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Newsletter: How immigrants without legal status can get help in the pandemic

Food aid
Cafeteria workers at Los Angeles’ Garfield High School prepare bags of food for distribution among area families this spring.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times Business section’s audience engagement editor, back with our weekly newsletter. There’s no question that millions of Californians are struggling to weather the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic — The Times revamped this newsletter a few months ago to address this very topic. But people who are in the U.S. illegally face particularly harsh economic realities.

They are a substantial part of the engine of the U.S. economy: An estimated 7 million of the nation’s workers lack legal status, many of them performing essential jobs.

But when it comes to aid, “unfortunately the undocumented don’t qualify for very much. The situation is very dire,” says Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights, an advocacy group that’s better known as CHIRLA.

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Some avenues of financial support do exist. I spoke with Salas and with Rigo Reyes, executive director of the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs, to learn more about the options available locally.

Reaching out for aid is not likely to make you a target of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Salas says. For the most part, she and Reyes say, ICE stays away from sensitive locations such as hospitals and food banks. In fact, Reyes says, county employees are prohibited from letting ICE access county facilities without a judicial warrant looking for someone in particular.

Information submitted to Los Angeles city and county is kept confidential, Salas says. Reyes confirmed that none of the information collected as part of the county’s programs, such as rental relief, is shared with federal enforcement authorities. If ICE tried to access this information, the local government and CHIRLA would “would fight it tooth and nail,” Salas says. The county’s Office of Immigrant Affairs is available to address concerns about receiving services.

The first step

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If you’re struggling and unsure where to begin finding help, contacting the L.A. County Office of Immigrant Affairs is a good first step, Reyes says. “If you can make only one phone call, they should call our office because we can walk them through the process, answer any questions in regard to their immigration status for any [aid] programs and make sure they get connected to the right place.” The office’s toll-free number is (800) 593-8222.

CHIRLA and other immigrant rights organizations also offer that kind of assistance. “Folks should just reach out,” Salas says. CHIRLA’s toll-free number is (888) 6-CHIRLA.

Staying housed

Since the pandemic began, local governments all over California and beyond have enacted moratoriums on evictions. L.A. County’s — which applies countywide except in cities that have their own moratoriums — lasts at least through September, and once it’s lifted, residential tenants will have 12 months to catch up on past-due rent. Because of this, renters who are in the U.S. illegally “shouldn’t be panicking that they’re going to lose their home,” Reyes says.

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If your landlord is trying to evict you and if the pandemic is the reason you can’t pay rent, contact the Los Angeles County Office of Immigrant Affairs, Reyes says: “We can make sure the landlord is not overstepping the protections the tenant has.”

You may be also eligible for rent relief through L.A. County, depending on where you live. You can apply for this aid through Aug. 31 and learn more about eligibility by visiting the Los Angeles County Development Authority’s website. “It does not affect the immigration status — the immigration status of an applicant is not an impediment,” Reyes says.

Avoiding hunger

Start by visiting the L.A. Food Bank’s pantry locator to find the pantry closest to your home, Reyes says. If you’re outside the area or otherwise struggling to find food assistance, an immigrant rights organization could help. CHIRLA has been guiding people toward places that might offer that aid, and those programs usually don’t discriminate against recipients based on immigration status, Salas says.

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If you’re older or otherwise especially vulnerable, consider applying for the Great Plates Delivered Program, Reyes suggests. Those accepted into the program receive three free meals a day from local restaurants delivered to their home.

It’s worth checking in with your city council office, Salas says, which may offer additional food assistance options.

And don’t rule out CalFresh, Salas says. “Some children who are U.S. citizens in undocumented families could qualify for food stamp programs,” she says. “Lots of parents don’t go for it because they think it will trigger public charge.”

That’s not a concern, Reyes says: “We have to remind people that services received by the kids, by eligible individuals in the household, will not be used against the immigrant later in regard to public charge.”

