Poignant stories flood in as California's undocumented immigrants seek funds

One family had to sell all their furniture to pay the bills. Another man lost his job at a restaurant and had nowhere to go, so the owner let him sleep on the floor. A recent widow with three children lost her job and couldn't afford the rent.

These are among the millions of stories told by California's undocumented immigrants during the coronavirus pandemic. The tales of hardship emerged from immigrants applying for a one-of-its-kind program to get $500 in assistance on a debit card to buy some food and pay the rent.  

"The stories got very poignant," said Marirose Piciucco, general counsel for Catholic Charities Center for Immigration Legal & Support Services. "You were looking into lives that often just leave footprints. It got to a point where you would just have to catch your breath."

The state chose Catholic Charities to disperse $75 million through the Disaster Relief Funds Assistance program in the Bay Area, and a separate group of nonprofits was established to fundraise and distribute another $75 million.  


California was the only state in the country to offer 150,000 undocumented immigrants a total of $150 million to help ease the economic pain during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Catholic Charities in the Bay Area received 3.9 million phone calls from undocumented immigrants seeking funds.

In March, Gov. Gavin Newsom noted how undocumented immigrants comprise about 10% of the state's workforce and should be helped, especially since they are not eligible for unemployment or federal stimulus funds. 

In all, Catholic Charities in San Francisco, the East Bay and Santa Clara County, received a staggering 3,912,396 phone calls from May 18 when the program opened. The program officially closed Tuesday night. 

The coronavirus outbreak and economic turmoil created an acute need for many of California's 40 million residents, but perhaps even more so for the estimated three million people living without the proper documentation in the Golden State. The unemployment rate in California soared past 15% during the peak of shelter-in-place orders, leaving more than 2 million without jobs. Those numbers don't even include most of those who are undocumented.

In terms of health, Latinos are four times more likely to be hospitalized because of coronavirus. That higher risk comes from the types of jobs commonly held by Latinos and the often-cramped living quarters they live in, according to the Centers for Disease and Control

California's undocumented immigrant fund now up and running

The employees at Catholic Charities worked hard to help this disadvantaged group, clocking an average of 1,500 hours each week to process all 30,000 applications totaling $15 million for immigrants in the Bay Area.

"It got pretty hectic," Piciucco said. 

30,000 undocumented immigrants in the Bay Area will receive $500 each.

The calls were so voluminous that on the first day the funds were available, the phone lines crashed at Catholic Charities, prompting the provider to ask: Are you under attack?  

The crush of calls made it nearly impossible for desperate people to speak to a person for days. Sometimes weeks.

Not only that, but once people got though, many had logistical challenges: They couldn't find the right documents, they didn't know how to take photos on their phones, or they didn't have Adobe or printers at home. 

"I made 100 phone calls every day," said Gonzalo, an undocumented cook who lives in Pittsburg with his wife and 10-year-old daughter. "I try, try, try. I calling, calling, calling."

Undocumented immigrants complain they can't access California funds for them

Finally, on Day 22, Gonzalo got through.

"I was so surprised," he said. 

And after several electronic hurdles, like not being able to figure out the email system, Gonzalo was able to get a $500 debit card for himself and another one of equal amount for his wife.

"This will pay for our bills, our food," he said. 

Gonzalo was laid off from his job on March 20, the same week the shelter-in-place orders were issued to prevent the spread of coronavirus. He was able to go back to work just six days ago. His wife is a stay-at-home mom. 

"It was very hard," he said, adding that he got by on food stamps and other rental assistance programs. "We didn't know how long the pandemic would last. Now, I feel better." 

Gonzalo's story is not unique.

Stories abounded over these last few months of heartache and struggle, including one man in San Francisco who had to leave his shelter and was forced onto the streets and a day laborer and his family all sleeping on the floor in one small apartment fearing how they'd make rent as everyone had been laid off. 

A UC Davis graduate from South Korea and his mother also have been barely eking by. They both lost their jobs at a sushi restaurant, and because of their legal status, have been unable to find meaningful work elsewhere.  

"The pandemic had us terrified," the 26-year-old said, asking that he not be identified by name. "We are barely living." 

But they applied for help through Catholic Charities, and now are feeling marginally better that they were granted a one-time $500 debit card.

When his family received the money, "it felt so precious," he said, noting that the symbolism of being helped by a program in America meant even more to him and his mom. 

Coronavirus quarantine is becoming catastrophic for undocumented immigrants

Piciucco acknowledged that the money is just a trifle of what is needed to help the state's two to three million undocumented immigrants.

"It was really bittersweet," she said. "We all know $500 can't pay all the rent or buy all the food."

But she said, working late into the night and "processing just 40 or 50 more applications" before she went to bed was also very gratifying. 

"I can't tell you how thankful everyone was for that money," she said. "It just shows you their desperation." 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez.