Undocumented immigrants struggle with the pandemic’s financial toll as public bailouts remain out of reach

Elio Soriano, a landscape worker and undocumented immigrant, carries a hammer on the job. (Courtesy Elio Soriano)

SAN DIEGO — Elio Soriano is scared to go to work during the coronavirus pandemic, but he has no choice.

“I’ve been working since the start,” Soriano said in Spanish. “I’m afraid to expose myself, but there’s no other way.”

He’s among millions of undocumented immigrants who, despite working, are struggling financially during the global COVID-19 outbreak. While millions of Americans got a $1,200 check to offset the virus’ economic blow, the federal government offered no such relief to undocumented immigrants.

And although California’s government offered a smaller stipend to undocumented immigrants, many like Soriano don’t qualify. The state’s Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants provided two household members with a one-time $500 check, but Soriano was rejected because he was the third of his household to apply.

“(The pandemic) has affected me financially because not a lot of people want construction work done at this time,” he said. Soriano said he wishes he could receive government aid so he can stay home and keep his family away from the virus.

As of 2016, the US is home to about 10.7 million undocumented immigrants. About 2.2 million of them live in California.

Other undocumented immigrants in California, like Ericka Lopez-Madrid, have been too afraid of being deported to even ask for help. Lopez-Madrid recently lost her job and she is worried she could be deported by applying to DRAI.

“It’s the only financial help I know of,” Lopez-Madrid said. “But…I didn’t want them to say I’m undocumented and have immigration throw me out.”

Soriano and Lopez-Madrid are worried about finding stable work because of the pandemic’s many challenges, which are exacerbated by their undocumented status.

Many fear that even when the pandemic is over, businesses will have shrunk so severely that they will lay off more workers, making it harder to reenter the job market.

Nonprofits like the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans, an organization that works with refugees in San Diego, is one of a handful of organizations that are trying to help. PANA has provided an emergency grant for many refugees and recently created another grant for asylum seekers and people who didn’t qualify for federal virus relief.

Homarya Yusufi, deputy director of PANA, said that although undocumented immigrants haven’t been offered much financial aid, many have been given other resources such as meals and free COVID-19 testings.

“I think the problem is that the funds, including ours, have very limited support,” said Yusufi. “This (pandemic) has been expanded for a lot longer than any of us imagined.”

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña, a journalist covering the Latino community, and a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, said that older immigrants are particularly vulnerable. Many of them tend to not know about these organizations because they don’t understand English.

“It’s important to have those organizations supported by our elected officials so they can provide those services,” Lopez-Villafaña said in a Zoom interview. “There are a lot of families that are vulnerable during this time because they’ve lost their jobs, can’t apply for unemployment or are still working and putting themselves and family in danger.”

She stressed the importance of mental health as immigrant communities grapple with the impact of the virus.

“For those of us who are younger, maybe try ways to talk to your relatives and make sure that they are okay,” Lopez-Villafaña said. “That is a conversation that we don’t openly have … especially immigrants.”

Diane López Olea is a graduate of San Diego State University. As a student, she was the president of her university’s NAHJ chapter, wrote for The Daily Aztec in Spanish and English and worked as an assistant producer intern at Univision San Diego. Reach her at dlopezolea [at] gmail [dot] com and on Twitter @dianelopezolea.

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