexico. He'd worked at the same restaurant as line cook for six years. He was fired in March as the restaurant shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaker 3: 00:40 Obviously for my situations, it's kinda hard to find a job. I just know, like to jump and job and the job. So I was there for about six years and they're just swimming up by email.

Speaker 2: 00:51 Luis has always paid taxes, but undocumented people are ineligible for unemployment benefits and his husband, an American citizen didn't get the stimulus check either. That's because they filed taxes. Jointly. Louis began looking into relief funds for those laid off from the food industry, but to no avail. Then the state said it would be giving between 500 and a thousand dollars to some undocumented people.

Speaker 3: 01:14 I was like checking the news all the time when it's going to be dead, when it's going to be days when it's going to be here, because I want to like have a little bit of money. You know,

Speaker 2: 01:22 Nonprofit, Jewish family service of San Diego distributes the payments in the form of prepaid debit cards. They go to undocumented people impacted by the pandemic in San Diego and Imperial counties were 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. 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 three months

Speaker 3: 02:01 For buying groceries like Costco, Walmart, or their store, just for basically West for food there's food, food, food

Speaker 2: 02:07 Restaurant worker, and immigrant Rosalba was also laid off during the pandemic like Luis she's been paying taxes while she's been working in the United States for the past 18 years.

Speaker 3: 02:20 Sure.

Speaker 2: 02:20 You said it made her feel sad because there are community of workers who support this country with their taxes, but they don't have the same rights as citizens. They don't have the opportunity to take account of their contributions and that frustrated her, it made her angry because she contributes to this country

Speaker 2: 02:40 Was all that ended up getting a thousand dollars 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, and now her family is back in the same situation they were before. Well, the States fund helped over a hundred thousand undocumented people. The problems facing the States, 2 million undocumented people remain. The demand was huge. You know, the States fund, our fund only have the sort of potential to hit a couple of hundred thousand people. So we knew that gap was going to be pretty large. Uh, and the goal was to essentially try to stop the bleeding for some number of families. Kevin Douglas works for Grantmakers concerned with immigrants and refugees.

Speaker 2: 03:28 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, direct relief was an important and necessary first step, but it was just that it was a first step. There's a lot of systemic issues underlying the disparate impact of COVID on community and who is impacted that really speaks to the need for sort of broader systemic change. Dr. Kira green of the center on policy initiatives says without assistance, 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. We're seeing outbreaks of COVID and fields and other places where we know we force undocumented folks back against the work when we don't provide protections for them, because 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.

Speaker 1: 04:30 Joining me is KPBS reporter max Rivlin, Nadler, and max. Welcome. Hi. Now you spoke with two people who were laid off from their jobs in the restaurant industry about how many of San Diego's restaurant workers are undocumented.

Speaker 2: 04:45 It's not really clear exactly how many of San Diego's restaurant workers are undocumented, but we know that there is a large amount of people who have no status or have mixed status or, or have the ability to cross the border to work in San Diego. So there's a lot of people who are vulnerable to this. We know one 10 workers in California are undocumented. So that is a huge amount of the workforce, uh, especially in San Diego where 7% of California's undocumented people, um, live.

Speaker 1: 05:15 What are some of the other industries that have seen big layoffs of undocumented workers because of the pandemic?

Speaker 2: 05:21 So in addition to the restaurant workers, you've seen people in factories laid off. You've seen people in the healthcare industry laid off, you know, people who are involved in non elective surgeries and, and not, you know, essential workers during the pandemic. Uh, you've seen people who are involved in the agricultural industry and of course the hospitality industry, as well as it is a big employer of undocumented individuals. And that is completely created as well. So you've created this scenario where large amounts of undocumented people have very little access to assistance, um, during a time where they could be out of work for months and months.

Speaker 1: 05:55 So did the state give a single payment to laid off undocumented workers?

