COVID-19: Groups form to help undocumented immigrants

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While we remain in the throes of an increasingly savage pandemic, policy makers at all levels of government are trying to soften the impact of the outbreak on our physical and financial health.

But they are not the only ones: A group of little-known organizations are trying to ease the impact on an especially vulnerable community — undocumented immigrants.

The outlook remains bleak, but California’s hospitals thus far have been narrowly able to keep pace with the spread of COVID-19 cases — at least in part, experts say, because of the early statewide shelter-in-place rule imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month. Through Tuesday, California had 46,506 people infected with COVID-19, and 1,873 deaths.

“Undocumented immigrant families are some of the ones who are going to be hit the hardest.” — Eder Gaona-Macedo,

California’s stay-at-home order — which has drawn challenges in federal court — is focused on reducing the upward trend of infections, and many other states have adopted similar tactics.

Some states, such as Michigan and Louisiana, took longer to react and they are seeing much larger proportions of their populations infected by the virus. As a result, they are experiencing even larger impacts on their hospitals and healthcare systems.

But the economic fallout from the lockdown policies has been painful, although the federal government earlier approved a $2.2 trillion stimulus package, the state is dipping deeply into it’s reserves and more funds apparently are on the way.

In California, a number of groups are trying to ease that pain on undocumented immigrants, who are among the most vulnerable populations.

“Undocumented immigrant families are some of the ones who are going to be hit the hardest,” says Eder Gaona-Macedo, executive director for Future Leaders of America, which is working with a group called 805 Undocufund. The “805” refers to the area code at the center of the group’s operations.

805 Undocufund advocates for disaster relief for undocumented immigrants in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. It was established in 2018 as a response to the Thomas Fire, when “undocumented families could not apply for any state or federal aid,” Gaona-Macedo said.

During that crisis, and the resulting Montecito mudslides, the 805 Undocufund was able to work on the ground and provide services that included getting masks to agricultural workers so that they wouldn’t have to breathe in smoke from the fire.

805 Undocufund’s money is managed by the Ventura County Community Foundation, a philanthropic group set up in 1987.

But due to the contagious nature of COVID-19 and the need for social distancing, 805 Undocufund’s current efforts are limited to fundraising for undocumented residents.

Now, the primary service of the 805 Undocufund is to provide cash assistance, which is especially important in California where the cost of living is among the nation’s highest. Undocufund’s money is managed by the Ventura County Community Foundation, a philanthropic group set up in 1987.

“Our efforts have essentially been the same,” says Gaona-Macedo, “but the breadth of need that we’re seeing is much larger.”

Since its inception two years ago, “we’ve been able to release $2.4 million to about 1,700 families across both Santa Barbara and Ventura counties,” adding that “as of [March 30] we have received about 2,300 inquiries… and that list is just growing.”

Whereas the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslides were localized disasters, COVID-19 is hitting everywhere all at once.

The Sonoma Undocufund, which was formed in response to the 2017 Tubbs wildfire, served as the model for 805 Undocufund.

“A lot of folks who can give might not be able to give this time around,” says Gaona-Macedo. He noted that donors who were able to contribute to relief efforts in the past are now focused on providing for themselves and their own communities.

There are undocumented immigrants who face the same risks outside of the 805 area code, and a handful of organizations across the country who are attempting to alleviate some of that pressure, the most prominent of which are dispersed throughout California.

The Sonoma Undocufund, which was formed in response to the 2017 Tubbs wildfire, served as the model for 805 Undocufund and has reopened its operations to provide relief in Sonoma county. Last month two Undocufunds were established in San Francisco and Massachusetts in response to the pandemic.

Some resources are available for undocumented immigrants, but other than the Undocufunds that have been set up, the support is limited.

As was the case with those disasters from two years ago, federal aid, like the stimulus money or the recently expanded unemployment benefits, will not be available to undocumented families.

California, however, is providing $500 to immigrant workers and $1,000 to families — a marked departure from the Trump administration — to help deal with such basics as rent and food.

Even for citizens who do qualify for the stimulus money, which would amount to $1,200 for individual taxpayers, in much of California where the price of housing is exorbitantly high “that’s not enough to even cover half of a month’s rent,” Gaona-Macedo said.

Even though all residents of California – be they citizens or not – benefit from Newsom’s moratorium on evictions Gaona-Macedo worries that it may not go far enough.

“Although the moratorium does help people provide, like, a sigh of relief, it doesn’t answer the problem that’s going to end up causing when it’s lifted come June 1.” He cites a New York Times opinion piece when he says “maybe it’s time for us to look at bailing out renters and doing a whole nationwide moratorium on rent so people don’t have to worry about losing their housing.”

This story was originally published by Capitol Weekly.

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