In summary

Many immigrants in California were excluded from the first federal relief package; this time it should address the health and nutritional needs of all Californians.

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By Betzabel Estudillo and

Betzabel Estudillo is a senior advocate with California Food Policy Advocates,

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and Gabrielle Tilley, Special to CalMatters

Gabby Tilley is a policy advocate with California Food Policy Advocates,

It is abundantly clear that immigrant Californians – our friends, families and neighbors – are among those hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They face higher risk of COVID-19 infection and death because they work on the frontlines in agriculture, grocery stores, restaurants and other industries that help us all get the food we need. Yet, many immigrants are excluded from federal relief, including efforts aimed at preventing hunger and helping families meet basic needs.    

Families with mixed immigration statuses were unjustly excluded from stimulus payments provided through the CARES Act, passed in March. To qualify for the payment, all household members were required to have a Social Security number.  An estimated 5 million children, who would otherwise qualify for the payments, were shut out because at least one of their parents did not have a Social Security number. Eighty-five percent of these children left behind are U.S. citizens. 

We can and should do better. Exclusion from aid harms immigrant families, which in turn harms us all, as we depend on each other to weather this pandemic. As Congress will soon decide the next relief package, we urge them to be bold and inclusive. 

Californians need a package that provides financial relief to all immigrants and fights hunger by strengthening the reach and impact of important anti-hunger programs. 

One of these programs is Pandemic EBT, which provides up to $365 in food benefits for each child who would normally receive free or reduced-price meals at school, if not for the COVID-related closures. Pandemic EBT is available to children regardless of immigration status, but it closed its application process on July 15. This is critical for California where nearly half of all children are children of immigrants

Federal leaders must act now to expand and extend Pandemic EBT through the summer and over the course of this crisis. If not, Pandemic EBT will be a one-time benefit that fails to address the children’s ongoing needs during this pandemic. 

Leaders should also increase SNAP benefits, known as CalFresh in California, by 15%. This benefit boost would go directly to households struggling to afford enough food for their families. Many immigrant households can participate in SNAP, but only family members who meet the immigration requirement are eligible. If federal leaders are unwilling to end the discriminatory policy of deciding which immigrants are “deserving” of basic food resources, then we need our state leaders to step up and fill in the gaps by providing a state alternative to CalFresh for excluded immigrants. 

A 15% boost to SNAP would bring an additional $467 million in federally funded food assistance to California. These additional SNAP dollars would help individual households meet their basic needs and strengthen our economy. Every SNAP dollar spent generates an estimated $1.54 in economic activity. 

COVID-related school and child care closures are adding hardship to low-income families with young children. The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program has been a lifeline for many immigrant families during this pandemic, as WIC is available to all eligible pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under age 5, regardless of immigration status. WIC serves nearly 1 million Californians, a number that continues to grow alongside rates of food insecurity as the pandemic stretches on. 

The federal government has extended waivers that make WIC more accessible during this time, such as allowing agencies to offer remote services and enroll families by phone. However, these flexibilities are set to expire at the end of September. We need Congress to grant USDA authority to extend all WIC waivers beyond September through the COVID-19 crisis. 

Without these critical changes to nutrition programs, the COVID-driven hunger crisis will continue to grow in immigrant and non-immigrant communities alike. 

Immigrants keep our economy going through this global pandemic, often at great risk to themselves and their families. We must ensure the upcoming COVID-19 relief package addresses the economic, health and nutritional needs of all Californians, regardless of where they were born. 

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