While the North Bay’s largest and best-known relief funds were raising millions of dollars in the aftermath of the October wildfires, immigrant rights advocates worried that undocumented immigrants essential to Sonoma County’s economy would be left out.
Some fire victims weren’t applying for help out of fear that information provided on Federal Emergency Management Agency applications could be shared with immigration agents. Others didn’t have the required identification to cash relief checks at the bank.
In response, a few short days after the fires began, a coalition of concerned organizations launched UndocuFund, a relief effort specifically for undocumented residents who were living an already-precarious existence and now faced even less certainty.
They hoped the collaborative effort would help those people stay afloat during the long, difficult recovery period ahead.
By mid-January, the fund had received $3.9 million from individual donors and matching grants and had dispersed nearly $2.4 million. With more than 300 families on a waiting list to be screened for needs and qualifications, public clinics were held to complete those screenings, with plans to disperse the rest of the money by the end of January.
“We’re still working to serve victims who have not yet received aid,” said Michael Kavate of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, the fund’s fiscal agent. The overarching goal remains the same –– to build greater equity for Sonoma County’s undocumented community and to support the recovery of every local and undocumented fire victim who needs it.
Like many who awoke to the smell of smoke in the early hours of Oct. 9, Agustin Vivienda and his family raced out of their home and tumbled into the family car. As flames streamed into their neighbor’s backyard, Vivienda’s wife had just enough time to toss the children’s U.S. birth certificates and other important documents into a bag; Agustin grabbed the family’s two Chihuahuas.
While the family fled to the nearby town of Windsor, the rental they had just moved into — at $1,850 per month, a bargain in pricey Sonoma County — burned to the ground. Their home was one of more than 4,600 structures destroyed by the Tubbs fire, the most devastating wildfire in California history.
Along with an estimated 38,500 undocumented residents who have made homes in Sonoma County, Vivienda found himself back at square one: In addition to his home and belongings, the 45-year-old construction worker also lost his tools and his work truck in the fire.
“It takes tools to make money to support my family and it takes money to buy my tools,” said Vivienda. “Even though I would like my own place to live, this is my main priority so I can go back to work full time.”
Sonoma County’s economy is built on industries that depend on immigrant labor. In addition to construction, Sonoma is famous for its wine, food, and hospitality. North Bay Jobs with Justice estimates that half of the area’s largest food processors rely on the 80 percent local and immigrant workforce.
Some of the most vulnerable are the farmworkers who worked in vineyards and make up the backbone of the $600 million wine industry. According to the Sonoma County Farmworker Health Survey, the county’s agricultural sector employs between 4,000 and 6,000 permanent farmworkers each year—the majority of whom are Latino and undocumented.
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