Centro Legal de la Raza in Fruitvale has joined with other local nonprofits and the city to offer one-time grants to undocumented workers who have lost income due to the coronavirus. Photo: Pete Rosos

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Micaela immigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico to Oakland in 1998, and she works as a hot dog vendor. She hasn’t been able to sell food from her cart since Alameda County issued its shelter-in-place order on March 16. “I haven’t been able to work since [music] venues began closing,” she said.

As an undocumented worker, Micaela can’t expect a $1,200 check from the federal coronavirus relief bill. Her family is also ineligible for food stamps and has been relying on free meals from the Oakland Unified School District, which set up 12 locations to distribute “grab and go” breakfasts and lunches.

“We live day by day and we were not financially prepared for this,” said Micaela. (Berkeleyside is using a pseudonym to protect her identity).

To support Oaklanders like Micaela, the city of Oakland and a coalition of nonprofits, including Centro Legal de la Raza, have established the Oakland Undocumented Relief Fund (OUR Fund) to provide direct financial support, in the form of checks or prepaid debit cards, to some undocumented community members affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The fund has come as a welcome surprise for Oakland’s undocumented residents whose hours at work have been cut or who have been laid off due to the crisis.

According to a 2017 study from the Public Policy Institute of California, Alameda County is home to over 129,500 undocumented immigrants. While the state of California is expected to receive billions in financial relief thanks to the federal aid packages approved by Congress, undocumented immigrants and those in mixed-status families are not eligible for any federal funds, not even if they have paid taxes using their IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). The California Budget and Policy Center estimates that annually, California’s undocumented workers contribute $3.2 billion in local and state taxes.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas announced the creation of the OUR Fund during a virtual meeting last Friday. Participating with the city and Centro Legal are seven other nonprofits: ROC The Bay, ASPIRE, Street Level Health Project, CIYJA, Unite Here! Local 2850, The Unity Council and EBASE

The coalition of nonprofits began discussing the fund on March 20.

“It feels like it was a long time ago, that’s how quickly we have been moving,” said Derek Schoonmaker, a directing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza. “We started seeing businesses closing down, people losing their work, and recognizing how hard this was going to hit the undocumented community.” 

By March 28, the OUR Fund website was up and running and taking applications. The coalition can’t currently get the word out by distributing flyers, a typical strategy in normal times, but they shared the news widely through social media and email. One of Centro Legal’s Facebook posts was shared over 80 times.

Undocumented workers in need of assistance are encouraged to apply online via a simple web form. (Applications are available in Spanish.) Those who qualify can receive a one-time grant of $500.

As of this week, Schoonmaker estimates that about 700 applications have been received, and the fund has around $40,000 in available funds. That’s not nearly enough to help all of the applicants. The nonprofit partners are in talks with the City of Oakland and a number of foundations to try and raise additional money.

The coalition hopes to begin distributing grants as early as next week.

“We are recognizing that right now, we have to focus on a one-time payment and reach out to as many folks as we can,” he said. “If we see a huge surge of funding available, then we might be able to adjust how much money we give out to community members.” 

Once an applicant’s eligibility is confirmed with photo ID or a paystub (with flexibility for those who typically get paid in cash), they will begin receiving funds in the order in which the application was received via check or prepaid debit card until funds run out.

Local grassroots efforts are welcome, says Micaela, but she fears that without broad-based government action, vendors like her will have a hard time getting back on their feet when the shutdown order is finally lifted. “People who are not financially stable are not going to be able to spend money in luxuries like going out to eat,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to get the clientele going enough for us to see a profit and make a living again.”

She also laments the lack of information available in Spanish with a list of places where undocumented families like hers can turn to for help. “The last time I was able to get some info was when [Oakland City Councilmember] Noel Gallo was on TV with someone from Centro Legal [de la Raza], but even that information was confusing.”

Micaela knows that the coming months are going to be tough, and she is disheartened that the federal relief package left out undocumented workers like her who diligently pay taxes and contribute greatly to the larger economy. “It is unjust to have been left out,” she said.

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