California has experienced a series of compounding disasters in the last four years — catastrophic wildfires, extreme heatwaves, hazardous air quality, drought, and the ever-present pandemic — that have devastated homes and businesses, displaced thousands of families, and wrecked the health and economic well-being of our communities. During this time, national news coverage has spread the narrative that everyone is equally susceptible to disasters and that crises don’t discriminate between people or communities. This is not the case.
Crises like wildfires, heatwaves, or pandemics are not isolated or unanticipated “natural” phenomena that affect everyone equally. Pre- and post-disaster interventions are inherently political, and policymakers make choices every day that prioritize certain lives over others. Californian’s BIPOC and low-income communities are often the most at risk for the devastation caused by disasters because of the state’s past and present discriminatory practices. For example, as a 2019 State Auditor’s report highlights, emergency officials routinely overlook the state’s most marginalized populations as they prepare for foreseeable wildfires, floods, and other crises.
Moreover, there is an untold story in our national conversation of the incredible hardships disasters inflict on California’s undocumented Latinx and Indigenous migrant communities. Throughout the pandemic and wildfire season, undocumented farmworkers put their lives on the line to maintain the national food and beverage supply. To this day, thousands of farmworkers continue to work in the fields during wildfires, most of them without N95 respirator masks and other safeguarding measures, as agricultural companies prioritize the health of their crops over the health of their employees.
Our research on the 2017-2018 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties (the 2nd largest wildfire until recently) found that undocumented migrants are systematically rendered invisible by racism and the cultural norms regarding U.S. citizenship that dictate who is a “worthy disaster victim.” Current efforts to mitigate and adapt to our increasingly frequent climate-driven disasters, particularly at the local level, often exclude undocumented migrants and withhold vital government protections and resources from them. Additionally, many undocumented individuals are afraid to seek public benefits during moments of crisis as it can feel like a risk to their livelihood and their family’s safety.
In the last few years, local immigrant rights groups have stepped up to provide essential services to undocumented and migrant communities when resources have primarily been funneled to wealthy and privileged populations. We have seen these groups provide access to emergency information in Spanish and Indigenous dialects, advocate for labor protections for farmworkers threatened by heavy smoke, and create a private, philanthropy-supported disaster relief fund for undocumented migrants ineligible for federal aid.
While California has taken critical steps to improve disaster response in the last two years, stronger protections are needed for undocumented and migrant populations. As we’ve elevated in our research, civic and philanthropic leaders can make several vital interventions to support communities historically excluded from protections and resources. Philanthropy can help advance these interventions and partner with local and state governments to enforce protective measures and distribute resources equally.
Interventions & Investments
Inclusive disaster and climate adaptation planning
Pre-disaster intervention efforts must center the expertise and lived experiences of our most at-risk and impacted Californians. The state government’s community engagement process often overlooks organizations that serve migrant communities. Philanthropy must increase support for frontline immigrant-serving and advocacy organizations to participate in local climate change and disaster planning processes.
Expanded capacity building support for community-based organizations
Emergency management is often guided by the principle of “doing the greatest good, for the greatest number of people.” This seemingly utilitarian belief almost translates to the exclusion of marginalized communities from protections and resources. A large number of community-based organizations are under-resourced and lack relationships and connections to funders. Yet, even with limited resources, these organizations have always stepped up to support their communities in times of crisis. We urge philanthropy to expand multi-year general operating and capacity support so these organizations can support their communities’ day-to-day needs and, more importantly, carry out the necessary advocacy and systems-change work essential to fixing existing inequity in government policies and programs. Furthermore, it needs to sustain the networks and capacities of frontline organizations that have been built as a result of the 2020 Census, voters outreach and education, and the current COVID-19 response. These networks will continue to be essential to helping at-risk communities in future hazard events.
Improved language access for emergency information
The lack of diversity and capacity within climate mitigation planning and emergency management departments across California (and the country), especially those in rural and under-resourced jurisdictions, means that decision-making processes and information dissemination often exclude non-English speakers. Philanthropy can advance language justice by supporting community-based organizations’ outreach efforts, media and communications entities serving immigrant communities, and local governments’ advocacy efforts for cultural and linguistic appropriate processes.
Protecting workers’ occupational health and safety and providing health care coverage for undocumented workers
Robust advocacy efforts by community-based and state-wide nonprofits have resulted in legislative victories to safeguard frontline workers and farmworkers from COVID-19 and other disasters. Yet, the reality does not reflect the laws. Advocacy efforts by nonprofits serving these populations are critical to the enforcement and expansion of such protections. Funders can also provide resources to CBOs to conduct policy advocacy campaigns at the state and local levels. This support will help ensure the equitable implementation and accountability of disaster policies and programs. Learn more about what philanthropy can do to support advocacy efforts.
Support a multi-pronged approach to disaster relief
Undocumented migrants are often considered “unworthy disaster victims” in disaster relief policies and programs. We need a multi-pronged approach to relief because the needs of undocumented migrants are so urgent. First, California needs to develop a statewide disaster relief program for agricultural workers and other outside workers as they experience severe economic losses due to disasters. Second, the state systems need to be overhauled, including unemployment insurance, to ensure that undocumented people receive financial support. Last, philanthropy can support UndocuFunds and other Latinx-centered funds across the state to fill in the gaps in our state’s resources.
Philanthropy California is currently mapping our members’ actions in the climate and disaster resilience space. If you'd like to share your climate actions or progress with us or if you have any other ideas, please contact Alan Kwok, Director of Climate and Disaster Resilience, at email@example.com. Together with other sectors, philanthropy can move the needle in reducing the risk and vulnerability of undocumented Californians to climate-driven crises so they, too, can pursue socioeconomic security and prosperity.