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California Uncovered

Governor Newsom Gives Half a Loaf to Feed Undocumented Families

While state coffers overflow, some California families must make hard choices about how they survive.




Photo: d3sign.

The state budget signed by Gov. Newsom on June 30 sets aside $35.2 million for some undocumented adults to enroll in the state’s food assistance program. Only those needy adults older than 55 qualify, however, which means that abuelita will be eating regular meals while her grandkids might be going to bed hungry.

More likely, abuelita will stretch her food supplies, perhaps making a big pot of rice and beans, so that the entire family can eat. Everybody in the home eats, but it may not be the most nutritionally balanced meal. Poverty forces hard decisions, and these choices will be faced by undocumented immigrants at a time when they’re the ones most likely still to be facing the economic fallout from the pandemic without any safety net.

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“This is not just a food insufficiency issue,” says Benyamin Chao, health and public benefits policy analyst at the California Immigrant Policy Center. “It’s a poverty issue.”

Indeed, undocumented immigrants are at or near the bottom of the economic ladder, primarily because their legal status limits the jobs they can obtain. Already in a precarious position before the pandemic, these immigrants faced further hardship when they lost their jobs and didn’t qualify for unemployment insurance though they generate an estimated $3.7 billion in California state and local tax revenues annually. Many have yet to bounce back. They are among those suffering food insecurity.

The California Immigrant Policy Center is among a group of immigrant advocates pressing for an expansion of California Food Assistance Program benefits to undocumented immigrants of all ages. They consider it a victory that California will be the first in the nation to offer food assistance benefits to any undocumented immigrants under the new $308 billion state budget, but they note that the funding excludes the bulk of immigrants who need the assistance.

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Marcelina Dominguez first went to the food bank near her home in Downey for provisions to feed her family after she was laid off from her $14-an-hour job cleaning offices at the beginning of the pandemic. She figured it was a temporary aid after her husband also lost his restaurant job washing dishes. Weeks, then months, passed without a job, and the bills piled up.

“I came to this country to work to feed my kids but I haven’t been able to find a regular job. Some weeks I help a friend clean houses,” says Dominguez, who came to California from El Salvador. “My husband eventually found a job building houses, but I’m still looking. And, I’m embarrassed to say, still going for free food. Sometimes, it’s not the best, but at least my kids are eating.”

The Dominguez family is still trying to catch up with their bills. Because they’re undocumented, neither Marcelina nor her husband qualify for unemployment insurance. As a result, the family still depends on food banks from time to time, usually around the end of the month when the rent is due.

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) is sponsoring a bill, AB 2847,  that would help undocumented immigrants like Dominguez who are excluded from state and federal unemployment benefits. The two-year Excluded Workers Pilot Program, which would be created by AB 2847, would pay eligible workers $300 for each week of unemployment for up to 20 weeks. The program, modeled after similar ones in Colorado and New York, would provide benefits to immigrants who have worked at least 93 hours or earned $1,300 in gross wages in California over a three-month period.

Without paid leave, many workers continue working even while infected with COVID, putting others at risk.

“Access to unemployment benefits can make all the difference in a family affording rent and food to feed their children,” Garcia said in May when he introduced AB2847. “Our immigrant communities are Californians who contribute millions to our unemployment program and economy and they deserve access to program benefits they have earned.”

In addition to unemployment, many vulnerable workers lack paid leave. Providing paid leave to the lowest income workers during a pandemic that’s still sickening more than 16,000 people and killing 17 people in California on average each day is simply common sense. Without paid leave, many workers continue working even while infected, putting others at risk. Workers shouldn’t be asked to choose between their health and their ability to feed their families, particularly when their labor is considered essential.

A Roosevelt Institute analysis published on June 28 found that workers in families earning less than $50,000 were 12 times more likely to miss a week of work due to COVID-19 than those in families earning at least $200,000. The study doesn’t specifically mention immigrants, but does find that low income Latinos are at highest risk for losing their jobs. In California, undocumented immigrants are predominantly low income Latinos.

The study, which reflected data gathered between August 2020 and June 2022, makes the case for prioritizing those communities at higher risk of COVID-19 exposure, infection and severe disease so that they can have a chance at a life beyond poverty. It also calls for policy makers to prioritize people in lower income counties, which tend to have elevated death rates.

“Economic hardship, food insufficiency and housing insecurity can yield lifelong ramifications for health, human capital and well-being for already marginalized communities,” the study’s authors say.

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For decades, U.S. legislators have failed to negotiate in good faith a solution to the undocumented workers in our midst. Though this population is difficult to count for obvious reasons, an estimated 1.1 million California workers are undocumented, primarily in industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and food service.

On the one hand, there is the argument that these workers are living and working in the country without legal authorization and thus should suffer any and all consequences of their situation. On the other hand, all of us willingly accept the lower prices of food and other goods produced by cheap immigrant labor. Not to mention the workers many of us hire directly, such as gardeners, nannies and house cleaners.

Soledad Flores, 39, a Riverside County nanny, says her employer sometimes gives her leftovers, which she takes home to feed her kids, ages 6 and 9.

“I would never take anything if she didn’t tell me specifically what to take. I don’t ask for anything because I would not want to lose my job over it. I just make sure to keep her refrigerator very organized so she can always see what’s in it,” Flores says.

The undocumented immigrants most likely to suffer from food insecurity are kids and adults between the ages of 27-49.

Flores is among the nearly half million undocumented adults who suffer from food insecurity, as estimated by Nourish California and the California Immigrant Policy Center. The state budget includes $35.2 million for fewer than 63,000 undocumented immigrants who are at least 55 years old. According to an analysis prepared by the two organizations as part of their Food4All campaign, however, the undocumented immigrants most likely to suffer from food insecurity are kids and adults between the ages of 27-49. These two groups include more than 430,000 residents who don’t always know what their next meal will be or where it will come from.

A report prepared by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office in February notes that the Governor’s Office targeted an older population since some younger immigrants qualify for free or reduced price school meals. However, the authors of the report also wrote that “the Legislature may wish to set its own target populations for such an expansion.” Perhaps the food assistance program will expand to other age groups in the future. Meanwhile, kids and younger adults will go hungry.

What does it say about a state whose economy is often touted as the fifth largest in the world if its neediest and most essential workers don’t have a safety net?

To be fair, the governor has expanded Medi-Cal to all undocumented immigrants; he’s not indifferent to the needs of this community. And some of these immigrants will qualify for Newsom’s so-called middle class tax refund.

“Cha-ching! You just received a deposit,” reads the triumphant announcement about the tax refund from the governor’s office last week. The missive stated that the newly signed budget will put money back in the pockets of about 23 million Californians. Payments will be made to taxpayers, including those who use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, as many undocumented immigrants do to file their taxes. However, many of these immigrants don’t have a bank account and some move often so receiving these payments may be problematic.

California is home to the largest community of undocumented immigrants in the country. Policymakers have made strides in recent years to address their needs through legislation such as the Excluded Workers Pilot Program. Yet food is the most basic human need. Ensuring that our neediest, youngest residents don’t go hungry is the humane thing to do.

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