News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

October 22, 2020

Oakland’s immigrants face Covid without a safety net

By David Cremins

Adelaida Ríos is a community health worker at La Clínica de la Raza, where she has helped to run a Covid testing site in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood since May. Her team administers upward of 100 tests per day, while switching between English, Spanish, and Mam (an indigenous Guatemalan language).

This work is difficult in any community, but Ríos and her colleagues face an additional challenge: 60% of Fruitvale residents are Latinx, and many are first-generation immigrants without legal status in the United States. As their struggles demonstrate, our communities will not be truly healthy until all of us have access to the resources we need.

Californians of color are disproportionately suffering from the coronavirus, with Latinx people accounting for nearly half of the state’s deaths. So, while wealthier and whiter areas of Alameda County have weathered the pandemic with relative ease, Fruitvale and other hard-hit, low-income East Oakland communities have been among the world’s worst hot spots. 

It is not difficult to understand why. Roughly three-quarters of undocumented workers are classified as essential and, therefore, are more exposed to the virus. According to Derek Schoonmaker — director of the Workers’ Rights Group at Centro Legal de la Raza, another Fruitvale institution — “a lot of low-wage workers are coming to work in conditions that are frightening to them.” 

Ríos also sees fear at play in her work. While most Covid-19 infections do not require hospitalization, many undocumented people who test positive and need serious treatment have been choosing not to get it. Ríos blames justified mistrust in our healthcare system: “They do have choices, they can go to some public hospitals like Highland, but they’re afraid of a bill. Some are trying to get their immigration status fixed, too… we don’t know how to help them.”

While La Clínica is focused on the health crisis, Centro Legal has stepped in to help combat the economic one. Schoonmaker and his team manage the Oakland Undocumented Relief Fund (OUR), which gives $500 grants to undocumented Oaklanders suffering financial hardship due to the pandemic. It might be surprising that a non-profit is directing such an effort instead of a government agency, but similar programs are in place throughout the state. At the onset of the pandemic Governor Gavin Newsom ordered $75 million in state funds, in combination with an additional $50 million from private grants, to be distributed to undocumented workers throughout California via mechanisms like OUR Fund. 

This relief assistance, however, only has the capacity to reach one in ten undocumented residents, and is limited to $1,000 per household. This is better than nothing, especially given the failure of federal relief bills to address the needs of undocumented people, but activists insist that the Newsom administration and California State Legislature do more. Further action has not yet materialized; Newsom recently vetoed AB 826, which would have provided food assistance to many low-income immigrant families.

More than 2 million Californians are undocumented, including about one in ten workers in the state. Each year they contribute over $3 billion in taxes and $180 billion in economic production to the state, but earn back far less in public services than what they put in. There have been increasingly vocal calls to change this — by allowing undocumented Californians full access to programs such as the California Earned Income Tax Credit, MediCal, food assistance, and unemployment insurance, for example.

According to Schoonmaker, such social service reforms are critical because, as his team has seen, “for undocumented folks, there aren’t many options…for places we can send them, since they are systematically excluded from social safety net programs.” While such measures would still fall short of abolishing the citizenship divide, they would go a long way in helping give all Californians a dignified life, and beat back the coronavirus, too. 

This year has been universally difficult, but the pains have not hit everyone equally, as infection and unemployment rates demonstrate. When we look at the toll on undocumented people in the East Bay and around the country — who already fear the cruelties of family separation, imprisonment, and deportation — it is clear that, though we are all in the same storm, we are not in the same boat.

We must end the bureaucratic nightmare which makes people afraid or unable to access social services, health care, and protections from exploitation at work. This means both pushing elected leaders to reject anti-immigrant politics and supporting collective action efforts such as the Alameda Health System recent, successful nurses’ strike for better working conditions and the resources for quality patient care.

In Ríos’ words, such acts of solidarity are crucial if we want to win a healthier world:  “My only wish is that the numbers go down soon, because it’s affecting our whole community…it’s a team effort; if we want to change things, we have to all start working together.”