- Harmony Hayes
LIFELINE Bernice Espinoza of UndocuFund interviews a client.
The 2017 fires displaced thousands of people from their homes. Many were undocumented immigrants who live and work here but unlike others, they could not apply for government aid.
Needs as basic as finding the money for a deposit on a new apartment and restocking the refrigerator were imminent.
"In the first week after the 2017 fire we realized these people aren't going to qualify, so what will be the remedy for them?" says Omar Medina, coordinator of UndocuFund, an organization created after the 2017 fires to help those who—due to their immigration status—could not apply or were fearful of applying for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—an arm of the United States Department of Homeland Security.
"Financial support offered by UndocuFund provides critical support to our undocumented community members because they don't have access to Federal funds like FEMA during recovery," Medina says. "It's helping a community in need."
The organization distributed about $6 million to almost 1,900 families who lost homes, possessions, and earnings in the 2017 fires.
Donations to the fund are slower this year. Because fewer homes burned in the Kincaid Fire, the perception may be that the need is not as great. However, the massive loss of wages that a week or more of power outages and evacuations causes is a very real consequence for undocumented immigrants.
"The Tubbs Fire got a lot of attention because of damaged structures," Medina says. But he emphasizes that this time, "The need is huge. We have a lot of people needing aid."
An estimated 38,500 undocumented immigrants live in Sonoma County. With wider evacuations and power outages during this year's fire, the need for aid relating to lost wages is imminent.
As the UndocuFund website states, "Undocumented immigrants predominantly work in sectors that have been or will be hard hit, including service, hospitality, child and elder care, day labor, wine and agriculture more broadly. Many lost wages in the weeks following the  fires and others worked for companies whose operations were affected at varying levels, from temporary disruption to complete loss."
Assisting with lost wages isn't as sexy as helping a family into a new home for the holidays. But the need is there.
"We can help our community and ease the stress on people who want to get their rent paid and put food on the table," Medina says. "Based on the amount of money we have right now, we can't help everyone."
Three organizations that understood the need first-hand started UndocuFund. The North Bay Organizing Project (where Medina was first involved), North Bay Jobs with Justice and the Graton Day Labor Center are all co-organizers. Grantmakers Concerned for Immigrants and Refugees fiscally sponsored UndocuFund in 2017; North Bay Organizing Project currently funds it. UndocuFund's fundraising proceeds directly assist fire-impacted families, with the exception of the small percentage used to cover administrative costs. Donations are accepted through Undocufund's website.
"The founding organizations of UndocuFund have a long history of working with immigrant communities, so we've established a base of trust," Medina says.
The initial amount of aid distributed to recipients after the Tubbs Fire—about $3,000—was adjusted based on personal interviews with families.
As a former County Human Services employee, Medina trained for seven years to listen closely to case-by-case details. And that's part of the process. UndocuFund organizers sit down with families and personally interview them. Medina explains that the interview format has a therapeutic effect.
"We wanted to sit down with people, interview them and simultaneously give them an opportunity to share their own experience and hear the details of the impact on them," Medina says.
Learn more about UndocuFund at UndocuFund.org.