A CalMatters reporter discusses California's $95 million plan to help undocumented flooding victims
Like many Californians, residents in the community of Pajaro are relying on federal disaster money through the Federal Emergency Mangement Agency, or FEMA, to recover from last winter's storms.
But despite playing a major role in California's economy, undocumented residents can't access federal relief through FEMA. To help expand the safety net to those residents, Gov. Gavin Newsom promised in March to provide money from the state's "Rapid Response Fund."
Now, three months later, CalMatters reporter Nicole Foy says Newsom is making good on that promise. He announced last week that $95 million will soon be available for undocumented flooding victims.
Foy's recent CalMatters article, "California to send $95 million to undocumented flooding victims – months after promising ‘rapid response’" details the program. She discussed her reporting with KAZU's Jerimiah Oetting.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nicole Foy (NF): Households can qualify for up to $4,500, so each qualifying adult can receive $1,500. Each child can receive $500. A percentage of that $95 million is going to go towards administering the program, especially considering how much work is probably going to have to be done to reach people and case management and stuff like that.
But otherwise, that is hopefully going to go towards direct financial assistance. That's what the state says. And that money will be available until May of next year or until money runs out.
Jerimiah Oetting (JO): Have you heard from Newsom's administration? How have they justified this, you know, not-so-rapid response.
NF: One of the things that they they spoke to me about was saying that this is something that we had to build very carefully and make sure that we are partnering with the right people. And that while being secure and protecting taxpayer dollars, not have too many barriers for people who may be worried about seeking aid in the first place and may possibly not have a lot of resources, especially if they've been dealing with sustained difficulties over the last few months.
JO: I know that you need to be ineligibile for FEMA to access the money that will soon be available. How do people prove that? Do you know anything about that process?
NF: I don't really know a lot about that process because the state hasn't really released that yet.
What I do know is that the state has said that they're going to be working with local trusted nonprofit groups. So you have to be living or working in a area that, you know, a major presidential disaster area. That's usually the term that they use. And on top of that, that county also has to be approved for individual assistance. And it's for either the first bout of storms in January and December, or in the February and March storms.
JO: I'm remembering back to March 15th when Newsom came to power and told everybody that $600 checks were going out for farmworkers that day. We broke a story that fact checked that, and it showed that that money was for COVID relief, not flood relief. Do you have a sense of why the state's response to this particular natural disaster has been so confusing?
NF: I think that was very disappointing to a lot of folks. That was a program that had been announced a long time ago, had been promised that folks who are on the frontlines of COVID, whether working in food processing plants or in the fields, that they would receive this money.
I would say that there has been a very large sustained push from advocates pushing for the state to expand the safety net, to include undocumented folks in unemployment insurance. A lot of these folks are paying into a system that they don't get to benefit from. You know, their taxes are going into that fund that everyone else can draw unemployment insurance from. And then in this time of significant hardship, they're not able to access that money.
I think that's something that's likely going to be heading to the governor's desk. And he hasn't signed it in the past when similar legislation has come up. And so I think that's something that they'll really be looking to the state to take action on this year.
JO: $95 million is a lot. Have you heard from anyone, advocates or lawmakers or anyone who thinks that this isn't enough?
NF: Yeah, I mean, I talked to an advocate the other day who said, nobody's going to turn down this money. But building in more infrastructure, like the unemployment insurance, they believe would be a lot more useful in the long term.
Honestly, I just think this is probably not going to be an easy or a quick process to get this money out around the state. And I'll definitely be watching and looking and continue to ask questions to see how local and state officials are following through on the promises that they made.
Nicole Foy is a reporter with the California Divide team at CalMatters.