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Work-related help

People who are not in the U.S. legally do not qualify for unemployment benefits. But there are other ways to get some help through the Employment Development Department, Reyes says. For example, if you become sick, get injured on the job or have a family member who becomes ill and needs care, you may be able to get help through programs such as disability insurance, worker’s compensation or paid family leave. Reyes says the first step should be contacting the county’s Disaster Help Center at (833) 238-4450 to learn your options. “Don’t give up,” he says. “They’ll walk you through the process, tell you about your rights and what to do.”

If you believe you’re a victim of wage theft, contact the county for assistance at (800) 593-8222. “If they have a wage dispute, just call our department and we can walk them through the process, take the complaint if it belongs in our department, or connect them to the right place,” Reyes says.

Cash grants

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The California Immigrant Resilience Fund, organized as part of a public-private partnership with the state, helps provide cash assistance to people who are affected by the pandemic and are not legally in the U.S. If you’re interested in applying, act quickly, says Kevin Douglas, director of national programs at Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees. “We’ve been doing rolling grants to our partners as donations come in,” he says, but the program is winding down in the next month or so.

To apply for aid through CIRF’s partner organizations, visit the CIRF website’s Los Angeles County page. Keep an eye on which organizations provide links to their websites — those that don’t may already be at full capacity, Douglas says. It’s worth reaching out to the organizations with links, Douglas says, but bear in mind that “even if someone has opted to be listed, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s dollars available.”

For additional resources, here’s a list of relief funds put together by Legal Aid at Work, a nonprofit legal services organization. Hat-tip to immigration reporter Andrea Castillo for this recommendation.

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Reader question

A reader asked us: My wife has a business office and has been given a three-day quit notice by the landlord. Her business is not open and not making any money. Is it legal for the owner to threaten her in this manner?

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I spoke with Dana Pratt, deputy director of tenant protections and rent stabilization at the L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, to track down an answer.

Like many issues during the pandemic, “every individual case is a little bit different,” Pratt says. It’s not illegal for a landlord to serve a tenant with a notice. But commercial tenants have protections along with residential tenants under the L.A. County eviction moratorium if they are unable to pay their rent for coronavirus-related reasons. “Tenants should act quickly to notify their landlord of the hardship and reach out to our department if you have questions,” Pratt says.

Pratt’s guidance centers on L.A. County’s moratorium, which applies in unincorporated areas and in cities that haven’t established their own moratoriums. In other jurisdictions, details can vary.

Under the county moratorium, if a tenant is unable to pay rent, they must notify the landlord that they cannot pay because of a loss of income related to the pandemic within seven days of the rent being due. Commercial tenants that have 10 to 99 employees are obligated to provide written notice to the landlord as well as documentation of their economic hardship related to COVID-19. Residential tenants and commercial tenants with nine or fewer employees have to notify their landlords that they’re unable to pay, but it does not have to be in writing, Pratt says, but the department encourages issuing the notice in writing anyway, just to be safe.

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The county’s eviction moratorium is in place through Sept. 30, though it may be extended. It’s being reviewed on a monthly basis by the Board of Supervisors, Pratt says.

Residential tenants and commercial tenants that have nine or fewer employees will have up to 12 months to repay any past-due rent after the moratorium ends. Commercial tenants with 10 to 99 employees will have six months to repay the past-due rent in installments.

“It’s extremely important that tenants reach out for help,” Pratt says. “Our department is available to answer their questions about what their protections are under our eviction moratorium.”

The L.A. County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs has counselors available to speak with tenants and can be reached by calling (833) 223-RENT.

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Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at californiainc@latimes.com, and we may include it in a future newsletter.

One more thing

Taking out a reverse mortgage may help if the pandemic wipes out your job, writes certified financial planner Liz Weston. Are you considering this course of action? Weston recommends speaking with a HUD-approved housing counseling agency to find out whether taking out a reverse mortgage makes sense for you.


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