Adolfo Luna, a Mexican musician who lives in California. (Handout via The New York Times)

LOS ANGELES — For two decades, Adolfo Luna has earned his family’s keep as a musician, playing his accordion and singing at weddings and other events in Southern California. “I have been making an honest living, paying the bills and filing my taxes,” Luna said. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, eliminating group gatherings — and all his bookings.

Since March, Luna, an immigrant from Mexico who is living in the United States illegally, has been trying to find construction work, factory work or any other work, to no avail. Going on three months without a gig, he barely made the rent and for the first time missed his car-insurance payment.

On Monday, the musician was among thousands in California hoping to sign up for a landmark new state relief program that will provide taxpayer-funded assistance to immigrants in the country illegally, who have been shut out of federal relief programs and unemployment assistance.

In anticipation of the payments, people looking for information on how to apply over the weekend were directing a flurry of calls to the 12 nonprofit organizations contracted to vet the applications. By Monday, when the phone lines opened, many people reported they could not get through.

The $75 million cash assistance program, which will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, will be conducted almost entirely by telephone to avoid hazardous in-person contacts. “I am praying that I get through,” said Luna, 50, who had called a local nonprofit Friday, only to hear he would have to wait until Monday.

Luna said he realized his chance of getting a one-time grant of $500 per person or $1,000 per household was the equivalent of winning the lottery. The available funding will allow only about 150,000 immigrants to benefit, according to state officials.

There are an estimated 10.6 million immigrants living illegally in the United States, of whom 2 million live in California, more than in any other state.

“We know that money is limited and doesn’t reflect the amount of taxes that the undocumented pay in California,” said Olimpia Blanco, a coordinator at Carecen, one of the organizations helping with signups. “We believe we owe it to the community to make the process as equitable as possible and uphold the first-come, first-served nature of it.”

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Immigrants who are in the country illegally are particularly vulnerable to the economic shock caused by the coronavirus outbreak because they tend to earn low salaries in jobs that have disappeared, as cooks, servers, hotel workers and domestic help.

Two-thirds of them have lived in the United States for more than a decade. Collectively, they have 5 million American-born children and pay billions of dollars in taxes, yet most states have not moved to provide any assistance through the current economic collapse.

In California, unauthorized workers make up 10% of the workforce and are overrepresented among essential workers in sectors such as health care and agriculture.

The governor, Gavin Newsom, announced in mid-April that the state would provide $75 million in cash assistance to the 150,000 who are selected. Philanthropic organizations and private donors pledged an additional $50 million for another 100,000 immigrants.

California is the most diverse state in the nation. Our diversity makes us stronger and more resilient,” Newsom said in unveiling the program. “Every Californian, including our undocumented neighbors and friends, should know that California is here to support them during this crisis. We are all in this together.

“Regardless of your status, documented or undocumented, there are people in need,” he added.

Since the April announcement, immigrants have been making preparations to apply.

Nidia Preza, 37, a single mother of three young children, said she was forced to resign from her job cleaning a building when schools closed.

An immigrant from El Salvador who lives in a converted garage in Los Angeles, Preza said that she has had to cut back on the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables that she feeds her children, ages 3, 4 and 12.

“Getting the money would be very, very helpful,” she said.

Felipe Flores, 65, who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 16, said he feared that the phone lines would be jammed.

“There are so many people in need and so little money,” said Flores, who works in debris collection and recycling, and also cleans storage units on the side.

Without work for the first time in all his years in the United States, Flores has been sleeping in an empty storage unit outside Los Angeles because he could no longer afford the rent of a room where he had been living.

“I’ll bang on the door” of a local nonprofit, he said, “if that is what it takes to sign up.”

But there will be no in-person registration for the aid, the websites said.

Sixteen caseworkers will be taking calls at MICOP, a nonprofit in Ventura County, where immigrants toil in agricultural fields, as well as in tourism.

Days before the program had opened, “the phone is already nonstop,” said Arcenio Lopez, executive director of the organization.

To qualify for the money, applicants must prove they are in the country illegally, out of work because of the health crisis and not eligible for federal stimulus checks or unemployment benefits.

Groups opposed to the program sued to block the state from using taxpayer dollars, arguing that it was illegal. The cases were dismissed by the court.

Wary of attracting more opposition, the state Department of Social Services and the organizations that it contracted to vet and disburse the funds were tight-lipped about what specific documents they would request from applicants and how they would be provided. Many immigrants lack computers, scanners and other technology that may be required.

Luna, the musician, said he would present his ITIN, a taxpayer identification number akin to a Social Security number that the IRS issues to immigrants in the country illegally; a Mexican consular identity card; and a California driver’s license issued to undocumented immigrants, which looks different than licenses issued to other residents.

The information collected is being uploaded onto a state portal. Those who are approved will be contacted by text, email or phone about arrangements to receive the funds in the form of a prepaid card.

To complement the $75 million in state funding, a network of foundations, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, is committing $50 million in direct aid to especially vulnerable immigrants, such as those with disabilities and people in the LGBTQ community. Major backers of that effort include the Emerson Collective, Blue Shield of California Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company



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