Emergency Response in Sonoma County
By Roberto Pallais and Dongsu Kim
Disaster Strikes Sonoma
Sonoma County, home to nearly 500,000 people, is known for its famous vineyards and great weather. However, its name has recently been on the news for its yearly wildfires, including the most recent one that burned down 310 houses. Early in the year, Sonoma grappled with spikes in Covid-19 infections. By mid-March 2021, almost 29,000 people had been infected.
Such tragedies have caused a disproportionate amount of strain on vulnerable populations in the county, especially for undocumented immigrants or those living with undocumented family members. An example of this is how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected the Latinx community. In Sonoma County, it is estimated that 87% of the undocumented population is from Mexico and Central America and Hispanics/Latinos account for 27% of the population but make up 67% of recorded COVID Cases. Critically, undocumented residents are often excluded from public programs aiding people affected by the disaster.
Today, these vulnerable communities are facing two interrelated challenges. One is finding financial help to weather the economic crisis. The second is to protect themselves and their families from COVID. Nonprofit initiatives are starting to address these challenges, with the help from community organizers and nonprofit organizations such as Undocu Fund and La Plaza. These initiatives have pushed the county to take action and offer financial support to those most affected by the pandemic. The county has allocated sixteen million dollars for a long term plan that provides help, such as free rapid testing, paid leave for those who don’t qualify for federal assistance, and a hotel stipend for those who are sick and cannot isolate at home.
In Sonoma, residents like Enrique and his family have already weathered tragedy, not once, but multiple times.
These new initiatives do not come a moment too soon. In Sonoma, residents like Enrique and his family have already weathered tragedy, not once, but multiple times. Enrique migrated from Peru to the United States with his wife and son, looking to escape violence and seeking job opportunities. He has resided in Sonoma County undocumented for nearly 17 years. Enrique has been through hard times living in Sonoma County undocumented, but for the most part, he’s had a home, job opportunities, and has never asked for government assistance.
In October 2017 however, Enrique’s apartment was one of the hundreds of homes burned down by the Tubbs fire. He escaped in the middle of the night, bringing few things with him. For the first time since migrating, he sought government aid as he had lost his home and belongings. His status made him ineligible for FEMA assistance; no help would arrive.¹
Over the next few years, Enrique worked hard to make ends meet. He experienced another blow to his financial stability as the pandemic closed businesses. He was one of the first to be laid off at the hotel restaurant where he worked. In fear of being unable to pay the bills, he searched for jobs to no avail. For the second time since moving to the US, he looked to the government for assistance. However, his immigration status disqualified him from federal aid programs such as stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. Instead, he had to rely on the help of his church and organizations such as Undocu Fund.
By The Numbers
Enrique is not alone in his struggle. Estimates place the undocumented population in California alone at over 2 million. Closer to home, as of 2018, roughly 29,000 undocumented noncitizens call Sonoma County home.
There are hundreds of people like Enrique who have suffered from the fires and pandemic and were forgotten by local, state and federal governments.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on immigrant populations in Sonoma has become so alarming that local officials have begun implementing initiatives to support these specific communities. On November 24th, 2020, Sonoma County released an article announcing increased efforts to help the community through non-profits such as On the Move. These efforts are an attempt at providing a pathway to recovery. “The County of Sonoma is coordinating with Latinx community partners and leaders to develop a plan to prevent and mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in the Latinx community.” We believe that the current initiative to help vulnerable populations is a big step in the right direction and will help people like Enrique.
Almost two months later, assessing the impacts of these initiatives and finding ways to improve them remains difficult. The December holiday season proved detrimental in curbing the pandemic as case counts soared across the country. Sonoma saw a massive increase in new cases from November onward. Such surges can easily confound community efforts. The local healthcare system was on the verge of collapse as the number of ICU beds plummeted to 3.4% in Sonoma County at the height of the surge. To make matters worse, reports have shown that COVID is being contracted by essential workers and spread to their families. One reason is that many immigrant workers live in fear of unemployment in these dire times. They fear being unable to provide for their families as the first wave of stimulus funds have long since disappeared. As a result, these vulnerable workers have essentially been disenfranchised due to pressure from employers. The economic burden on these families is a key issue that should be a priority for aid programs.
Now that we’ve outlined the situation and shortcomings of the current emergency response towards immigrant populations, we make two recommendations for changes. First, the communication between local government and these vulnerable communities needs to be strengthened. Dmitra, a local leader, explained that these communities are often underrepresented in local government, so efforts are often outsourced to pre-existing organizations. Obtaining a better understanding of the communities’ needs and increasing representation would facilitate effective planning to identify solutions. Second, economic relief is a must. Fear of unemployment is exacerbating the impact of the pandemic. Economic relief would allow the implementation of measures such as increased testing, vaccinations, and/or isolation for those infected because people would be able to sequester with less worry. Parents would be able to take care of their children or prevent themselves from spreading COVID to others. We need to give immigrant residents a voice in their communities and real economic relief, in Sonoma County, across California, and the nation.
¹ FEMA, Federal Emergency Management Agency, provided legal residents who were victims of the 2017 Tubbs fire to receive financial assistance https://www.sonomacountyrecovers.org/fema-disaster-assistance/
About the authors
Roberto Pallais (he/him) is an Economics major at University of California, Berkeley. He is part of the Undocumented Research Program (URP) a collaborative program between UC-Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) and the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI).
Dongsu Kim is a Bioengineering major at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a part of URP, a collaborative program between UC-Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) and the Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI). He hopes to one day work on prosthetics and advocates for changes to public health.
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The Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative (BIMI) is a partnership of migration experts at UC Berkeley who investigate the social, political, legal and economic dynamics of migration globally as well as locally. We strive to advance thoughtful and substantive conversations on migration that leverage the university’s cutting-edge scholarship and its public mission to educate current and future generations. We embrace new data-gathering technologies as well as embedded, on-the-ground fieldwork, drawing from the interdisciplinary expertise of faculty, students and the communities with which we engage. Bringing together research, training and public engagement, BIMI aspires to inform, educate and transform knowledge to improve the well-being of immigrants and the communities they live in.