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See all Sonoma Gives stories here

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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“The vineyards won’t get replanted until spring, after the ground thaws and they can put new plants in,” said Christy Lubin, director of the Graton Day Labor Center, which provides access to training, education, health care and legal resources for Sonoma County’s immigrant workforce. That means the grapes won’t be ready to pick for three years.

“Plus, there will be more competition for the jobs that do exist,” she said.

In addition to being displaced by the fires, farmworkers already faced a range of challenges. They experience higher rates of occupational injuries and a higher prevalence of chronic disease than other workers. A farmworker health survey found that a lack affordable housing options also has a negative impact on their health.

In addition to the lack of financial and social safety-net services that always complicate the lives of the undocumented, fears about immigration agents visiting evacuation shelters and shelter workers who insisted on seeing IDs for admittance left many struggling to recover.

Like Vivienda and thousands of others in Santa Rosa, Mara Ventura, lead organizer at North Bay Jobs with Justice, was forced to evacuate her home early Monday morning as the fires began. After dropping bags at a friend’s house, she headed straight to the nearest shelter to offer assistance.

Right away, she noticed that Latino families weren’t getting the same attention as other fire victims, possibly because volunteers didn’t speak Spanish. Lubin echoed Ventura’s observations at other shelters.

What’s more, a few Latino families, particularly those who are undocumented, had gone to nearby beaches to camp. The evacuees to the chilly coast needed camping gear — sleeping bags, lanterns and tents. Everyone needed food. And since most had run out of their houses with nothing but their pajamas on their backs, they needed money.

Lubin and Ventura quickly deployed Spanish-speaking volunteers to shelters, and the Day Labor Center became a hub to receive donations — from cash to food to sleeping bags and blankets. During that first chaotic week, Lubin handed out money for cell phone bills, gas and other essentials, but soon she and Ventura discussed the need for a fund that would help undocumented immigrants get back on their feet over the longer term.

On Wednesday, as the fires still raged in Sonoma and Napa counties, they met with leaders from the North Bay Organizing Project, another grassroots community coalition that works with the immigrant community. Less than 72 hours after the fires ignited, the coalition had launched UndocuFund.

“Christy’s leadership, her history, and her work in this community allowed for all of the most important people to be at the table right away,” Ventura said. “And we never would have been able to launch the fund within 48 hours if it weren’t for GCIR and Exchange Bank,” which expedited the process and made it possible for UndocuFund recipients to cash their checks without extra fees or government-issued identification by using a thumbprint and phone number.

Within a week, they also had set up an advisory committee.

“We wanted all of the decisions around applications, eligibility, how we would grant, and how much, to be decided by leaders in the undocumented community,” Ventura said.

Added Davin Cardenas of North Bay Organizing Project, “We hope that UndocuFund can provide a basic safety net. But, overall, we hope that we can rebuild Sonoma County as a place where undocumented people and working-class people can thrive and raise healthy families. This is our opportunity to be courageous in the reconstruction of the county.”

Cardenas points out that a truly equitable recovery would require that city and county officials and those involved in the reconstruction address the existing affordable housing crisis. With a 1 percent vacancy rate before losing housing stock to the fires, some families in the working- and middle-class Coffey Park neighborhood were living two and three to a house to make ends meet.

“Unless we start thinking about affordable housing, and other protections in the rebuilding of our neighborhoods,” he said, “we run a great risk of Sonoma County becoming a completely white playground for the rich, and losing our working-class population altogether, especially our undocumented population.”

On Nov. 2, Omar Medina, the newly hired UndocuFund project coordinator, presented the first official relief check to a Santa Rosa family of six that lost everything. The vineyard where the sole wage earner worked was also destroyed in the fires. This rush emergency case provided the family, which includes three young children and a newborn, with a deposit for a low-income apartment.

It had already been a busy week. Intakes happened at the Day Labor Center and other places that serve immigrants, the first attracting 115 families who applied for assistance.

“It could be financial. It could be connecting folks with resources they might not have tapped into,” said Medina.

In addition to providing fire relief, UndocuFund began to coordinate existing support systems for Sonoma County’s vulnerable undocumented. For example, UndocuFund has partnered with Operation Access, a grant-based organization that provides surgeries and specialty medical care for undocumented community members.

“So people aren’t choosing between food and surgeries and paying their rent,” said Venture. “We want to make sure we are pulling resources together as a hub for people to actually get long-term support.”

Four months after the fire, Agustin Vivienda continues to search for permanent housing for his family, including a daughter in her first year at Sonoma Sate University. In late December, he qualified for emergency funding through UndocuFund, which helped purchase the tools needed to get back to work full time.

Financial support from the North Bay Fire Relief Fund and Living Roots Church helped pay rent over the holidays. His undocumented status didn’t impact the application processes. Still, Vivienda said, getting back to normal has been harder than he anticipated. In particular, finding affordable housing for his family of five.

“It’s nice to see the community coming forward,” he said. “We are on the right path to recovery. Hopefully, things get better as far as the housing. We’re doing whatever we can to save some money and eventually get a place of our own. We are hanging in there.”

Without further support, people like Vivienda may have no choice but to leave the area — uprooting their families and even further slowing the recovery of industries that rely on their labor to function. And that’s where UndocuFund’s bigger ambition could play a key role in making the region’s recovery a success for everyone.

This article previously appeared in CivilEats.

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