California’s first-of-its-kind effort to get cash aid into the hands of undocumented workers affected by the coronavirus got off to a bumpy start over the past week.

By Eric Westervelt & Marisa Penaloza

Across the state, tens of thousands of immigrants calling to apply encountered busy signals, crashed phone lines and frustration.

“People are desperate right now,” says Christopher Martinez, the chief program officer for Catholic Charities of the East Bay, “that’s why they’re reaching out. And they’re very worried that these funds will run out quickly. But we’re just asking people to keep trying.”

Catholic Charities is one of a dozen nonprofit and immigrant rights groups the state of California has partnered with to try to reach workers who are living here illegally. Many are doing work that qualifies as an essential work, but their status makes them ineligible for federal pandemic relief as well as most state and local relief.

“They were providing valuable services to our community and, because of the pandemic, essentially they’re at zero income right now,” says Martinez. “They were day care providers, house cleaners, providing painting or general contract work.”

Applicants must meet certain criteria. For those who are approved, the program offers a direct cash payment of $500 per adult, $1,000 max per family.

Because of virus-related health concerns, as well as deportation fears, there are no in-person or online applications for the aid money. It’s almost all processed electronically and through phone lines. Callers often have no ability to leave phone messages, so the lines so far have been consistently overloaded.

“I dial and dial and dial and I get a busy signal,” says Jaime, an immigrant from El Salvador, who did not want his last name used because of his status. “I feel like the opportunity goes away every day, the funds are running lower every day, and no one picks up my call.”

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