Dismantling the Invisible Wall

Breaking down barriers to pandemic relief
Masked community based organizations staffers help clients fill out assistance applications
At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, a group of community-based organizations were selected to help distribute financial assistance to undocumented Californians through the state’s Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants program
Credit: TODEC Legal Center

The effort to vaccinate communities across the United States is picking up steam, and along with it are decisions about who will be the first in line. In some places, those who are most at risk of getting the coronavirus and experiencing complications are the very people being told they’ll have to wait the longest for the vaccine: undocumented immigrants. This type of policy decision isn’t unusual. For years, the federal government has built an “invisible wall” of policies to marginalize immigrants in our society and exclude them and their families from government support. The results have been disastrous. With no safety net and a job market in disarray, undocumented immigrants remain the most likely to be exposed to COVID-19 and the least likely to have support in navigating this global health emergency.

The two major pieces of federal legislation designed to help Americans weather the pandemic—the CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act—provided millions of people with boosted unemployment benefits and flexible cash. But these policies failed to reach millions more non-tax-filing Americans with low incomes and deliberately excluded undocumented immigrants, leaving entire communities without recourse amid the crisis.

Going without government support is not new for undocumented communities. People without legal status are excluded from receiving most forms of government assistance, including SNAP and federally funded healthcare, and face long-standing socioeconomic inequities⁠. Even those who do qualify for public benefits have been deterred from applying because of the expanded public charge rule passed under the Trump Administration. This complex rule was designed to scare immigrant families away from using critical resources by holding the use of SNAP, Medicaid, and other non-cash social safety net programs against immigrants applying for a green card—and it worked. Participation in SNAP and Medicaid fell twice as fast between 2016 to 2019 for U.S. citizens in mixed-immigration status households than it did in households made up only of U.S. citizens. Even “safe” programs that aim to serve immigrants and their families, like Pandemic EBT and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), have been met with suspicion by families trying to weigh their risks. One CalFresh applicant with a humanitarian visa that would exempt them from the public charge rule explained to staff on our GetCalFresh team:

“Hi, I sent in my application and my documents but I have a question. I have a U-Visa and I am doing the paperwork to get permanent residency—I wanted to know if getting this help would hurt my chances. If it does, I’d rather not get the help.”

Within this grim context, the pandemic took hold. Now, nearly a year in, undocumented immigrants still face greater challenges due to overrepresentation in essential services that expose them to the virus and are at an elevated risk of negative health impacts should they catch COVID-19. To respond to this tsunami of need, the state of California stepped up to create its own state-funded program called Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants, or DRAI.



Providing cash aid to those who’d been excluded

DRAI was a modest but crucial lifeline for undocumented Californians. The program’s goal was to distribute $500 bank cards to 150,000 undocumented adults who had experienced some adverse impact from the pandemic—from those who lost wages or jobs and had kids home from school needing care, to those who had gotten the coronavirus or had to take care of a family member who did. The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) selected twelve community-based organizations (CBOs) that usually provide legal assistance to undocumented communities to distribute these funds.

CDSS reached out to our team at Code for America to build a digital portal that would support these community-based organizations in taking applications, tracking the various steps in the process, and activating clients’ $500 bank cards.

When CDSS approached us to participate in the project, our team knew immediately that this work epitomized our mission—to make government work for people who need it the most.

In partnership with CDSS and the CBOs, we created the first-ever DRAI application—a custom, secure, user-centered portal for frontline organizations that could serve clients and disburse cash aid while remaining flexible enough to respond to changing needs.

Challenges, successes, and lessons learned

Our organization took the DRAI portal from conception to launch in a month, a record for any product previously created by Code for America. Clients had to call in to their county’s designated CBO to complete their applications, and on the first day, many CBOs’ phone systems collapsed under the deluge of requests for service.



Recognizing that the bottlenecks in service were causing panic among applicants, our team quickly iterated the DRAI portal based on real-time data and CBO staff and client feedback. We worked with our partners to expand the number of staff who could approve cases and disburse cards, clarified eligibility guidance that was confusing clients, and improved search, filtering, and reporting features for CBOs up until the last day of the project.

CBOs across the state hired and trained new staff, worked nights and weekends, and went as far as to hold “drive-through” debit card pickups in the 110° Coachella Valley heat to ensure that eligible applicants made it through the process and got the critical cash they needed.

Tight feedback loops between CDSS, the twelve CBOs, and Code for America coalesced under the overwhelming need for the project to succeed. This process taught us how to better serve clients who have been marginalized, stigmatized, and are scared to reach out for help.

To ensure that clients didn’t slip between the cracks, Code for America also assigned bilingual client success staff to field the over 1,200 emails that came into our privacy policy email address from people trying to find their way through the system. Their messages expressed tremendous urgency. One client wrote:

“Good evening. I applied three weeks ago, and I sent in my documents, but I haven’t gotten help. The truth is I need help because I’ve been without a job for two months, and I haven’t been able to pay rent, and now I received an eviction notice. The owner of the house put the house on sale, and I owe three months of rent. I really need the help. I am a widow, and I have four adult children, but they are also without work. Please, help me.”

Ultimately, the project succeeded in distributing every single bank card to community members, putting a total of $75 million dollars directly into peoples’ pockets. During a CBO feedback session, one staff person from Training Occupational Development Educating Communities (TODEC), based in the Imperial Valley, told us:

“The community is so thankful. We are blessed to be Californians. We love the DRAI portal. This is a team effort—you don’t need to thank us —it’s our responsibility to serve the community.”

What’s next for relief for immigrants?

While we’re proud of the role we played in this project, the pandemic rages on, and it’s now been nearly a year since countless people received their last paycheck. DRAI was a lifeline for those who got it, but the one-time $500 payment it provided met only a fraction of the need. Greater federal action is necessary to support all community members through this crisis. Ensuring that people can stay home if they are sick without risking hunger or eviction is a necessary step toward containing the pandemic.

We’re encouraged that the Biden administration is prioritizing fixing our broken immigration system in ways we haven’t seen in years, including plans to reunify separated families, improve the immigration court system, provide a path to citizenship, and more. We also commend this week’s executive order to reexamine the previous administration’s public charge rule—a rule that has prevented people from accessing life-saving social safety net programs when they needed them most.

The pandemic and resulting economic crisis have exposed fault lines in our systems that have existed for decades. Right now we have more than an opportunity to address them—we have a responsibility to address them. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are all interconnected, and that when government programs successfully serve marginalized communities, we all do better. We hope that future relief efforts at state and federal levels follow DRAI’s example of inclusivity and responsiveness to those who need support. We stand at the ready to help the government deliver.

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