Students protested at a 2014 UC Berkeley rally on behalf of undocumented immigrants. Photo by Mission Local.

Seventeen years ago, Jorge Arciga brought his family to the U.S. from Mexico in search of a better life: better health, a better job, a better house. But the pandemic has put all that at risk.

Arciga lost his restaurant job in March, 2020, and, as an undocumented immigrant, he has been ineligible for the state’s safety net protections that may have kept him from free-falling into debt. He now owes thousands to his brother and his landlord in the Excelsior. 

He wants to pay it off, but it won’t be easy.

“I’m going to have three, four jobs to be able to pay off this debt, bit by bit, because I’m not getting help from anyone else,” he said in Spanish. He hopes he can do it in two years.

Arciga’s situation is not unique among the two million undocumented immigrants in California. Ineligible for most forms of state and federal welfare, and disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, undocumented immigrants who lost work are facing down thousands of dollars in debt and no clear path to paying it off. 

Though lawmakers are proposing legislation and aid to address the problems undocumented communities are facing, it is unlikely to be enough.

“We’re talking about workers who have been left without any kind of salary, any kind of economic relief,” said Iris Barrera Hurtado, an organizer with Workers United who works with undocumented immigrants in San Francisco. “Their debt just continues to grow. This is unsustainable.”

Researchers are still working to quantify the impact of the pandemic, but early study results illuminate the disparities in stark terms: One study from University of California, Merced estimated that nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants in the state had lost their jobs during the pandemic as of last summer. And, already, Latinx immigrants had borne the brunt of the health crisis, with a study from the University of Southern California finding that Latinx immigrants between 20 and 54 years old are over 11 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than non-Latinx, US-born residents. 

“We either die of hunger, or we die of the virus,” said Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, quoting a study by the UC Merced Labor Center. He represents a county where about of its residents are 60,000 undocumented immigrants.

Without action, the rest of the state will soon start to feel the negative ramifications, lawmakers and advocates added.

“Well, if you think the homelessness problem is bad now, if we don’t support the undocumented, it could get even worse,” warned Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles. Los Angeles is home to more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants.

But there are some promising signs that aid could be on the way. 

Thanks to a $38 billion budget surplus, Governor Gavin Newsom is unveiling plans for a second round of Golden State Stimulus checks, cash payments of $600 to middle-income families that did not receive money in the first round of direct payments, with an additional $500 made available to undocumented families. He’s also proposed expanding Medi-Cal coverage to undocumented seniors, a change that would extend coverage to 89,000 California residents and cost about $1 billion per year.

Still, the direct payments would fail to meet what some advocates have aimed for, and the amount of debt that undocumented, unemployed immigrants face. The Safety Net for All coalition, in particular, comprised of more than 120 community organizations across the state, has been pushing state legislators to provide the equivalent of unemployment benefits for undocumented workers.

The proposed payments also fall short of the aid lawmakers in New York passed in early April, offering one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented immigrants who lost work during the pandemic — sums that could put a big dent in immigrants’ debt.

Allan Colbern, an expert on undocumented immigration and an assistant professor at Arizona State University, explained that in California, the focus of the immigrant rights movement is split between different initiatives, ranging from universal healthcare to sanctuary cities, reducing the leverage the movement has compared to states like New York, where the movement was more united behind direct relief.

This approach is reflected in the legislation current lawmakers are working on: For example, Jones-Sawyer is crafting legislation to help street vendors, many of whom are undocumented, and also has an eye on providing internet and expanding healthcare and education to immigrant communities. Arambula is also working on a litany of reforms, including expanding access to food aid and MediCal for undocumented immigrants.

Hurtado, the advocate, remains hopeful but noted that the assembly tends to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to undocumented communities. This means, Hurtado said, that the state will have to wait until the situation becomes more dire before it can expect lawmakers to step in.

“The state could have figured out a program for our communities that have been excluded from aid, and unfortunately, it’s had to get really bad first for our workers who are very much in debt to see these programs coming into place,” they said.

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Kate Selig

Kate Selig is an intern at Mission Local.

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