Speaker 2: 06:01 Not only, uh, did they only give a single payment, but this was actually to a very small amount of undocumented workers, right? It would take a huge kind of systemic change and a massive infusion of cash to get that amount of money to each undocumented worker in California and would take a good amount of outreach. That being said, even within moments of the phone lines, opening for opening for this program, people were calling, showing the need for a type of program that actually puts money into people's pockets. Because again, they just experienced a moment where their income went to zero with absolutely no cushion and kind of no help on the horizon.

Speaker 1: 06:38 Just to reinforce what you said about the, uh, the number of people who were untouched by this relief program. The state debit card program helped more than 100,000 people, but there are 2 million undocumented people in California. What was the rationale for providing some relief for just a fraction of that population?

Speaker 2: 06:58 Basically just math. It would take a lot of money to get the, uh, amount of, uh, even just the $500 payments to all 2 million people. Um, of course advocates say there should be that money that goes to those people because they're the people that actually make California work that keep California fed and that keep its restaurants moving and it's hotels and business, and it's agricultural fields, uh, getting picked. So, you know, obviously they're an incredibly important part of the workforce. It's just basically with the state budget being what it is. Um, there was just not money in the budget to do that. And so people are looking elsewhere at philanthropy or larger structural changes to the tax system to actually allow these payments or larger structural changes to go into effect that will provide meaningful and lasting resources for this community.

Speaker 1: 07:50 More about the private donations that augmented the state funding for undocumented workers can undocumented people expect any more in the way of relief funds,

Speaker 2: 08:00 Demand really far out stripped, uh, the amount of resources that the state and the private donations that we're helping augment augment the state's fund, uh, could provide. And so there are people right now on the wait list that are maybe going to be circled back to if the private donations are able to reach out to some more people and get, get more money. But right now, um, the prospects are a little dim for a round until legislators can meet in the next couple of months and try to iron out ways to shore up, um, these undocumented families before you end up with a really awful situation where people are not only out of work, but people are losing their homes. People are, um, kind of further exacerbating the States and those issues. And on top of that working well sick, which is a huge problem, especially during a pandemic, you spoke with Kira green,

Speaker 1: 08:56 She warned that desperation may force undocumented people into taking risks during the pandemic. What kinds of risky jobs was she talking about

Speaker 2: 09:06 And taking jobs in places like, uh, poultry processing centers, uh, working in the agricultural sector in fields, uh, working in, um, food distribution centers at grocery stores, places where basically they fear speaking out for their own, um, working conditions, you know, PPE masks, sanitation, because they really do need the paycheck. And, and honestly, they're making this very grim determination that in, even if they get sick, they still need to come to work because they need to feed their family because they're not getting any other type of assistance. So it's just kind of a feedback loop of people are working because they need food and they need housing security, and they're helping to spread the pandemic at the same time. And, and employers are bringing them in and not asking questions because it's, it's incredibly difficult to get people to agree, to put themselves into such a risky situation. So it's, it's a really kind of nasty feedback loop we're seeing right now.

Speaker 1: 10:06 Now some people might ask if they're so little help coming to them from the United States during this time, why don't undocumented people returned to their native countries?

Speaker 2: 10:16 That's not something I've heard people, um, count out Luis, who I spoke to said he was thinking about going back to Mexico. But that being said for somebody like Rosalba, you know, she has four U S citizen children, uh, you know, who were born here. So she's not going to be leaving any time soon. Um, but the situation doesn't improve if she were to leave and go back to a place like Mexico or a lot of other, other undocumented workers in, um, California come from central America, um, that are dealing with their own not only pandemic, but even before then economic collapse, which drove asylum seekers to the United States in the first place with rising violence stemming from that. So you're, you're seeing basically, um, people trapped in, in an impossible situation where they can't really leave and even heading back to their home countries, wouldn't be at the bomb economically or even health wise.

Speaker 1: 11:07 I've been speaking with KPBS reporter, max Rivlin, Nadler, and max. Thank you.

Speaker 2: 11:13 Thank you. [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.