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June 2, 2023

Maria T. Cadenas: Including undocumented families in safety nets is the only way forward

Thousands of Monterey and Santa Cruz County families were forced to evacuate March 11 after the Pajaro and Soledad rivers flooded this rural agricultural area. The storms arrived at the beginning of the growing season, just as farmworkers were going back to work and farmers had prepped the land to grow the fruits and vegetables we all enjoy.  

The storms left families without a home, without work, and with possible contamination to drinking water facilities.  

Fields are now full of water, drowning plants, and mud banks, leaving farmworkers without a job and small farmers on the brink of bankruptcy.   

The economic impact is long-term. It is a decrease in wages and earnings for the entire year, with possible unemployment of six months. This while the region is still trying to recover from the devastating impact of Covid, wildfires and recent storms.  

Furthermore, the cost of living and housing crisis in the region raise significant questions about where we can house displaced families, putting many at risk from predatory landlords and lenders.  

And if you are undocumented, you have no real recourse.  

This is especially important in the Monterey Bay region—the number one California location in county concentration of undocumented population. Most work in agriculture, services and hospitality—significant economic drivers in the region. This means that when our undocumented neighbors don’t do well, neither do we. 

In 2020, we launched UndocuFund Monterey Bay. This collaborative effort raised close to $5 million and provided unrestricted cash relief funds to almost 4,000 families. Our model trusted families to identify how to best support their needs and piloted monthly stipends versus one-time assistance.  

The value of an unrestricted cash challenged traditional models of relief aid by emphasizing the dignity and self-determination of people. Our work strengthened a community-directed safety net for undocumented workers otherwise ineligible for federal and state support.  

UndocuFund Monterey Bay minimizes barriers and trusts families to make their own decisions. We emphasize the dignity and autonomy of recipients to determine their own path for recovery and stabilization. And it works!  

As effective as UndocuFund Monterey Bay is, it cannot replace a sustainable, equitable safety net that undocumented people can trust in times of crisis. This is especially true given the impact of climate change. A 2022 study from UC Merced found that undocumented workers, particularly those who work in agriculture, are most likely to be at risk for environmental disasters like flooding, drought and fires.

We cannot have a meaningful regional recovery if we leave our undocumented families out—families that have lived in the region on average for 10 years. It is time for the state and our local government to learn from our models and implement what we learned.  

Including undocumented families in federally and state funded safety net programs is the only way forward. For example, California can ensure that all workers receive unemployment benefits through the Safety Net for All Workers Act (SB 277). These changes would provide support and recognize undocumented immigrants’ contribution of more than $3 billion in taxes and an estimated $485 million to the Unemployment Insurance system (Public Policy in California).   

I invite you to reach out to your representatives and ask for inclusive recovery funds. 

Maria T. Cadenas is executive director of Ventures. Her opinions are her own and not necessarily those of the Pajaronian.


  1. I think American citizens and legal residents should be given first priority in housing aid.
    Now beat me up for saying the truth.

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  2. Thank you, Ms. Cadenas, for explaining the link between undocumented workers and a thriving economy. We should want these workers to be given aid just because they are human beings in need, but, if not for this humane reason, then because then because they are essential to our economy.

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