In early April, lawmakers in New York passed sweeping legislation to offer one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented immigrants who lost work during the pandemic — leaving advocates and activists in California scratching their heads as to why the Golden State can’t do the same.
“We’re talking about families that are tens of thousands of dollars in rent debt, families who have burned the entirety of their savings,” said Davida Escobedo, a campaign coordinator for Jobs with Justice. “We need something that can help these folks in the long term.”
One in 10 workers in California — about 1.75 million people – are estimated to be undocumented, but they are ineligible for unemployment assistance, forcing some to make the tough choice between persisting through unsafe working conditions, or losing their job with no safety net. In New York, one in 20 workers are undocumented, and about 725,000 undocumented immigrants live in the state.
The aid offered by the $2.1 billion New York program leaves Californian relief programs in the dust. Here, a fraction of the state’s undocumented immigrants were eligible for, at most, $1,700 between two separate relief programs, one of which was limited in scope and the other which required an identification number that many undocumented immigrants do not have.
“Throughout last year’s session, we tried to get something bigger, but the pushback was that ‘We don’t have enough money,’ which to us says, ‘We’re not willing to make this a priority,’” said Kim Ouillette, an attorney with Legal Aid at Work, a member of the coalition fighting for immigrant rights.
“New York shows that California can do so much more,” she added. “A lot of it comes down to leadership from the executive and buy-in from the legislature, and we just don’t have that yet.”
And, despite estimates from the summer that nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants in California lost their jobs during the pandemic — numbers that have likely increased since then — there are no legislative proposals to overhaul the state’s funding and offer sums of money comparable to what New York’s undocumented population is getting.
At the start of the pandemic, California set up a $75 million cash assistance program offering undocumented immigrants $500 on a first-come, first-served basis. The funds covered only 250,000 of the state’s more than 2 million undocumented immigrants. The program was quickly criticized for being too small and coming with heavy delays.
In February, lawmakers approved the Golden State Stimulus which, among other provisions, provides one-time $600 or $1,200 payments to those with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) number, the equivalent of a social security number for the undocumented.
But the program also has been criticized for being too small and excluding undocumented workers without an ITIN. The maximum payment is equal to a loss of about two-and-a-half weeks of full-time, minimum-wage pay.
There are advocates in the state pushing for legislation that would rival New York’s: The Safety Net for All coalition. It includes over 120 community organizations across California that have been petitioning since last spring for state legislators to provide the equivalent of unemployment benefits for undocumented workers. They have also advocated offering the earned income tax credit program to undocumented Californians.
But their next legislative target is the more modest AB 1515, which would expand the Golden State Stimulus and other relief programs to undocumented Californians who don’t have an ITIN. The New York program does not require an ITIN to receive aid and is projected to benefit about half the state’s population of undocumented workers, according to a study by a New York think thank.
An estimated 1.3 million undocumented Californians lack ITINs and continue to be excluded from relief, according to the text of the bill, authored by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-53).
Still, “it’s not enough,” said Ouillette from Legal Aid at Work. “There’s people that have not had a job in more than a year; a one-time payment is just simply not enough to live in the Bay Area. It’s ridiculous.”
Ouillette said the most common argument the coalition runs up against with lawmakers is that such a program would be too expensive. But she cited California’s $15 billion one-time budget surplus and the contributions of undocumented workers to the state’s economy as evidence that the state has the funds.
Democrats have supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature, but not all Democrat lawmakers agree on how much undocumented immigrants should be prioritized. The Golden State Stimulus, for instance, forced negotiations between Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators over whether and how much undocumented immigrants should be included in the plan, ultimately adding another $1.4 billion to Newsom’s original $2.4 billion proposal.
Stephanie Medina, a worker’s rights attorney with Centro Legal, said that unlike New York, California’s advocates for undocumented workers are more spread out, which could hamper their ability to organize. Centro Legal is a member of the California coalition.
“The centralized location and power of New York City really could make their voices unified and push legislators forward,” she said. “California is just massive.”
Victor Narro, project director for the University of California, Los Angeles’ Downtown Labor Center and labor studies professor, said some lawmakers are also trying to help undocumented immigrants in other ways, such as by expanding Medi-Cal to all income-eligible residents.
“The government should be able to provide for those that really contribute in many ways,” he said. “Low-wage work for consumers in the economy should have access to good wages, good affordable housing — they shouldn’t have to struggle.”