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Immigrants Seeking State Cash Aid During COVID-19 Crisis Overwhelm Phone Lines

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The following article was originally published May 19, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Josie Huang

One million calls in one day.

That's how many requests for help one Los Angeles community organization said it received Monday, the first day California started accepting applications for cash aid to immigrants who are in the country illegally and struggling in the pandemic.

The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, added a second phone line by Tuesday. It's one of three local organizations helping people in Orange and Los Angeles counties file applications, and one of a dozen designated by the state.

"We are not going anywhere," CHIRLA's executive director Angelica Salas said in a statement. "We are working around the clock to help as many people as we can and to deal with any technical issues that might arise."

Massive anticipation had built up in the month since Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the new program called Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants. The program offers $500 for individual adults and up to $1,000 for a household.

Street vendor Lucas Tax sells inflatable toys and cotton candy outside the California Science Center at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on March 24, 2019. | Agustin Paullier/AFP via Getty Images
Street vendor Lucas Tax sells inflatable toys and cotton candy outside the California Science Center at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on March 24, 2019. | Agustin Paullier/AFP via Getty Images

The need is high because workers without legal status do not qualify for a federal stimulus check. Nor are they allowed to apply for unemployment insurance, even though many pay income taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number instead of a Social Security number.

Yet with stay-at-home orders and businesses closing, these workers are losing jobs in the coronavirus crisis like everyone else. And those who work in low-paid service jobs aren't likely to have much in the way of savings to sustain them.

It's already clear there will not be enough money in the relief program to help all those who seek it.

The state has reserved $75 million and is raising more money through philanthropies and grassroots donations. But California has more than 2 million residents who lack legal immigration status. It's estimated that the state relief fund will only help about 150,000 of them.

"It is clear that much more has to be done to help our immigrant communities who are struggling in the midst of this crisis," said Stewart Kwoh, founder of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, one of the local organizations chosen by the state to help applicants.

The other local group is Central American Resource Center.

A website for the state department in charge of the fund was so overwhelmed that it crashed for more than two hours Monday morning.

Scott Murray, spokesperson for the California Department of Social Services, said in an email to LAist that the agency was building more capacity into its website.

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