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Left Out 

Undocumented residents face the same COVID-19 stresses as everyone else, just without the federal aid

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It began with Johana Perez's husband. He came home on a Friday night in June with a fever and not feeling well but they thought it was just a cold. Then it hit her two kids, their great-grandmother and finally Perez, who has asthma.

The novel coronavirus had entered their home and taken over.

"It never crossed my mind that he had the virus," Perez says. "I thought it was just the regular cold or something."

Instead, it was just the beginning of a long and bumpy road ahead of the family. Perez was hospitalized. The virus, which attacks the lungs made it hard for her to breathe and doctors ultimately decided to put her on a ventilator for life support.

"It was scary," she says, "but I felt that I needed to be strong for my kids. The doctors told me all of the risks of being induced into a coma and said I was going to be asleep until the next week, but I was only on it for a day and I still felt everything that was happening even when I was asleep."

Perez, who is a stay-at-home mom, has lived in Humboldt County for four years. After she was hospitalized and her husband was out of work for weeks as the virus worked its way through the household, they weren't able to make ends meet and were nearing the end of their savings. Their 4-month-old child didn't have diapers or formula, they were running out of food and they didn't have anyone to go grocery shopping for them.

In some ways, Perez's story is typical. Many others in Humboldt County have faced the stress of financial losses due to health officers' stay-at-home orders that shuttered businesses and saw many employees laid off or furloughed. And COVID-19 had infected 586 county residents by the time the Journal went to press with this story. But many of them have had help in ways Perez did not.

When Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act,(CARES Act), a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill to help those who were financially struggling via direct $1,200 payments to all American adults and dramatic boosts to unemployment benefits, it did not include undocumented residents. And because Perez is part of a "mixed-status" family, they couldn't apply for the state or federal benefits.

That has been the reality for undocumented residents — an estimated 1,800 of them, according to a study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy — in Humboldt County, many of whom have been unable to apply for state and federal benefits despite paying an estimated $2 million annually in state and local taxes, according to the study.

Octavio Acosta, who works with Humboldt County's Centro del Pueblo, says leaving undocumented people out of the CARES Act feels like an injustice.

"The whole community of citizens are getting the emergency relief stipend from the government, the $1,200 and the high unemployment benefits, but we're all still going through the pandemic." Acosta says. "The economy shutdown for everyone in the community — documented and undocumented — yet the undocumented community didn't get any aid or help and it reminded us that our community is considered third-class citizens. But the reality is that we're all being affected."

Brenda Perez, who works at Centro del Pueblo, a nonprofit advocacy group for the local undocumented community, says leaving out immigrants who are still required to pay taxes from the CARES Act just added to inequalities that existed before the pandemic.

"People pay taxes — they might not have the entire immigration status, but they are still requested to pay taxes," Brenda Perez says. "We are still doing the hard work but are receiving zero. Nothing. Nada. So we are left alone in the sense that we feel we're the least protected. This inequality is growing during the pandemic. So, I feel the support from the federal government (shows) a general frame of what we live through everyday, where we pay taxes but are left out."

According to New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization that focuses on immigration policies, undocumented immigrants paid $31.9 billion in federal and state taxes nationwide in 2018.

With undocumented residents left out of federal aid, California provided a one-time, state-funded disaster relief assistance to those who were ineligible for other forms of assistance because of their immigration status. The Department of Social Services selected 12 immigrant-serving nonprofit organizations to distribute the relief funding in their regions, with qualifying undocumented adults slated to received $500 in direct assistance (in the form of a debit card), with a maximum of $1,000 in assistance per household. The program, however, had some complications.

California Human Development, a nonprofit organization, had been selected to distribute 10,000 disaster relief funding debit cards across 24 Northern California counties, including Humboldt County, but became overwhelmed by demand.

According to Kai Harris, the nonprofit's director of programs, the center had 50 employees operating the phone lines to take calls. But for Humboldt County, that wasn't enough, as Acosta, Perez and Karen Villa, another Centro del Pueblo activist, said they knew Humboldt County immigrants and undocumented residents were having trouble getting through.

Some said the situation added a layer of injustice and stress for undocumented households, which were given the glimmer of aid only to find it nearly impossible to access.

"It seemed cruel," Acosta says, "to offer the only relief for immigrants and undocumented people and to have them wait so long to try to ask for assistance."

Villa says there were many people who would call CHD the minute the phone lines opened at 7 a.m. only to wait for almost an entire day to reach an employee and apply for the benefits. Many were simply never able to apply, she says, leaving them with few options.

Of the 10,000 debit cards allocated to CHD, only 179 were awarded to people in Humboldt County.

And for some undocumented residents, asking for benefits and assistance is simply too intimidating, as many assistance programs require some form of identification and proof of reduced hours or a notice of unemployment, which can be difficult to obtain, especially for people working under the table. Villa says some undocumented residents also fear that if they give some type of identification when applying for benefits they might be outed as undocumented and deported.

Villa says undocumented residents are generally resourceful and hard-working, so the lack of access to relief funding has pushed them to fill essential worker positions, leading to higher rates of exposure to COVID-19.

"We're being pushed into essential worker jobs," she says, pointing to the fact that Latinx people are contracting the virus at disproportionate rates both locally and nationwide. "We're being pushed into these jobs that other people aren't willing to take because they don't want to be exposed and so we're then being exposed and suffering the consequences, which is catching COVID."

Harris says that California's relief funding was a step in the right direction but wasn't enough.

"It was designed to reach at most 10 percent of the undocumented population, so we need to do more to support these communities," he says.

Back in July, Paso a Paso Coordinator Caterina Kein told the Journal the best way for people to help local undocumented residents is to donate money to food pantries and local organizations dedicated specifically to helping that population, like Centro del Pueblo and True North Organizing Network.

For Johana Perez's grandmother, Dora Portillo, she knew exactly where to turn when Perez's entire household fell ill and found its savings depleted and its cupboards bare. She called True North and asked for help, knowing the nonprofit has come through for the family repeatedly.

Two years ago, Johana Perez's aunt Claudia Portillo was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and True North organized support for her and raised bond funds to get her released ("Taken Away," July 26, 2018). Then, in October of 2019, the nonprofit organized a fundraiser to help Dora Portillo apply for citizenship ("Pupusas for Portillo," Nov. 7, 2019).

This time, the nonprofit quickly helped Johana Perez get food, diapers and necessities as her family isolated and recovered. Now, True North is looking for the broader community's help in an effort to help more local families like hers. The nonprofit is holding a fundraiser with the hopes of becoming a local source of cash assistance to mixed-status families who have lost jobs or income due to COVID-19 and can't apply for other forms of aid. (Read more about the effort at www.gogetfunding.com/community-covid-19-relief-fund/.)

For her part, Johana Perez says she appreciates the help True North provided her family at an incredibly stressful time.

"It was a big relief," she says. "There have been various times where we were in need and they were always there to help."

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About The Author

Iridian Casarez

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Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the North Coast Journal.

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