The federal government this week approved Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration, meaning communities impacted by flooding in Tulare, Kern, Mariposa, Tuolumne, Monterey, San Benito and Santa Cruz counties are eligible for federal funding.
Residents of those counties can now request individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
But as agricultural communities in Tulare and Monterey counties struggle to recover from the deluges, questions remain as to who is eligible for government support. Half of California farmworkers did not have work authorization between 2015 and 2019, according to estimates from the Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey.
Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for the state’s Office of Emergency Services, encourages people and families affected by the storms to apply for government-sponsored aid – even if they are concerned about their immigration status.
“It only takes one member of the household to have United States citizenship for the household to be eligible,” Ferguson said.
With the recently approved federal help, he said disaster resource centers will soon open to help all Californians access both federal and state resources.
Through the resource centers, Ferguson said, people will be able to meet with and access state agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Employment Development Department, and others to learn how to apply for lost identifications, paperwork or unemployment.
“All the federal and state resource centers are safe spaces for folks who are undocumented,” he said. “There will not be any immigration enforcement action. Folks can come there safely.”
Why is aid needed for ‘flood disasters’?
This winter, severe storms led to flooding and damage in communities across California.
Ferguson said floods are the most deadly disasters in California. Though wildfires and earthquakes can be “more dramatic looking,” he said the 21 flood-related deaths reported in January would rank as the fourth- or fifth-most deadly wildfire in state history.
Sunshine across the state doesn’t mean the floods are over. As temperatures warm up, the epic Sierra Nevada snowpack will melt.
“Particularly in the Central Valley, we know the flood risk could increase even after the storms go away, when the sun comes out,” Ferguson said.
With snowmelt trickling down the foothills, the state is concerned that already flooded areas will be overwhelmed by even more water.
“We’re responding to the disasters that haven’t happened yet while simultaneously providing help and recovery resources to the people who are already experiencing impacts,” Ferguson said.
“It’s a complex disaster, but it’s one that we take very seriously,” he said. “We’re going to be with these communities for the long haul.”
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Who is eligible for disaster relief benefits or resources?
To be eligible for FEMA assistance, a person needs to be:
a U.S. citizen
a non-citizen national
a qualified non-citizen (including green card holders, refugees and asylum grantees)
If a parent or legal guardian does not meet the citizenship or eligible immigration status at the time of application, they can still apply on behalf of a minor who is eligible, as long as they live in the same household, according to FEMA.
“The parent or legal guardian must apply as the co-applicant,” the agency’s website states “and the minor child must be under 18 at the time disaster occurred.”
For state resources, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) has a guide specifically for immigrants detailing which resources are available to them.
If someone is undocumented and part of a mixed immigration status family or household where someone is eligible for resources, the CDSS says:
They can apply for FEMA benefits on behalf of the eligible person.
They can apply for CalFresh and CalWORKS food programs if their children are U.S. citizens or are eligible non-citizen based on the rules of these programs.
Even when a person or their family isn’t eligible for CalFresh, they can still get school lunch and breakfast, Disaster CalFresh and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits if eligible for those programs. The CDSS also says non-eligible people and families can seek resources at community food banks and other food programs.
The CDSS said individuals applying for benefits for their eligible children or family members don’t need to provide information about their own immigration status.
“You should tell your eligibility worker that you are not trying to get benefits for yourself,” the guide reads. “Eligibility workers should not ask you any further questions about your immigration status once you tell them that you are not applying for yourself.”
Also, no undocumented person or immigrant should be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) when visiting emergency centers. CDSS said these agencies aren’t conducting immigration enforcement at disaster relief sites like shelters and food banks.
“The federal government strongly encourages all persons to follow the guidance of local officials and seek help and shelter regardless of their immigration status,” the guide reads.
Specific websites, hours of operation and phone numbers for disaster relief resources in CDSS’s guide can be found at