Community fund helps undocumented migrants rebuild after NorCal fires

After the destruction of the North Bay Fires, most Sonoma County residents could get financial assistance to help rebuild. But for the more than 40,000 undocumented immigrants living there, access to financial support has been limited.

So a group of community organizations teamed up to raise money for Undocufund— a special fund that provides financial aid without strings attached or the risk of deportation.

Just like the DMV — except not

The organizers publicized an initial goal of raising $2 million. Today, they’ve raised almost $5 million. So far they’ve helped 4,000 people with half the funds yet to be distributed. People apply for those grants in person, at one of the clinics the organizers have held.

We spoke with a woman named Ingrid, who’d heard about the clinic on Facebook. Her husband and her father both lost work in the weeks immediately following the fire.

Ingrid says, financially, “it’s always a struggle,” but now their family is worried about making rent and paying bills.

They hope the Undocufund will provide a little relief.

Today’s clinic, hosted at Santa Rosa Junior College, is packed with a line out the door. There’s a donation center with heaps of donated clothes, and supplies. Dozens of people work with volunteers to fill out their applications for funds. The center of the room looks like the DMV — people sit in rows waiting for their name to be called.

But, something about the emotional pitch of the room makes it very much not like the DMV. Maybe it’s the kids’ play area or maybe it’s the tense looks on so many faces.

Maybe it’s that today is supposed to be a rare safe place for undocumented residents of Sonoma County to get risk-free assistance.

The seed of the Undocufund sprouted at the Graton Day Labor Center. That’s a place where contract laborers such as cleaners, and farm and construction workers, can come to find jobs for the day.

Opportunity to serve

But, it’s more than just a job-finding center. It’s run democratically by members. It’s a hub of political organizing, and like a home base for workers.

So, when the fires started, staffers like Emilia Carbajal left the doors open, in case any of their members needed anything.

“Some members are homeless, living in their cars,” she says.

Workers did start showing up — scared, but wanting to help each other.

So, along with the staff, they decided to get in touch with all current members of Graton Day Labor Center — over 400 people.

“We just got two tables out … and we just did a phone bank to see if everyone was OK,” says Carbajal. “We confirmed by that Tuesday that at least ten people had lost everything they had.”

They knew their undocumented members and others in Sonoma County wouldn’t have access to traditional aid, like FEMA money.

So the day labor center put their heads together with two other community organizations. Using social media and by word of mouth they made the Undocufund plan public.

One of the first things they did was set up a process to make sure recipients without bank accounts could cash checks without showing government IDs or paying extra fees.

And, they invited leaders in the undocumented community to an advisory group in order to help direct decisions about the Undocufund.

Davin Cardenas co-directs one of the organizations behind the Undocufund, the North Bay Organizing Project. He says the partner organizations are using these application clinics as an opportunity to figure out all the ways people need support beyond just the money — such as medical services or mental health counseling.

From charity to solidarity

For the Undocufund founders, the bigger picture is about the long-term work of equity for this community.

They don’t want this relief effort to be a one-off that just brings things back to how they were before the fires.

“We do want to build a long term relationship with anybody who is receiving funds,” says Cardenas. “We want to build community engagement on some of these longer-term equity questions.”

Cardenas says, despite being the backbone of this region’s economy, undocumented people are excluded from many of the services people need to thrive.

“We don’t want to lose sight of that fact that this fund only exists because there’s a system set up that forces it to exist,” says Cardenas.

But, if the interaction between the applicant and volunteer goes right, it won’t be just a moment of charity, but perhaps the beginning of political solidarity.

Cardenas believes all low-wage workers are exploited in ways that the larger community could help fight — with campaigns for things like rent control, better health care access, and fair wages.

He hopes the network that Undocufund is creating — if it lives on after the money is distributed — could be part of that work.

“These checks aren’t going to be enough to solve the larger needs. But, it’s a short-term act that hopefully allows for people to think, reflect, breathe in order to figure out the next steps,” says Cardenas.

For Ingrid, who came with her mother, those next steps are finding financial security. Unexpectedly, she’s also finding a way to feel less alone with these problems.

“It feels good to see how people are helping and to see that the community comes together when we really need it,” says Ingrid. “Maybe we thought we were all really separated from each other, but with this happening now we can see that we can all come together to make a change.”

That sense of possibility — that’s what the organizers of the Undocufund are really after.

AUTHOR: Ninna Gaensler-Debs & Liza Veale
DATE: January 9, 2018