Seville Dry Cleaners is in Huntington Park, a working class, heavily Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles County. A hair salon and a dental clinic sit on either side of the building, and across the street is a large United States post office. Pre-COVID, these businesses helped to draw foot traffic to the area. But since Californians have had to shelter in place, the once bustling street has gone quiet.
Isabel Delgadillo, who opened Seville with her husband in the early 1990s after immigrating from Mexico, estimated their income has dropped by 40%. “There are no clients,” Delgadillo says, adding that she’s worried because the business is the only source of income for her family.
L.A. County has more than 3.6 million immigrants, a third of the population, according to a recent report from the University of Southern California. Immigrants are critical to the success of the county’s economy: They make up 44% of its workforce. And although they’re drivers of the economy, most of those in the workforce live in poverty: Half of immigrants and more than two-thirds of undocumented Angelenos live below the federal poverty guideline—by 200%.
Immigrants not only make up a large proportion of L.A. County’s workforce, but they are also disproportionately represented among essential workers.
To help immigrants learn about and access countywide services available to them (including renters’ protections, immigration legal representation, and medical health), the county established the Office of Immigrant Affairs in 2017. Before the pandemic, OIA would receive an average of 100 calls a week, according to Michael Nobleza, an executive fellow of the national nonprofit FUSE, which partners with local governments such as OIA. In the first week after Californians began sheltering in place, 1,500 calls came in.
This spike in demand was a clear signal to OIA that immigrant communities needed more urgent help.
In May, the agency began drafting the L.A. Immigrant Essential Workers Initiative to ensure that immigrant businesses and workers, whose hardships have been heightened during the pandemic, are included in economic recovery efforts. OIA acts as an adviser to other county agencies, so the Essential Workers Initiative focuses on raising awareness of immigrant issues, such as exclusion from certain federal assistance and fear of accessing government services, and helping agencies develop culturally responsive policies that address these issues. OIA expects to recommend the initiative for adoption to the Board of Supervisors, which is the L.A. County governing body, this month.
Immigrants not only make up a large proportion of L.A. County’s workforce, but they are also disproportionately represented among essential workers, including in food services, nursing, construction, and child care. These workers face unique challenges, such as limited English proficiency, not having bank accounts, lack of access to technology, and mistrust of government, that make it harder for them to access public services that could help them weather the crisis. The difficulties are compounded for undocumented people, who are barred from accessing social safety nets, such as unemployment insurance and food stamps.
“COVID-19 exposed the pressure points,” says Nobleza. “It really revealed the ways in which immigrants are not able to effectively access public services, often by virtue of their immigration status.”
Lift Up the Importance of Immigrants
The L.A. Immigrant Essential Workers Initiative encompasses three strategies. The first focuses on shaping public opinion by elevating immigrant issues, stories, and contributions, with a goal of rallying broad backing among residents and legislators for policies that support immigrant workers and businesses. Plans include the launch of a social media campaign focusing on the shortened response time for the 2020 Census.
The second strategy aims to catalyze anti-poverty policymaking in the county and calls for OIA to advise county supervisors on how to craft policies using an immigrant lens. For example, do some regulations make immigrants nervous about applying for assistance? Do language barriers prevent some immigrants from learning about available services? Recent changes to federal public charge rules (in which the use of public benefits, such as food stamps and public housing, might affect whether immigrants are granted green cards or visa extensions) also make it less likely that immigrants will seek public services. An immigrant lens could uncover such barriers and enable policymakers to take steps to mitigate them, such as partnering with community-based organizations and ethnic media on outreach or strengthening privacy protections.
To help local policymakers adopt the approach, OIA is developing an immigrant equity toolkit.
“The immigrant lens aims to sensitize county departments that interact with the public so they understand that one size doesn’t fit all,” explains Rigo Reyes, executive director at OIA. “For immigrants and their families to reach out and seek support services, the services have to be offered and provided in a manner that is culturally, linguistically, and immigration sensitive.”
Despite federal agencies targeting undocumented immigrants, the office has prioritized support for undocumented workers.
Helping government agencies better understand the issues that immigrants are facing will ultimately broaden the impact of county services and help immigrants in ways beyond offering direct loans and grants. “You can do more to serve immigrants than just providing economic relief,” Nobleza says. For example, OIA is planning to work with the Department of Health Services to ramp up enrollment in My Health L.A., the county’s subsidized health insurance plan.
With the third strategy, OIA aims to increase immigrants’ access to public services and engage the community around issues such as wage theft, worker safety, child care, and workforce development. The office has already connected some business owners, including Delgadillo, with modest hardship grants through local nonprofits.
Reports have also shown that fewer Black and Latinx small business owners have received assistance from the federal government. To the extent that stimulus relief is available through federal loan programs, OIA is helping business owners access it more effectively. Many immigrant business owners, for example, don’t include their own salaries on the business’s balance sheet―they pay themselves from the till. OIA works with business owners to show how recorded accounting of their salaries can increase the amount of relief for which they’re eligible.
Despite federal agencies targeting undocumented immigrants, the office has prioritized support for undocumented workers, whose access to public services is the most severely restricted. “It’s this notion of bringing the margins to the center,” Nobleza explains. “If we can address their needs, then we can safely assume that the needs of other immigrants who are authorized or naturalized will also benefit.”
OIA has also been holding weekly news conferences in English and Spanish for ethnic and community media to share information about COVID-19 and available resources. “We wanted to use trusted messengers,” Reyes says.
Planning for the Future
While meeting immediate needs is the priority right now, OIA is looking for longer term strategies to help immigrant essential workers succeed in the post-pandemic economy. Some people who were infected with the virus might need continued care after leaving the hospital, and that, says Nobleza, is a potential opportunity for “underemployed” immigrant workers. “There are immigrants who have come here who were already doctors, dentists, respiratory therapists in their countries of origin,” he says. “But because their certifications were different than what is needed here, they were forced to take lower-paying jobs.”
OIA is working with local workforce development boards, which oversee professional licensing, to find ways to help connect workers with in-demand jobs in the health care field. “We’re addressing things that will make it easier for immigrant workers and their families not just to endure the pandemic, but through their resiliency and equitable access to support services thrive so they continue making L.A. County the great home it is to us all,” Reyes says.
For Delgadillo, that support couldn’t come soon enough. Foot traffic around her business is still sparse. She applied for and was denied federal relief, forcing her to lay off her only employee. While she has so far kept up with rent, she’s not sure what will happen next month. She feels she has done everything she can to help herself, but so far it hasn’t been enough to put her back on firm footing.
“I hope,” she says, “something will change.”
This story was produced by our partners FUSE Corps, a national executive fellowship program that partners with local government agencies and produces solutions-driven journalism.
Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay Area writer and journalist. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, CityLab, Politico Magazine, and more.