Pandemic Underscores the Plight of Undocumented Californians

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As the coronavirus continued to spread across California last week, Lidia Lopez of Oxnard fielded frantic questions from neighbors.

Why can’t we find basic supplies like milk and diapers in the stores? What will we do if we lose work and can’t afford to pay rent? How can we get medical care, when we have no health insurance and no primary-care doctor?

Many of Lopez’s neighbors are low-wage, undocumented workers. She had no easy answers for them.

“Sometimes you don’t know what to tell people, you don’t have an answer,” said Lopez, a health educator whose fluency in Spanish and the indigenous language Mixteco make her a trusted resource in her immigrant community. “You just listen. You wait to see what help will come.”

California is home to more than 2 million undocumented immigrants, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Many of these Californians were struggling even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, surviving on seasonal and informal work. Now, in the unprecedented economic and health emergency of COVID-19, undocumented Californians are among the most vulnerable, health workers and advocates said.

As a result of low-wages, undocumented immigrants often live in crowded housing conditions, putting them at a higher risk of contracting the virus. And, because of federal immigration policies, including the “public charge” rule that penalizes green card applicants for accessing certain public benefits, undocumented Californians are often hesitant to seek medical care or other services.

Undocumented adults don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, and only those under age 26 can sign up for health coverage, so the state’s safety net is not there to catch most of them in the event of an illness or job loss.

“We’re really concerned about what the ongoing, long-term effects of this will be,” said Louise McCarthy, president of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles.

‘Public Charge’ Fears

Lack of access to health care is one major challenge facing those who lack legal residency. That could discourage immigrants from seeking COVID-19 testing and treatment, advocates said.

Almost half of undocumented immigrants and a quarter of legal immigrants in the United States don’t have health insurance, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Children and young people up to age 25 in California can qualify for Medi-Cal regardless of immigration status. But undocumented immigrant adults—including seniors, who face high risk from the coronavirus—are excluded from the program.

Health Access California, a statewide coalition of more than 50 nonprofit providers, community centers, researchers and advocacy groups, wants the state legislature to fast-track a proposal supported by the governor to expand Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented seniors. However, because the legislative session is currently suspended until April 13, it’s unclear how quickly such a change could move forward.

Some immigrants who had health coverage have recently dropped it, over fears of the “public charge” rule, which took effect Feb. 24. That fear is difficult to counter, even in the midst of a public health pandemic, experts said.

In reality, the “public charge” rule applies to very few immigrants and is more of a scare tactic than an actual threat, said Sarah Dar, director of health and public benefits policy at the California Immigrant Policy Center. Yet advocates are finding it difficult to reassure people that it’s OK to see a doctor and enroll in health programs, she said.

“People are afraid to use services, even if they don’t count whatsoever toward the (‘public charge’) test,” she said.

A March 18 bill approved by Congress makes COVID-19 testing free to everyone, including those who are uninsured. The bill does not address the cost of treatment. Additionally, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services last week published a statement on its website saying COVID-19 testing and treatment won’t be subject to the “public charge” rule.

However, “getting the message out to communities is a different thing,” Dar said.  

Reviving an UndocuFund

For many immigrants, the loss of work feels like a bigger and more immediate threat than the coronavirus. Like other American workers, many are already facing layoffs and reduced hours as the state shuts down all but the most essential services and businesses. Because food production is essential, many farmworkers, who are largely immigrants, continue to have jobs.

Lucas Zucker is communications director for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, an advocacy group that works closely with immigrants in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. He said he’s concerned that job losses in these communities could exacerbate homelessness as more workers and families find themselves unable to pay rent.

Even though Gov. Gavin Newsom has issued an executive order allowing local governments to halt evictions, and California utilities have suspended shutoffs, Zucker worries this only provides a temporary Band-Aid that won’t make up for the loss of income.

“If they can’t make bills in April, their eviction or power shutoff might be delayed,” he said. “But if they don’t have any way to get back that income, it’s just really only going to delay the situation.”

Some immigrant advocacy groups are calling on the state to extend unemployment insurance and the earned income tax credit to undocumented workers to cushion the economic blow from job losses. Zucker said undocumented workers pay taxes that support unemployment claims, so they should be allowed to draw from the system as well.

“Those holes in our safety net endanger the health of our economy and the health of our community,” he said. “It doesn’t help us to leave people out, especially at a time like this.”

In Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, advocates are looking to revive a fund called the 805UndocuFund, which was established to help undocumented families during wildfires that swept through the region in recent years. However, Genevieve Flores-Haro, associate director of the Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project that works with the fund, said she’s concerned there won’t be enough money to meet the widespread need for economic support.

“We need to have a policy response,” she said.

In the meantime, Lopez is trying to help her neighbors as best she can. She’s been scouting out stores for diapers, helped a pregnant woman without a car get milk, and is directing people with medical needs to county clinics and hospitals.

She tells people to stay calm, and to take care of themselves and their children. But she can’t help fearing what could happen if the crisis stretches on.

“I’m worried for my community,” she said.

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