California to give relief funds to undocumented immigrants

"We feel a deep sense of gratitude," California's governor said about his decision to help undocumented immigrants – 10% of the state workforce – amid the pandemic shutdowns. Opponents say there are more urgent needs for the $75 million. 

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California Gov. Gavin Newsom discusses coronavirus restrictions during a news conference at the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Rancho Cordova, California, April 14, 2020. Mr. Newsom will dedicate $75 million to help undocumented immigrants in California.

California will be the first state to give cash to immigrants living in the country illegally who are hurt by the coronavirus, offering $500 apiece to 150,000 adults who were left out of the $2.2 trillion stimulus package approved by Congress.

Many Americans began receiving $1,200 checks from the federal government this week, and others who are unemployed are getting an additional $600 a week from the government that has ordered them to stay home and disrupted what had been a roaring economy.

But people living in the country illegally are not eligible for any of that money, and advocates have been pushing for states to fill in the gap. Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would spend $75 million of taxpayer money to create a Disaster Relief Fund for immigrants living in the country illegally.

"We feel a deep sense of gratitude for people that are in fear of deportations that are still addressing essential needs of tens of millions of Californians," said Mr. Newsom, who noted 10% of the state's workforce are immigrants living in the country illegally who paid more than $2.5 billion in state and local taxes last year.

Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove said Mr. Newsom should spend the money instead on food banks, equipment for students to continue their education online, and local governments struggling with revenue losses.

"Instead of meeting these urgent needs, Governor Newsom has chosen to irresponsibly pursue a left-wing path and unilaterally secured $125 million for undocumented immigrants," said Ms. Grove, who represents Bakersfield.

California has an estimated 2.2 million immigrants living in the country illegally, the most of any state, according to the Pew Research Center. State officials won't decide who gets the money. Instead, the state will give the money to a network of regional nonprofits to find and vet potential recipients. Advocates say that's key to making the plan work because immigrants are unlikely to contact the government for fear of deportation.

"You need to use organizations that have trusted relationships with these families," said Jacqueline Martinez, CEO of the Latino Community Foundation.

A group of charities has committed to raising another $50 million for the fund from private donors, potentially offering benefits to another 100,000 people. But that money will have fewer limitations, meaning grants could be more than $500 or less, depending on the cost-of-living where a person lives.

Organizers began raising money on Friday and have raised more than $6 million so far, with contributions from the Emerson Collective, Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Endowment, the James Irvine Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and an anonymous donor.

"We want this to be as equitable as possible and benefit as many people as possible," said Daranee Petsod, president of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.

California has been the most aggressive state in the nation when it comes to giving benefits to immigrants living in the country illegally. Last year, California became the first state to give taxpayer-funded health benefits to low-income adults 25 and younger living in the country illegally. This year, Mr. Newsom had proposed expanding those benefits to seniors 65 and older.

The spending announced Wednesday means Mr. Newsom has committed to spending more than $2 billion responding to the coronavirus, an extraordinary amount in just over one month. Thursday, state lawmakers are scheduled to have their first oversight hearing of Mr. Newsom's spending.

California has more than 26,600 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 850 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Those numbers are far behind other virus hot spots in the United States like New York and New Jersey, which public health officials attribute to the state's aggressive implementation of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders.

Since mid-March, 2.7 million Californians have filed for unemployment benefits – more than all of the claims California processed in 2019 combined. The state's Employment Development Department has been overwhelmed, causing delays for many people seeking assistance.

Wednesday, Mr. Newsom announced the state's call center will expand its hours to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. More than 1,300 state employees have been reassigned to help process the claims. And Mr. Newsom said the state will begin distributing federal unemployment benefits by the end of the month to people who usually aren't eligible for them, including the gig workers and the self-employed.

At least five other states are already issuing those benefits, prompting criticism from some state lawmakers.

"The people in Sacramento are making promises, and the bureaucracies and the technology are failing the people," Republican state Assemblyman Jim Patterson said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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