In summary

Given overwhelming demand for pandemic relief, undocumented Californians hope the governor will authorize a second round of emergency grocery money. But it’s still not clear yet where funding will come from.

The line began forming at midnight, hours before the food bank would open at daybreak to distribute groceries to immigrants in Assemblyman Miguel Santiago’s Los Angeles district.  

“Every now and then you’re going to see a mother with two kids wrapped up on the floor waiting,” said the Democratic lawmaker, recounting what inspired him to push for a new round of emergency food assistance for low-income Californians, regardless of immigration status.

“The pandemic doesn’t check if you have papers or not.”

elsy perez, los angeles resident

Help could be on the way for those who were ordered to stay home or lost their job due to the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this week, the Legislature approved Santiago’s bill, AB 826, which allows nonprofits, such as food banks, to distribute $600 prepaid grocery cards to each qualified adult. 

If Gov. Gavin Newson signs the bill authorizing Emergency Food Assistance for All, it would mark the second round of emergency aid to immigrants since the pandemic hit earlier this year. In April, California authorized a disaster relief program in the form of $500 one-time assistance to 155,000 undocumented adults. That only helped about 7% of California’s 2 million undocumented residents. 

Santiago, whose district encompases of some of L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods including Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Pico-Union and Huntington Park, concedes funding hasn’t been identified but said immigrants have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus recession. Even though many are essential workers, they often have the greatest food insecurity and don’t qualify for economic help, such as unemployment benefits.

Immigrants hopeful for help

Elsy Perez said it’s only fair for undocumented residents to be included in the emergency food assistance program because just as any other worker, they pay taxes but rarely get aid in return.

“The pandemic doesn’t check if you have papers or not, and those of us who don’t have a Social Security Number were not able to get the stimulus check,” said the 37-year-old Angeleno. “For now we are so glad that food banks provide help. It is very good, but it’s not enough.”

Perez lost her job as a caregiver when the pandemic hit this spring. She said due to safety reasons for the elderly and for herself, she hasn’t been able to go back to work.

Perez worked seven days a week in two jobs to save money. Little did she know that most of her money would be used for rent, food and other bills while she was out of work.

Seniors like Juana Martinez are also very hopeful Newsom will sign the bill. The 60-year-old has been living in a low-income housing project Estrada Courts, in Boyle Heights, for the past 11 years.

She shares the apartment with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren ages 1 and 2 because they haven’t found an affordable place on their own. Her daughter and son-in-law are not working and they are barely getting by on unemployment benefits, ranging about $300. Martinez herself receives $220 from government help per month and $100 for food stamps, which she stretches the whole month. 

To make ends meet, Martinez volunteers to bag groceries at a food distribution center and, in exchange, her family gets to take one bag home.

Elsy Perez, right, volunteering to provide food to people in need. Photo courtesy of Elsy Perez
Elsy Perez, right, volunteering to provide food to people in need. Photo courtesy of Elsy Perez

Disaster relief proved high need

Joseph Villela, legislator director with the immigrant rights group, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA, said their surveys found immigrant women have been hardest-hit by the pandemic.

The organization also found people who received the previous $500 in disaster relief used that money on housing and food. Advocates took note and began pushing for a new round of assistance.

“This is a great victory. One because it essentially recognizes the humanity of immigrants that have been affected by COVID-19 and two, it actually recognizes their contribution,” said Villela. “We’ve been asking the state Legislature to really take bold action.”

The emergency food assistance program is backed by CHIRLA, the California Association of Food Banks and the Western Center on Law & Poverty. It would work similarly to CalFresh, California’s food stamp program, and be supervised by the state Department of Social Services.

“This is a great victory, because it essentially recognizes the humanity of immigrants that have been affected by COVID-19, and it actually recognizes their contribution.”

joseph vilela, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights

The money needs to be found

Santiago acknowledges his bill would only authorize the program; it doesn’t include funding. 

“It’s not unusual that you do bills like this because when we did the free community college bill, we put the policy piece in place but it gave us the ability to fight tooth and nail to get the money funded,” he said.

The assemblyman said the Legislature would still have to authorize funding. Still, he remains optimistic because the Newsom administration allocated $75 million for the disaster relief program as part of the state’s multi-billion dollar pandemic response.

Although he couldn’t specify an exact number of people that could benefit from this bill, Santiago said he assumes it will be for everybody who is 80% of area poverty lines. In fact, the bill authorizes a second round of the $600 cards if enough funding is made available. 

“Remember these are unprecedented times,” Santiago said. “Under normal circumstances I will tell you this isn’t going to work, but in the COVID times we’ve been able to move budgets.”

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...