In summary

As Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic leaders finalize California’s new budget, advocates hope for expanded health care, food and financial aid to undocumented immigrants who are excluded from federal safety net programs.

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With just a few days before California’s June 15 budget deadline,  advocates for immigrant families are hoping Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers can reach agreement to expand health care, food and financial aid to undocumented immigrants who are excluded from federal safety net programs.

Last month, Newsom proposed a $267.8 billion spending plan that called for increased funding to fight homelessness, expand preschool and mail more Golden State Stimulus checks to middle-class households. While Democratic lawmakers embraced many of his proposals, they want to go further in targeting aid for immigrants, specifically expanding health insurance to undocumented immigrants age 50 and older, and granting food assistance regardless of immigration status.

There’s an estimate of more than two million undocumented people in California, many who worked as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been on the front lines while lacking health insurance or sufficient income to support their families, activists say.

California Budget

Advocating for health coverage

In California, people without legal status are prohibited from medical assistance at the federal level. However, states can spend their own money to expand comprehensive medical services to people in this group.

California currently offers health insurance, through Medi-Cal, for undocumented low-income individuals as old as 25.

Newsom’s proposed budget would expand comprehensive health care to undocumented Californians 60 and older.  However, the Legislature’s plan calls for expanding coverage to those age 50 or older.

Aureo Mesquita, a political analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center, said passing Medi-Cal for residents 50 and up is not about charity.

“This is about us recognizing the humanity in each person, and understanding that health care is crucial to our lives,” Mesquita said. “And it’s crucial to help them at this moment.”

Food on the table

The federal government’s food stamp program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is known as CalFresh in California. It’s available to citizens, green card and some visa holders. But that leaves out a number of people with different immigration statuses, particularly those without documentation, said Sarah Dar, director of policy, health and public benefits at the California Immigrant Policy Center. 

The Legislature’s plan would use $550 million to offer food assistance to all Californians regardless of their immigration status. If approved, it would still take around two years to get such a state benefit up and running.

“It would start with just allocating money in the next two years for getting sort of the eligibility systems ready and some of the technology that the Department of Social Services would have to change, so that their systems would be ready to expand the eligibility and then implementing the program,” said Dar.

“I think the pandemic really just made it a lot more clear why that’s needed and why it makes no sense to exclude people from a safety net and basic supports to get through a pandemic or even in regular circumstances,” Dar added. 

Golden State Stimulus

Lack of federal support

Advocates say it’s up to the state to do more especially as the pandemic has worsened income inequality in California. Studies have shown immigrant workers were more likely to be laid off during the pandemic and more at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus.

Corporations reaped profits and the rich grew richer during the pandemic, while those who are the most marginalized, especially low-income undocumented workers, have been left behind, said Dar.

Undocumented households were all but left out of federal relief efforts

Mesquita estimated that a mixed-status family in which parents are undocumented and their children are citizens lost between $8,600 and $11,400 from the three rounds of federal stimulus checks. 

Dar added that undocumented immigrants also missed out on expanded unemployment benefits that would have replaced wages and helped keep food on the table.

Newsom did propose sending $600 tax rebates to California households who earn as much as $75,000 a year. An additional $500 will go to families with dependents, as well as undocumented families. The Legislature’s proposal largely embraces the extra boost, which comes on top of $1,200 California sent out in the first round of the Golden State Stimulus. Republican lawmakers have criticized the checks as “recall rebates” given that the governor is facing an all-but-certain recall election.

“We believe it is critical that the governor and Legislature use the funds that California has right now to really target and support those who have been excluded,” Mesquita said.

This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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Jacqueline Garcia

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...