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