As California gives immigrants access to more public programs, its poverty rate declines, some say. But budget and recession worries slow that progress.
This story was updated to reflect an amendment of a health care coverage bill.
Driving a tractor for his job in the Oxnard lettuce fields doesn’t make Arturo Villanueva rich, but it’s usually been enough to make rent and support his family.
Farm labor is the only thing the 37-year-old father of five says he knows how to do well. When months of rain flooded the fields and made most of his usual work in February and March impossible, he struggled to earn enough to cover rent and allow his family “to live well.”
His family cut back on the amount and type of food they purchased. They rarely left the house, to save money on gas. They tried to buy only what they absolutely needed.
Months later, Villanueva still isn’t working his usual hours because rainy weather delayed planting some crops by at least two months. California set aside $95 million in state funds to help people like him who lost work or experienced hardships due to storms and floods, but Villanueva told CalMatters in June he didn’t know how to access it.
“So many of us who work in the fields are undocumented,” he said in Spanish. “We who are the most affected receive the least. I would like there to be support for the undocumented workers — and not just those working in the fields.”
Villanueva can’t receive unemployment insurance because he’s undocumented — one of about 2.3 million Californians whose immigration status bars them from receiving a variety of social safety net benefits.
His predicament illustrates the gaps that remain in California’s safety net for undocumented immigrants despite a two-decade-long expansion of social and health services.
In a major reversal since the 1990s, California has opened up government programs to undocumented residents more than any other state — issuing driver’s licenses, college scholarships, low-income tax credits, direct cash aid during the pandemic and now Medi-Cal health coverage. In 2025 California will be the first state to issue food stamps to undocumented immigrants, allowing those 55 and older to qualify.
But budget realities are putting the brakes on other expansions that advocates want like a $330 million proposal to offer unemployment benefits to undocumented workers.
Lucas Zucker, co-executive director of the Central Coast nonprofit CAUSE, which advocates for working class and immigrant workers, said it can be a difficult hurdle to extend benefits because some Americans view immigrants primarily as a source of labor.
“Providing someone a social safety net when they’re not able to work is almost counterintuitive to this racist and kind of exploitative way that we’ve been viewing immigrants in this country,” Zucker said.
California has worked around limits in federal law that bar many immigrants – those with and without legal status – from social programs. That has meant building its own, state-funded programs during years of flush budget surpluses.
But this year, lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom had to plug a $31.5 billion deficit.
Newsom has backed several program expansions including public health coverage for immigrants, which will total $2.6 billion annually. But he has said he wants to avoid cutting services in deficit years, so he won’t commit to further expanding programs unless the state has funds to sustain them long-term.
The proposal for an unemployment program for workers like Villanueva failed to gain funding in the state budget for the second year in a row. A bill to create the program at a cost of $330 million a year – not counting implementation costs – has passed the Senate and awaits a hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Newsom vetoed a similar measure last year.
“The Governor will weigh the merits of any bill that eventually reaches his desk,” Daniel Lopez, a spokesperson for Newsom, said in an email. “The state will continue to be a leader and uphold the dignity and respect of everyone who calls California home.”
Critics argue further expanding services to undocumented immigrants is financially unsustainable for the state.
Assemblymember Bill Essayli, a Riverside Republican, opposes the unemployment proposal, saying the state should instead spend its funds paying off the existing unemployment system’s $20 billion loan from the federal government, to avoid raising payroll taxes on businesses.
“We have to prioritize,” he said. “If you really care about getting people out of poverty, you’d help ease the burden on businesses so they can hire people and pay them living wages.”
Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story
State Assembly, District 63 (Riverside)
State Assembly, District 63 (Riverside)
Time in office
Attorney / Business Owner
Asm. Bill Essayli has taken at least $53,900 from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 11% of his total campaign contributions.
Still, to advocates, some proposals are popular enough with the Democratic supermajority to seem inevitable. Nourish California, a food policy advocacy group, is pushing the state to open its food stamps program to all low-income undocumented immigrants, regardless of age, said Betzabel Estudillo, director of engagement at Nourish California.
“The Legislature has been very supportive and so has the governor,” she said. “The question is about when.”
California’s 1.1 million undocumented workers make up 6% of its labor force, according to UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center.
In 2019, undocumented immigrants paid an estimated $3.7 billion in state and local taxes, according to USC’s California Immigrant Data Portal.
And, like the rest of the population, immigrant workers are aging, so they’ll increasingly need retirement support and health care.
In a report this year UC Merced estimated 165,000 of California’s undocumented workers were older than 55 in 2019, the highest “since Mexican mass migration began in the 1970s.” Undocumented immigrants also make up the largest share of Californians without health insurance.
Leisy Abrego, chair of Chicana/o Studies at UCLA, said California has shown it can do more to help immigrants in the absence of federal immigration policy reform.
“There’s an economic need for immigrant labor, and California, they realize that that need is being met,” Abrego said. “And advocates are wanting to treat those people meeting those needs as human beings who also need health care, who also need educational opportunities.”
California’s road to inclusion
Before she qualified for full Medi-Cal coverage in 2022, Oliva Huerta had learned to live with little or sporadic medical care for a host of illnesses, including anxiety and pain linked to diabetes, high blood pressure and a cancer battle in the 1990s. Medi-Cal was paying for emergency care only.
At 61, she’s unable to do much besides care for her four grandkids while their parents work in Los Angeles.
