Out of work for months in the spring, Mariana, who cleans houses, and her husband Gerardo, who is a door-to-door salesman, paid their landlord just $300 of their $1,200 rent for a one-bedroom apartment they crowd into with their 2-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, in National City.

Mariana was a social worker in Mexico before her family came to the U.S. If she had citizenship, that’s the kind of job she’d like to do here, or maybe she’d run a daycare or a senior home. She could work from home, she wouldn't have lost her job, and even if she had, she’d apply for unemployment — “yo hubiera podido trabajar de casa, no hubiera perdido mi trabajo, o aplicar para un desempleo,” she said. 

“Esta podría ser la diferencia,” Mariana said: That could be the difference.

Without a safety net to catch them, California’s undocumented residents have been thrust in deep poverty, facing long stretches of unemployment, new child care demands, unexpected expenses, and, often, the need to risk their health to continue putting food on the table. CalMatters agreed to use only first names because Mariana, her husband and her daughter are undocumented.

Even in a state that has tried to break economic barriers for those without legal status by granting driver’s licenses and expanding health care for children, California lawmakers struggle over how much help to provide to its most marginalized residents. In the final days of the legislative session, lawmakers approved two bills to provide modest financial assistance to undocumented Californians: one would provide immediate relief with a $600 grocery money assistance and the other would let undocumented tax-filers receive the state’s tax credit for low-income workers starting next spring. 

One bill would authorize $600 in emergency grocery money assistance. The second would give state tax credits to undocumented workers.


This patched-together safety net won’t match the depth of need facing California’s estimated 2 to 3.1 million undocumented immigrants, and the one in eight school-age children who have an undocumented parent, advocates say. But it will help.

“Ya con eso pagaríamos la deuda,” Mariana said: With that, we’d pay off our debt — the $2,000 they now owe their landlord. 

Now it’s up to Gov. Gavin Newsom to decide whether to sign them into law. Newsom has deferred on including all undocumented workers in the tax credit in the past, including in a major expansion, citing financial concerns, which conservative lawmakers echoed in hearings last week.

“We have to be real careful about how we’re spending state dollars,” said Sen. John Moorlach, a Costa Mesa Republican, who voted against the bill.

Two Waves of COVID, Financial Impacts

Most undocumented Californians work in jobs that can’t be done from home.

About one-third work in industries that COVID-19 immediately ground to a halt, such as food service, retail, child care, janitorial services, or landscaping, according to an analysis by the California Budget and Policy Center. 

In March, the restaurant workers lost their jobs, said Arcenio Lopez, executive director of the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, which works with mostly undocumented and indigenous immigrants from the south of Mexico who live in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. 

Homeowners told domestic workers and landscapers to stop coming to work, Lopez said. Many lost income for three months, while spending extra money to stock up on groceries, soap and masks.


"There’s no other way, they can’t file for unemployment."



Then, as those jobs began to reappear at the start of summer, a second wave hit the farmworkers. COVID-19 cases soared. Many lost weeks of work because they fell ill, were ordered to quarantine at home, or were laid off when a farm had to shut down. Often, they weren’t paid the legally required 10 days of sick leave, Lopez said. Those who had fallen ill sometimes struggled to find new jobs.

Lopez’ organization co-sponsored the 805 UndocuFund, which has raised almost $5 million in donations to support 7,000 undocumented families in the region. But the lack of a safety net has caused many to return to work even when it was unsafe, said Lopez: “There’s no other way, they can’t file for unemployment.”

Ironically, that inequality has kept some sectors of California’s economy humming. 

“That’s certainly how agriculture, meat packing and garment (industries) have been able to keep moving,” said Manuel Pastor, a University of Southern California sociologist who directs the Equity Research Institute and advises Newsom’s recovery task force.

Persistent Unemployment

The Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, which advocated for both measures, surveyed about 38,500 undocumented residents of the area who applied for cash assistance this spring.

The results were stark: 90% needed help paying rent, and more than half needed help paying groceries. Almost all had lost jobs or wages during the pandemic and about a third said they had to stay home from work to care for children because of school closures.

Three months after the survey was conducted, executive director Angelica Salas still sees these patterns: house cleaners working a third of the hours they used to because families stopped calling, street vendors finding that people won’t buy their food or wares anymore, construction workers sent home because a colleague fell ill, and single mothers staying home to watch over their children. 

Between May and July, 27% of non-citizens — a category that includes immigrants who have green cards, work visas or are undocumented — were out of work, working less than they’d like to or had given up on finding work completely, compared to 21% of citizens, according to a Public Policy Institute of California analysis of the Census Bureau’s monthly Current Population Survey. 

Put another way, about 701,000 fewer non-citizens worked in July than in February statewide, according to an analysis of the same survey data by Edward Flores, a sociologist at UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center.

No Safety Net

Consider two single mothers, one a U.S. citizen and one undocumented, both raising two kids in California. Both worked full-time, earning $12 per hour before losing their jobs at the end of March. Caring for their children, neither has returned to work.

The undocumented mom could qualify for a $2,800 Federal Child Tax Credit, if her children are citizens. If she was lucky enough to get through jammed phone lines, she might have been one of the 150,000 undocumented immigrants who applied for and received a $500 pre-paid card from the state, through a program that Newsom created in April. 

Perhaps she applied for food stamps for just her citizen children, giving her several hundred dollars to spend on groceries a month. Or Pandemic-EBT, a one-time $365 grocery money benefit intended to support children who couldn’t get free or reduced-price meals because of school closures.



Citizenship allows a single mother of two to receive about $25,500 in assistance, compared to a few hundred dollars for an undocumented mom.

Calculations by the California Budget and Policy Center


By contrast, the mother who is a citizen would have received about $25,500 in unemployment benefits, tax refunds, the federal $600 weekly unemployment boosts and stimulus check by September, according to calculations by Alissa Anderson, a senior policy analyst for the California Budget and Policy Center, a labor-backed organization.

“The end result is that many immigrant families have far fewer resources,” Anderson said. 

Governor Could Expand Safety Net

Some immediate relief could be on the way. In a bipartisan vote running up against an August deadline, lawmakers passed a bill that would create a disaster food assistance program to be distributed immediately, up to two times.

Much like CalFresh, recipients would get a $600 prepaid card that can only be used to purchase groceries. But unlike CalFresh, undocumented people could sign up. If Newsom signs the bill into law, it’s up to him or the Legislature to decide how much money to set aside for this, which will determine how many people can benefit, on a first-come, first-serve basis.


The disaster food assistance program would provide $600 in grocery money regardless of legal status. Still, lawmakers have not identified the funding.


Another budget bill would bolster the safety net in the long term, a long-fought victory for immigrant advocates and lawmakers of the Latino Legislative Caucus.

It would allow all undocumented workers who file taxes to get the state Earned Income Tax Credit, which can add up to thousands of dollars. Previously, only households in which every breadwinner had a Social Security number could claim the refund. A June budget deal extended the credit to undocumented workers who file taxes only if they had children under the age of 6. 

Immigrant advocates argue that including undocumented immigrants who file taxes is only fair since they pay into state coffers and do work deemed essential.

“There’s this belief that…‘Why do we have to support these people?’” said Lopez of the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project. “But these people are supporting us.”

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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