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California's coronavirus relief program for unemployed undocumented workers gets off to a rocky start

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Locked out of state unemployment benefits, hundreds of thousands of out-of-work immigrants are facing additional hurdles to tap into a new California program offering a $500 one-time payment during the COVID-19 pandemic to those without legal status.

Struggling to pay living expenses, immigrant workers are finding jammed phone lines and overwhelmed staff at the nonprofits tasked with distributing the funds as they compete for a dwindling pot of money that state officials acknowledge isn't enough to help all who need it.

Efforts to rally private contributions to supplement the $75 million in taxpayer money set aside for the program by Gov. Gavin Newsom have so far fallen short of meeting a $50-million goal.

Now, amid the problems, a group of legislators including state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) have called for an expansion of the program to better address the needs of underemployed and unemployed immigrants, proposing an additional $400 per week for eight weeks.

"Phone lines and websites across the state crashed due to the volume of calls and inquiries," Durazo said Tuesday, the second day of the program. "These undocumented residents, who comprise as much as 10% of the state workforce, are hurting for any type of assistance, being that they do not qualify for state unemployment or federal stimulus money."

A dozen California nonprofits, including the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights and Central American Resource Center, were selected by state officials in the last month to administer the program. With many immigrants concerned about their personal information ending up with federal immigration authorities, the state is sending the money through nonprofits to keep the identities of recipients confidential — not even sharing them with the state.

The state website that provides information on the program, including the names of nonprofits accepting applications, crashed and was unavailable for two and a half hours Monday morning, said Scott Murray, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services.

He noted that "despite the initial technical challenges ... over 6,500 applications have been opened statewide."

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights received more than 1 million phone calls, forcing it to add a second line, according to executive director Angelica Salas.

On the first day of the program, Salas' nonprofit and two others serving Los Angeles and Orange counties processed applications from 1,644 immigrant families and workers who are eligible to receive as much as $822,500 in one-time grants.

Those who applied the first day include a couple in which the husband is a permanent resident and the wife is undocumented, Salas said. They work as street vendors selling corn on the cob but have been unable to work in three months, she added.

"We know that, with at least 2.4 million undocumented Californians, response to the … program has been unprecedented," Salas said.

In a Facebook post urging patience with the process, The Central American Resource Center said it received more than 50,000 phone calls Monday "that completely saturated our lines," and noted that staff members understand the community's frustration and "are doing the best we can."

Similar problems exist elsewhere in the state, said Carole Vigne, senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work, a nonprofit helping immigrants and others with employment issues.

Word about the program has gotten out to immigrants in California without legal status "but the demand is too great, and the organizations cannot handle the volume," Vigne said.

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"I have heard from several clients that they were not able to reach the local organization here in the Bay Area."

A recent study by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center estimates that some 289,000 immigrants without legal status have lost their employment in California.

Newsom announced a month ago that emergency assistance for 150,000 immigrants would come from $75 million in taxpayer funds. He said that amount would be supplemented by $50 million from private sources — including nonprofits founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan Zuckerberg.

A month later, the private effort by the nonprofit Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees has still not found all of the promised private money. The effort has raised just $38 million of the $50 million initially announced by the governor, according to state officials.

To be eligible for a $500 payment, individuals must provide information that shows they are an adult immigrant without legal status, not eligible for federal COVID-19-related assistance and have experienced hardship as a result of the pandemic. Families can receive up to $1,000.

Once approved, an individual can expect to receive the one-time assistance within approximately five business days, depending on the mode of delivery, Murray said.

But some Democratic lawmakers say the initial allocation of money, while welcome, is not sufficient to meet the needs of immigrant families who have lost income because of the stay-at-home order. As a result, 14 state legislators have written Newsom a letter asking him to provide an additional $400 per week for eight weeks to immigrant workers in the country illegally, noting that while the initial grants made California the first state in the nation to provide financial support for immigrant workers affected by the pandemic, additional steps should be taken.

"We need to, and we must do more," the lawmakers said. "We need to continue to work together to address the void created by the lack of action by the federal administration that has left our undocumented worker population in the cold; without any semblance of support or gratitude for the work they do on a daily basis."

The letter was signed by Democratic lawmakers including state Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino) and Durazo, who noted that undocumented workers play a large role in the food-service and hospitality industries, key parts of the state economy.

The lawmakers estimate the proposed program would help about 216,499 people.

"California needs to stand up and help our most vulnerable members of society, many of which are essential workers and are most at risk of contracting COVID-19," Durazo said. "A $500 state contribution will maybe provide food on the table for a few weeks. What we need is stability in the absence of traditional work pay."

The governor's office, which has begun private negotiations with lawmakers over next year's budget, declined to comment on the legislators' proposal.

Conservative activists, including San Francisco attorney Harmeet Dhillon, a state representative on the Republican National Committee, have voiced their opposition to the program.

Dhillon represented Republican clients who suedNewsom to challenge the current Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants program, but the state Supreme Court denied the petition to block the program.

She said the proposed expansion is also objectionable.

"The reality is we are going to be at over 20% unemployment in California and the government's first duty is to its citizens and its legal residents," Dhillon said. "By subsidizing these types of benefits to people who are here illegally and now competing for the same jobs that American citizens and legal residents will be competing for in California, I think this is immoral."

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