California Bishops: COVID Aid for Undocumented Workers Protects All

Bishops in California called for an expansion of state disability insurance eligibility to workers who are ineligible for unemployment insurance but who have become unemployed as a result of the pandemic.

State Capitol building in Sacramento.
State Capitol building in Sacramento. (photo: Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s aid packages to undocumented and low-wage residents has not gone far enough, the state’s Catholic bishops have said, emphasizing the necessity of more aid for these Californians to ensure a successful recovery from the novel coronavirus epidemic.

“This is an emergency situation that demands an effective and Christ-like response,” Steve Pehanich, director of communications and advocacy at the California Catholic Conference, told CNA April 23. The Catholic bishops recognize “that it’s important from a public health perspective to treat and support everyone so that the entire community can stay healthy and we minimize the risk of infection for all.”

“No one in a lifeboat asks to see documentation before rescuing people,” he said.

While Gov. Gavin Newsom has extended aid to undocumented California residents, the California Catholic Conference said in an April 20 letter to Newsom that aid needs to be increased “because the virus doesn’t know the difference between someone who has the right legal documents and those who do not.”

On April 15 Newsom announced a $125 million disaster assistance fund for about 150,000 undocumented Californians. Adults will receive a one-time cash benefit of $500 per adult, capped at $1,000 per household. These residents do not benefit from expanded employment or the federal stimulus program.

The bishops said these payments are not enough to support those who are doing vital work.

“Many immigrants continue to work – and pay taxes – in the agricultural and service sectors, literally putting their lives at risks in the front line of dealing with the virus,” Pehanich continued. “Their labor keeps essential businesses open and provides food for us all.”

“Like anyone else, they shouldn’t be forced to choose between risking their lives for a paycheck or protecting their families and all Californians by sheltering in place,” he said. “The fact is, people who are undocumented are doing essential jobs and have to be counted among our most essential workers. We are obliged, as part of our Gospel calling, to care for the least among us.”

Successful efforts to prevent the spread of the virus require extending aid to all residents, the bishops said in their letter to the governor. Extending aid to those who lack permanent resident status “will help to protect all Californians,” they emphasized.

The bishops called for an expansion of state disability insurance eligibility to workers who are ineligible for unemployment insurance but who have become unemployed as a result of the pandemic. Coronavirus treatment, not only testing, should be covered under Emergency Medi-Cal, which provides medical care for people in need of sudden treatment but have limited income or resources.

The state should expand no-cost or low-cost hotel options to workers essential to maintaining the food supply, the Catholic bishops said. Food banks and schools need more funding to provide food and information about relief programs to families in need.

Further, aid payments of $1,200 should go to all Californians who qualified for the California Earned Income Tax Credit in their filings last year or this. This aid should also go to any filer who used an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number and meets the same income levels that qualify for the tax credit. This tax credit should go to all such filers permanently, the bishops said.

The Catholic bishops cited Pope Francis’ Easter Sunday message, in which he asked governments “to recognize that the equal and fundamental human dignity of every human person -- not economic class or status of documentation -- must be the central principle of forging assistance programs in this moment of crisis.

Newsom’s April 22 daily briefing announced that hospitals could once again schedule surgeries, which have been delayed to prepare for a surge of coronavirus patients. Newsom hopes to improve the numbers of coronavirus tests to 25,000 per day by the end of April, and believes the state needs to increase capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 tests per day. The state aims to add 86 testing sites, especially in under-served and minority communities that tend to suffer more from the virus.

As of April 22, there were over 33,200 confirmed positive cases and 1,268 deaths from coronavirus in California.

Some 3,357 people were hospitalized for coronavirus treatment, a slight decrease from the previous day. Newsom said coroners have been directed to revisit autopsies in light of reports that a Santa Clara woman is now believed to have been the first coronavirus death in the U.S., possibly changing experts’ understanding of the disease and its spread in the country.

Pehanich, the Catholic conference spokesman, discussed the response to COVID-19 in the state.

“The social distancing and shelter-in-place orders that our public health officials have instituted and the sacrifice that millions have made to stay at home during Lent up through now appear to have succeeded in lowering the death toll and infection rate here in California,” he told CNA. “It has been tough, but it has saved lives and our numbers are significantly less than they could have been considering what happened in Italy, Spain and New York City.”

“Our parishes and dioceses are doing superb work to stay in contact with the faithful. Many parishes are expanding their ability to communicate with parishioners like never before using email, social media and good, old-fashioned telephone calls,” Pehanich continued. “We are eager to re-open the Churches and are working with public health officials on the best way to proceed. Californians, in general, have apparently done a great job of social distancing and flattening the curve. Catholic social services everywhere are working to serve those in need now and when the crisis eases.”