No Relief Here Payout to undocumented workers doesn’t address ongoing problem

A group of farmworkers make a stop for groceries at Foods Co on East Alisal Street on their way home. | Photo by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

By Marielle Argueza

In a typical month, East Salinas resident Valentina Romero spends 50 percent of her paycheck on rent, 20 percent on food and the rest on bills and “other little things.”

Money for Romero, and many of her neighbors, is tight and there are very little savings at the end of the month in her household. Financial instability was only exacerbated during the economic response caused by COVID-19.

But unlike many low- to mid- income residents, Romero was left out of the financial relief programs that came from the federal or state government, like unemployment benefits or the $2 trillion stimulus that came from the CARES Act.

That’s because like a number of residents of East Salinas — around 18 to 25 percent according to some estimates — she is undocumented. She agreed to be interviewed under the condition that her name and other identifying factors would be obscured.

California is coming to the rescue of the undocumented workforce. On April 15, Governor Gavin Newsom announced $125 million in financial aid for undocumented residents with a one-time $500 payment per adult, with a maximum of $1,000 per household.

The aid would come from two sources: $75 million from the state’s publicly funded Disaster Relief Assistance, and the other $50 million from philanthropic efforts. The funds are already being  distributed by local nonprofits as some form of direct aid, be it cash, gift cards or rental assistance.

Romero, who balances being a community organizer with other odd jobs, notes that her particular neighborhood is made up of laborers: “people who work in the fields, or agriculture, restaurants, or other people’s houses,” she said. Many are still working as essential workers, she said. The relief would be welcome as all those sectors were hit hard in Monterey County.  “It would be a great benefit,” she said, but adds that accepting government assistance — either from the federal or state level isn’t as benign as it seems.

She points out there may be an initial hesitance among undocumented individuals because of two factors: divisive national rhetoric surrounding immigration policy and the difficulty involved in people navigating these kinds of systems. “There’s a lot of fear in these communities sometimes, they don’t want to be identified. Even if it’s one person in the household, they fear for their families.”

But receiving aid may not be as complicated or as scary as Romero thinks. Santa Cruz Community Ventures executive director Maria T. Cadenas is overseeing UndocuFund Monterey Bay, a project helping to distribute emergency cash relief to Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties.

In its 25 years serving the tri-county region, SCCV has helped low-income workers, especially in rural and agricultural areas, build financial stability and sustainable local economies. When the jobs were lost and hours were cut in already low-wage positions due to COVID-19, SCCV collaborated with partner organizations to create UndocuFund Monterey Bay and raised $25,000 in cash aid for the undocumented community.

“We raised money from individuals and our partners like Bay Federal Credit Union and the Community Foundation,”  (for Monterey County) — but when we began, we didn’t even know about Newsom’s $75 million base funds and $50 million raised through philanthropy,” said Cadenas. SCCV’s response was immediate and organizations began distributing funds late March and early April. Money from Newsom’s executive order finally came in on May 18, when community organizations were allowed to start taking applications

UndocuFund is required to use a specific distribution model for state funds. Whatever money it is awarded will be distributed to partner organizations. UndocuFund will then provide the aid in cash, rent assistance or a gift card between $100 and $500, depending on the organization. The thinking behind this model is two-fold, explained Cadenas. Many of these organizations already have established relationships with the community, cutting out unnecessary bureaucracy. Decentralizing the efforts also allows the money to go further.

“We have to realize undocumented people are not hiding in caves,” Cadenas said. “They’re in the field working, in our neighborhoods with their families, catering out of their kitchens. It’s not a hidden population in this sense. If they qualify, the leaders of these organizations will know because they’ve built that trust. They’re not starting from zero.”

Catholic Charities is an example. With more than 30 years of providing rental assistance and immigration services on the Monterey Peninsula, the organization was primed to provide emergency relief. Staff and volunteers began fielding calls from concerned workers and families right after shelter-in-place orders. Using a $10,000 grant they began giving aid to people they’ve confirmed to be jobless, do not qualify for any other government aid, could become or are already homeless and are located in rural and unincorporated areas of Monterey County, according to the organization’s executive director, Ana Ventura Phares.

“We already knew people were in dire need from all the phone calls,” said Phares. “One man was living out of his van with three children — it’s those situations we’re trying to prevent or help.”

Some organizations that were awarded money seem like unlikely candidates to distribute aid, but were chosen because of their deep-rooted relationships with their undocumented community, such as Palenke Arts in Seaside.

“It’s weird, right? Like what’s an arts nonprofit doing providing aid to families?” said Palenke Arts executive director Juan Sánchez. But like Phares, Sánchez found there was also a need in his community for some sort of relief. Sánchez surveyed parents who had children participating in his arts programs, and they found a substantial amount of concern over necessities, like clean clothes for growing kids or food because the food bank ran out.

“I made a concerted effort because how are we going to provide arts classes right now when people are worried about food and shelter?” said Sánchez. “Our mission is to educate, inspire and transform community through art. Right now, it’s a little less art and it’s inspiration and transforming time.” Palenke Arts is currently helping out 65 families, providing Target gift cards with money received from the Community Foundation for Monterey County.

The money is there, and the systems that may seem daunting to navigate are operated by people whom the undocumented community know and can access. While Romero knows that this relief is needed, there is still an ugly, complicated world of long-term relief that needs to be addressed, in her eyes.

According to a 2017 analysis done by the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, Monterey County’s estimated 60,000-plus workers paid more than $33.2 million in state and local taxes. Despite this, Romero said she, like other undocumented people, haven’t seen these taxes give her a solid footing when it comes to housing, food or economic security before or during the pandemic.

“The problem is that we don’t see our taxes necessarily reflected in giving us financial stability before,” she said. “Five hundred dollars is good, but I can’t pay rent with $500.”

The Community Action Board, the organization designated by the California Department of Social Services to distribute the Disaster Relief for Immigrants in Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and San Luis Obispo counties, was scheduled to begin accepting calls on May 18 to receive applications. The phone line did not work until Wednesday, May 20. Phone calls and emails sent to the organization seeking comment were not returned by publication deadline.

There is some hope for a long-term solution, however. In early April dozens of organizations across California closely tied with undocumented communities wrote letters to Gov. Newsom asking to extend taxpayer-funded benefits like unemployment insurance, Medi-Cal and Earned Income Tax Credit to undocumented residents. On May 5, more than 1,200 people, representing churches and local organizations such as Salinas-based Communities Organized for Relational Power In Action, gathered on Facebook Live and Zoom to again demand these benefits be extended to the undocumented community.

Like before the pandemic, Romero says it’s an ongoing fight. “People are recognizing farmworkers and (undocumented immigrants) are essential now. They see that during the virus,” she said. “But we’ve been paying into these systems. We’d like to see the benefits.”

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Marielle Argueza

About Marielle Argueza

Marielle Argueza is a reporter based on the Central Coast. She covers education, immigration and culture.