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California program to assist immigrants affected by coronavirus continues to be plagued by delays

Gov. Gavin Newsom gestures as he speaks at a lectern
Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed in April to provide one-time checks of $500 to 150,000 immigrants who lack legal status, but so far 73,000 people have received payments.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Two months after Gov. Gavin Newsom pledged money to help as many as 150,000 immigrants without legal status who have lost work or wages during the coronavirus crisis, fewer than half that number have received the $500 payments, officials say as the program nears its original end date.

The state deadline to apply for the funds is Tuesday and only 73,000 debit cards providing the cash have been issued as of Friday. In all, about $36 million has been paid out from a total of $75 million allocated by Newsom, officials said.

State lawmakers and advocates for immigrants have also called on the state to extend the deadline to help workers who have been out of work for months.

The slow progress in handing out the money already approved has left many Californians, whose immigration status makes them ineligible for regular state unemployment benefits, without help while being out of work for months, said Kim Ouillette, an attorney for the group Legal Aid at Work, which helps immigrants.

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“It’s hard to overstate how extreme it has been,” Ouillette said. “We have heard about workers who are rationing food for themselves and their children to get by, people who have lost housing.”

Advocates for immigrants said 12 nonprofit groups tasked with processing applications and distributing millions of dollars have made herculean efforts, though they lack the bandwidth to handle such a large and complicated program.

As a result, many immigrants have been stymied by jammed phone lines when they tried to call the groups, which the state contracted to hand out debit cards. When they did get through, those seeking help were required to provide proof of their qualification for the funds to be verified by the nonprofits, which can further delay payments.

“The nonprofits have never done this before and are building their capacity to answer the phone calls and process those claims,” said state Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), who called for the state to give the organizations more time to complete the work.

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Newsom was asked this week about the mixed record of various coronavirus-related aid programs, including the one providing assistance to immigrants.

“We are doing our best under very challenging circumstances,” he told reporters during a news conference Monday.

State officials said they are confident that all $75 million will eventually be distributed.

“We expect that all applications will be submitted to nonprofits by June 30,” said Scott Murray, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, which is administering the program. “We expect some additional time beyond June 30 for nonprofits to finish processing the remaining applications and distribute the remaining prepaid cards.”

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About 140,000 applications have been submitted, of which some 90,000 have been approved, Murray said Friday. The rest have yet to be processed, and few — only five in Los Angeles and Orange counties — have been rejected, according to representatives of nonprofits operating in the area.

Murray said it was important for the nonprofits to distribute the money because they are trusted in the immigrant community, in which concerns have been raised about the confidentiality of personal information at a time of stepped-up immigration enforcement by the federal government.

“We appreciate the public’s patience as nonprofits are working hard to process, verify and approve applications as quickly as possible,” Murray said.

One of the biggest state contracts is with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which was asked to distribute 36,500 debit cards in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The group has 27,015 completed applications and has sent payments to about 10,000 people, Executive Director Angelica Salas said.

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The coalition has gradually improved its response, but learning how to handle such a large program has been like “flying a plane even as you are building it,” Salas said.

The goal now is to get money to all the applicants by July 15, she said.

Once an application is filed, a person has five days to submit proof of identity, immigration status and that they have been affected financially by COVID-19. It then takes about a week for the nonprofits to review and verify the documentation, said Luis Perez, an attorney for the coalition. If the documents submitted are incomplete, more is requested, which extends the process.

Once an application is approved, it takes more time to match the person with a debit card and send it out by certified mail, he said.

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The process takes longer than many people thought, Perez said.

“People are expecting the operation of a credit card company or a bank,” he said. “These are not financial institutions. We are nonprofits.”

A separate effort has been launched in the private sector. Newsom announced in April that the nonprofit Grantmakers Concerned With Immigrants and Refugees would raise an additional $50 million to help immigrants without legal status who have been affected by the coronavirus crisis. So far, the group has received pledges from charitable partners for $39.7 million and has disbursed nearly $10 million of that money, with $7.5 million more going out this week, a representative said.

Even if the state provides one-time checks to 150,000 immigrants, it will not be enough to cover all living expenses, so Durazo and more than a dozen other legislators have called for Newsom to provide an additional $400 per week for eight weeks.

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Durazo said $500 “is not enough to sustain a family, pay rent and provide for other household expenses.”

The proposal for the expanded program was not included in the state budget plan agreed to by Newsom and Democratic legislative leaders, but supporters hope to revisit the issue in the coming weeks.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented need to bring real dollars to our communities that have contributed to the state but have been left behind without access to a safety net,” Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) said. “Despite the best intentions, this program needs to be followed by more investment and continuous aid for immigrants.”


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