San Jose creates immigrant-inclusive COVID-19 relief measures
English as a Second Language students receive assistance at Grail Family Services. Photo courtesy of Daniel Gaines Photography and Grail Family Services.

    A study highlighting the roles of immigrants in San Jose and the struggles they’ve faced during COVID-19 is leading the city to create more inclusive relief measures.

    New American Economy (NAE), a national nonprofit immigration research and advocacy organization which last month released the study “New Americans in San Jose Metro Area,” examined the role immigrants played in various industries and how they were left out of federal safety nets. The data includes Santa Clara and San Benito counties.

    The report, requested by the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, found immigrants who are essential workers face increased risks of COVID-19 infection while suffering gaps in federal relief packages. The research was requested to illustrate the demographics of San Jose’s immigrant population and inform advocacy and more inclusive local emergency responses.

    “The immigrant population is essential to keeping San Jose running, yet especially vulnerable,” said Mo Kantner, director of state and local initiatives at New American Economy. “This research will support efforts by the city to work innovatively to fill critical gaps in federal programs and ensure recovery efforts reach all residents.”

    Data from 2018 showed immigrants living in the San Jose metro area made up 68% of agricultural workers, about 50% of restaurant and food service employees and 43.5% of health care workers.

    “Immigrants are putting far more into Medicare and Medicaid than they’re taking out,” Kantner said, “and more into unemployment than they’re able to access.”

    CARES Act funding isn’t accessible to those who don’t have citizenship and a person who doesn’t have a Social Security number can’t access federal relief measures. But some undocumented workers use fake or expired social security numbers and as a result pay taxes. 

    Kantner said immigrants are important to San Jose as they make up of almost three times the city’s population compared with the country as a whole (38% of the city’s population and 13% of the country’s), and as members of the city’s workforce, tax base and consumers.

    The city plans to use NAE’s research to expand language-access capabilities for public health messaging, outreach and financial assistance as well as equitable strategies for emergency operations and recovery, according to Zulma Maciel, director of San Jose’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

    Essential workers, of which many are immigrants, are more likely to be exposed to the virus yet don’t always have health care.

    “Hopefully, everybody has PPEs but how many have health insurance?” Maciel said. “If you’re working part-time jobs, it’s unlikely you have benefits through work and it’s less likely you’re going to have benefits if you’re undocumented.”

    The city is working in partnership with Destination: Home, Sacred Heart Community Services and the Homelessness Prevention System to provide funds for families economically impacted by COVID-19.

    In addition, the city’s $2 million workforce initiative assists those in industries impacted by COVID-19 by providing paid internships and job training in health care, manufacturing and technology to not only redirect careers but also help individuals earn higher wages.

    Maciel said the city also wants to ensure people who can’t pay rent have access to financial assistance.

    “I’m most worried about undocumented immigrants,” Maciel said, “those who aren’t getting any stimulus checks from the federal government and are not eligible for unemployment. This is where local governments can make a difference. They’re an essential part of our community economically and bring a cultural richness. They matter.”

    The city, which Maciel said “is committed to being a strong partner to communities which have faced racial health and economic disparity,” provides financial relief to communities by connecting funders with smaller organizations rooted in the neighborhoods.

    Indeed, when it comes to undocumented immigrants, support should come from charities, not governments using tax dollars, said Shane Patrick Connolly, chief of staff for Councilmember Johnny Khamis and chair of the Santa Clara County Republican party.

    “Our private charities and communities of faith can fulfill their missions by helping unauthorized residents without interfering in the government’s responsibility to ensure our laws are followed and enforced,” Connolly said. “Charities can help our unauthorized residents in ways that don’t create perverse taxpayer-funded incentives to spur further illegal immigration, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.”

    Grail Family Services, which works with immigrant families and young children, provided the city with a list of people they knew desperately needed financial assistance. Executive Director Veronica Goei said her organization has built trust among immigrants.

    “Whenever there is a crisis related to immigration, new policy, COVID-19 or the fires, we know our community will come to us for support,” Goei said.

    Following the pandemic, Grail Family Services pivoted its services from education to providing families with basic needs, including financial assistance. They have distributed about $120,000 to families in the community, mostly those without access to other government programs.

    “They are the essential workers our city and county needs,” Goei said, “and they’re left with nothing.”

    Grail works closely with five east side nonprofits through the Si Se Puede Collective. Together, they serve more than 12,000 people and have provided more than $500,000 in financial assistance through funding from Destination: Home, Eastside Peace Partners and the Sunlight Giving Foundation.

    “The immigrant community … are small business owners, childcare providers, clean hospitals and prepare food,” Goei said. “If a specific community is not getting what it needs, it doesn’t just affect that group but the community at large. It’s not just a moral issue, but an economic one.”

    She said being able to pay rent once the moratorium is lifted and obtain health care and education are east side families’ greatest concerns.

    “I don’t think the community is fully aware of how significantly immigrants have been impacted by COVID-19,” Goei said.

    The collective is launching a COVID-19 related public health campaign on the east side funded by the county to share information about testing and isolation. It also successfully advocated for a local testing site at the School of Arts and Culture.

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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