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In San Gabriel Valley, Concerns That Some Immigrants are Missing Out on Coronavirus Relief Funds

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The following article was originally published April 13, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Josie Huang

When COVID-19 killed his month-old business in Hacienda Heights selling truck radiators, Leo Wong went from visiting clients to visiting the website for the Small Business Administration.

The Hong Kong native also watches workshops on Zoom to sort out the ever-evolving guidance on how to apply for a rescue loan. It makes him wonder how those with less English and tech savvy are doing.

"Even I was confused," said Wong, who emigrated from Hong Kong in 2009 to study communications. "I doubt [others] know anything about going to I doubt they know anything about Zoom."

Billions of dollars in emergency loans are flowing to small businesses, but in places dominated by immigrant-owned stores and restaurants like the San Gabriel Valley, some proprietors may be struggling to understand what to do and may not even apply.


A major obstacle is language. In the San Gabriel Valley, about half of residents have limited English, according to a 2018 report from Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. The SBA site is only in English and Spanish.

That has members of Congress like U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena) demanding the agency provide more information in Asian languages.

Leo Wong tries to navigate the web looking for information on SBA loans. | Photo courtesy of Leo Wong
Leo Wong tries to navigate the web looking for information on SBA loans. | Photo courtesy of Leo Wong

In an April 8 letter to SBA administrator Jovita Carranza, Chu and more than 30 of her colleagues pointed out that 173,000-plus Asian-owned businesses operate in languages other than English, such as Mandarin, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

"These small businesses must be provided with equal access to the promised government assistance meant to help them survive the COVID-19 outbreak and associated economic hardships," the letter read.

Ray Jan, executive director of the Rosemead Chamber of Commerce, said time is running out to provide translated materials.

"Everybody else on the block is applying," Jan said. "The longer you wait, the line is just getting longer and longer."

Leo Wong used to go out on all sales calls, but now his products sit idly in his Hacienda Heights business. | Photo courtesy of Leo Wong
Leo Wong used to go out on all sales calls, but now his products sit idly in his Hacienda Heights business. | Photo courtesy of Leo Wong


Elaine Pang, who advises small businesses in the San Gabriel Valley through the Chinatown Service Center, estimates more than 80% of her clients can fill out the applications in English without too much difficulty. But then others need extensive assistance.

"I screenshot all the questions [on the application forms] and then I write in the Chinese words," Pang said.

Language access is just one of the reasons many Asian business owners have not sought federal assistance. Pang said most of her clients have limited computer skills and/or don't have easy access to a computer. So even if the application were in Chinese, some would have to go to the library, and libraries are closed.

Others, according to Jan, are also worried about the impact that applying for help will have on their immigration status or their employees. (More than 58,000 are undocumented, according to AAAJ-LA). Others pay employees in cash, and wouldn't have the payroll records required by SBA.

Also, Jan said, the idea of relief loans from the government are a new concept for many immigrants from Asia.

Seeing official SBA materials in their native languages, she said, would go a long way toward giving business owners more understanding and confidence to apply.

Wong, the former radiator vendor, said he hasn't applied for any SBA relief loans because he doesn't think he qualifies. But he hasn't given up on saving his business through other ways. He's sought advice from a CPA and is continuing to solicit customers through mailers.

"America is a place for dreamers, right?" said Wong. "I want to have something I can tell my chlidren and grandchildren, like, 'Hey, I did something big."

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