But when staff at Maternal and Child Health Access, a health nonprofit in Los Angeles, helped Huerta switch her emergency coverage to full coverage, she noticed an immediate difference.
She was able to select a primary care doctor at the clinic where she usually went for specialist care. She could see a doctor for non-emergency care much quicker. Recently she scheduled a mammogram and consulted with a urologist in a virtual appointment.
“It can be hard for undocumented people,” Huerta said in Spanish. “I imagine a lot of other people are benefitting like we are.”
Medi-Cal began covering undocumented children in 2018 and adults up to age 26 in 2020. Last May, older undocumented immigrants like Huerta became eligible. She is one of nearly 350,000 who have signed up for full, state-funded coverage.
Next January coverage will open to low-income immigrants of all ages; an estimated 700,000 will be eligible. The full-fledged expansion will cost $2.6 billion a year.
It marks a significant turnaround from the policy debates of 1994, when California voters passed a measure barring immigrants without legal status from public services such as non-emergency health care, elementary and secondary schools and public colleges.
The measure drew mass protests, but passed with 59% of the vote. A federal judge ultimately blocked it from taking effect on constitutional grounds. But activists saw xenophobic sentiments that galvanized them to rally around immigrants’ rights. Abrego said many Latino advocates and politicians today remain fueled by opposition to the policies of the 1990s.
In 2001, California became one of the first states to make undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges, if they’d graduated from high school in-state. Ten years later, it allowed that undocumented students to get state financial aid.
In 2013, California allowed undocumented residents to get driver’s licenses. More than 1 million have received them since 2015.
In 2020, the state allowed undocumented tax filers to receive the state’s earned income tax credit, returning thousands of dollars to low-income families each year. That year Californians claimed $120 million more in the tax credits than the year before, according to the Franchise Tax Board.
Policymakers continue to make new proposals for immigrants living without legal status.
A bill introduced this year would give undocumented residents access to the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants, a state-funded benefit created for elderly and disabled residents who don’t qualify for Social Security because federal law bars most noncitizens.
Another bill aims to let undocumented residents who earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal to get subsidized health insurance in the Covered California marketplace. The bill initially called for California to seek federal approval; lawmakers have since amended it to direct state officials to “develop options” for undocumented immigrants to get affordable coverage.
Poverty plunged in California from 16.4% in 2019 to nearly 12% in 2021, thanks to such pandemic aid programs as expanded child tax credits and food and cash assistance, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
But undocumented immigrants were much harder hit. While 16% of immigrant Californians lived in poverty in 2021, 25% of undocumented immigrants did.
The disparities extend to immigrants’ children — many of whom are U.S.-born. Thirteen percent of children in immigrant families live in poverty in California, which is double the rate for children of parents who are U.S. citizens, according to Patricia Malagon, a Public Policy Institute researcher.
A March analysis by the Public Policy Institute predicts that fully expanding Medi-Cal next year could lower poverty among non-citizen Californians by up to 3%.
The programs that reduce poverty the most are tax credits and CalFresh — the state’s food stamps program, said Paulette Cha, a Public Policy Institute researcher.
California already uses its own funds to pay for food assistance for about 35,000 legally present immigrants — primarily recent green card holders — who are barred from the traditional food stamps program by federal law.
Undocumented immigrants who are 55 and older will qualify in October 2025; administration officials said they need time to make computer system upgrades before enrolling new recipients. At its peak the state estimates 75,000 older immigrants will get food assistance at a cost of $113 million annually.
Unemployment benefits battle
Advocates want California officials to commit to food stamps for undocumented immigrants of all ages. And they’re disappointed at the lack of action on unemployment benefits. Colorado and New York have started programs to pay jobless benefits to undocumented workers.
California lawmakers passed a bill last year to start a pilot program that would pay unemployment benefits to workers who are ineligible because of immigration status, but Newsom vetoed it, citing costs amid signs of a deficit. This spring hundreds of activists and workers marched on the Capitol to demand the benefits, pointing to those who lost work in both the pandemic and this year’s floods.
A bill this year would give undocumented workers who lose work $300 in weekly benefits for up to 20 weeks, the maximum time allowed in the traditional unemployment program. Aside from the cost of benefits the Economic Development Department estimates it would need at least $271 million to implement the program.
In May, after Newsom presented a bigger deficit than previously predicted, advocates pared down their proposal to instead seek a working group to study the issue. Still, that failed to make it into the budget.
Advocates with the Safety Net For All Coalition said they hoped lawmakers could still reach a deal to fund the working group during this legislative session.
That leaves relief still unavailable for California farmworkers — over half of whom are undocumented — still recovering from the winter floods, and the pandemic before them.
Jorge Ruiz, a Santa Maria area farmworker, is one of them. Usually he works year-round, rotating between labor-intensive crops like lettuce, broccoli, grapes and other vegetables. Beginning in December, months of heavy rain cost him $3,000 to $4,000 in lost wages, he said. Plus his family is still recovering from the pandemic.
“Simply put, the government has tossed us aside,” Ruiz said in Spanish. “Even though we use all of our strength to get those products to the store, the government leaves us behind and doesn’t help us. So we are left without money.”
more on immigrants
Seven years after the Safe and Responsible Drivers Act gave undocumented residents a license to drive, the state is ready to expand its impact, but the law still has detractors.
California’s undocumented immigrants risked themselves working during pandemic. Lawmakers want to pay them unemployment benefits.