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California Provides Coronavirus Relief Cash For Undocumented Residents


To another story now. California has partnered with charities for a first-of-its-kind effort to help undocumented workers who've been economically harmed by the pandemic. The limited relief fund is for those in the country without authorization who have been left out of federal and most state relief. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the effort has gotten off to a rocky start.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Because of virus-related health concerns, as well as deportation fears, there are no in-person or online applications for this aid money. It's all processed through phone lines, and they've been overloaded. Jaime, an immigrant from El Salvador, didn't want his full name used, due to his undocumented status. He works in Southern California installing heating and air conditioning units. He says he's tried unsuccessfully all day, all week to get through.

JAIME: (Through interpreter) I feel like the opportunity goes away every day. The funds are running lower every day, and no one picks up my call. I wonder what I'm doing wrong. How can I get them to answer my call?

WESTERVELT: Across the state, the reports are similar. Phone lines are dropping. Anxiety is rising. The money - $500 per adult and a thousand max per family - is being doled out on a first-come, first-served basis until the taxpayer-funded 75 million for this program runs out. Jaime and his wife and two children, 8 and 5 years old, are scared. Since March, he's only had sporadic work. Then work stopped completely more than two weeks ago. He hasn't had income all month. His children are U.S. citizens, so they would qualify for food stamps and some other aid. But Jaime says he's never tried to tap government assistance until now.

JAIME: (Through interpreter) If this situation keeps going much longer for who knows how much longer, I don't know what I'll do. But I know it will get much harder for me.

WESTERVELT: Applicants have to show they're not eligible for federal pandemic relief or unemployment and that they've been economically harmed by the shutdown. California partnered with a dozen immigrant rights and nonprofit groups to distribute the money. They're having to wear multiple hats - IT troubleshooter, counselor and adviser. And it's been challenging.

LUZ GALLEGOS: There's an overwhelming need. So as expected, there is very, very high levels of calls that are coming in, and our technology is trying to keep up.

WESTERVELT: Luz Gallegos is with TODEC Legal Center, one of the nonprofits processing applications. The scramble, the desperate calls are part of a basic math problem. There are some 2 million undocumented immigrants in California but only enough aid money for the first 250,000 after a group of foundations and private donors pledged additional money. That still leaves some 1.75 million people in need. Gallegos says while 500 bucks a person is no cure-all, for the lucky few, it is helping ease virus-induced hardship sharpened by fear of deportation and uncertainty.

GALLEGOS: It's very emotional just to hear folks that have gone through the process and just be so thankful.

CHRISTOPHER MARTINEZ: They were day care providers, house cleaners, people that are providing painting or general contract work.

WESTERVELT: That's Christopher Martinez with Catholic Charities of the East Bay. He says they've gotten more than 200,000 calls every day. He says despite overwhelmed phone lines, they've gotten cash cards into the hands of thousands of immigrants in the region so far.

MARTINEZ: They were providing, you know, valuable services to our community. And because of the pandemic, essentially, they're at zero income right now.

WESTERVELT: Meantime, the overwhelming demand has prompted some charities to call for a second round of state funding, and it's accelerated efforts by many nonprofits to boost their own fundraising for immigrants in need.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.