LOS ANGELES — Israeli-born “Emma” was at work in mid-March when her employer announced that the Santa Clara-based restaurant would stop in-person service for an indefinite period due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Now, after more than two months of the virus’s impact on the food-service industry, she has been laid off. What makes her story even more complicated is that Emma is an undocumented immigrant.
The 29-year-old native Tel Avivian initially migrated to San Francisco a year ago after ending an abusive relationship and being financially strained. At first, she lived with her childhood friend.
After locating well-paying jobs at a restaurant and as a nanny, Emma decided to move to Santa Clara. Like other undocumented immigrants interviewed for this article, she requested that her last name be withheld out of concerns for privacy.
Emma characterizes most of her time in America as “safe.” “I never need to worry about my ex, and I feel economically stable,” she told The Times of Israel. “Never would I have imagined finding such a safe place.”
That rosy depiction of her experience started to change once the novel coronavirus began its rapid spread in the United States. Like millions of Americans, Emma has been laid off because of the health crisis, but unlike most residents, she has been unable to obtain assistance to date.
The federal coronavirus rescue package passed in late March does not include undocumented migrants. On April 15, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced $125 million in disaster relief assistance for undocumented residents, but the combination of an overwhelmed system and fear of repercussions on the part of the migrants has made it challenging for them to collect the funds.
In an unprecedented move, California allocated $75 million to aid undocumented migrants, while philanthropic partners committed to raising an additional $50 million. The funds are dispersed through a community-based model of regional nonprofits with expertise in serving unregistered people.
Undocumented Californians have been able to apply for a one-time cash benefit of $500 per adult with a cap of $1,000 per household since May 18. Applications are considered on a first-come, first-served basis.
The government-provided $75 million will be distributed to approved applicants until the funding is spent or until June 30. Roughly 150,000 individuals will receive this cash benefit. But California has more than 2 million undocumented immigrants.
“At a minimum, an eligible individual must be an undocumented adult; not eligible for federal COVID-19 related assistance, including CARES Act tax stimulus payments or pandemic unemployment benefits; and has experienced a hardship as a result of COVID-19,” said Scott Murray, California Department of Social Services (CDSS) deputy director of public affairs and outreach programs.
“Immigrant families in California are experiencing some of the same financial challenges as everyone else, if not more, while also being excluded from some of the benefits that other Californians are able to access right now,” said Till von Wachter, professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Watcher noted that many of these undocumented families actually contribute to the financing of unemployment benefits and disaster relief through their taxes, “but are unable to access them in times of crisis,” he said. “Assisting them is not only the right thing to do from a humanitarian point of view, and fair from a taxpayer point of view, but also ultimately helps the economy since this money will most likely be spent rapidly.”
Emma expressed mixed feelings when discussing the one-off cash benefit program.
“I was so relieved when I first heard about it,” she said. “I’ve really been hit financially because of the situation. I’ve even had to cut back a bit on grocery shopping. I’ve had to rely more and more on support from the family that I nanny because I’ve lost my restaurant job. I’ve thought about returning to Israel. But [my ex] is still there, so I’m scared to do so. I really am.”
Emma claimed that she tried take advantage of California’s program. “But I’ve called and called and called, and I’ve not been able to speak to anyone yet. It’s scary because the $500 can truly help me, and the longer I’m unable to speak to someone, the likelier it’ll be that the money runs out. But I will continue calling.”
The organization that is assigned to Emma’s location is the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB). In addition to Santa Cruz, CAB is also responsible for Monterey, San Benito, and San Luis Obispo counties. CAB received enough funding to support 4,500 applicants, but there are approximately 19,000 undocumented people in Santa Cruz alone, according to Paulina Moreno, the organization’s project director who is overseeing the disaster relief assistance.
CAB’s systems have been overwhelmed by demand.
“The very first day, we received 30,000 calls in the first hour,” said Moreno. The intense demand caused their systems to crash. “We took in a couple of calls on Monday, and then we were down, and then we were back up on Wednesday,” Moreno added.
CAB does not have a voice mail system in place, said Moreno. “If you call the hotline and all of the operators are busy… [you’ll] need to call again… If [you] do not get in, then [you] just need to continue trying.”
To mitigate the impact of their systems crashing, CAB operated on Sunday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend.
“We had a rough start on [the first day], but I think we’ve been able to stabilize the technology piece and we’ve been able to take in calls without too many glitches,” Moreno added.
Some undocumented individuals fear to tap into these relief checks because of the “public charge” rule, which hinges eligibility for documented immigrant status on an applicant’s ability to support themselves without requiring public assistance.
Guy, 35, is an undocumented Angeleno who has been economically hit because of the new virus. Originally from Tel Aviv, Guy migrated with his wife and child to the US after experiencing economic challenges.
“My [coronavirus experience] is worse than those with [immigration] papers,” Guy said. “Nobody helps you. I’m scared… I was terrified after the company I work for announced it would close indefinitely [because of COVID-19]. I was scared concerning my finances and health, especially finances.” Guy has returned to work, but after going without a paycheck for around two months, his financial situation has deteriorated greatly.
Despite feeling economically insecure, Guy said he would not tap into the government-provided cash because he fears being labeled a public charge. Seeking the funds would “not be good for me in the future,” he said. “It’ll make it more challenging to get a Green Card.”
When asked whether relief check recipients will be affected by the “public charge” rule, CDS’s Murray said that “the information provided to the nonprofit organizations… will only be used to confirm eligibility. The organizations will not provide any personal information to any government agency as part of this project.”
But whether the nonprofit organizations share individuals’ information with government agencies may not be significant.
“A person applying for permanent residence has to disclose under penalty of perjury if they have ever received ‘any federal, state, local, or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance,’” said Jean Reisz, co-director of the University of Southern California (USC) Law School’s Immigration Clinic.
Statutorily, people can be classified as a public charge if they receive 12-months’ worth of public benefits within 36 months, said Yanira Lemus, director of community legal services at Loyola Law School’s Immigrant Justice Clinic.
Although the relief check is a single benefit, an individual could still be deemed a public charge for receiving it. “Our immigration system is inherently discretionary,” said Kathleen Kim, who teaches immigration law at Loyola Law School.
“That means final adjudication, whether it comes from an immigration officer… or an immigration judge, can weigh all of these factors, including something like accepting assistance,” Kim added. “USCIS frequently, much more than in previous administrations, will contest the application.”
It is unclear how many undocumented Israelis are experiencing circumstances similar to those of Emma and Guy. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) told The Times of Israel that it does not have data on undocumented individuals, and the Israeli consulates in Los Angeles and San Francisco provided similar responses. The US Census Bureau, however, estimates that more than 11,700 Israelis in California are not citizens.
Meanwhile, the demand for this relief program indicates the strong financial need among undocumented communities. However, with limited resources, only some 7 percent of California’s undocumented population will be able to receive support.