Calif. High Court Won't Block COVID-19 Relief For Immigrants

By Hannah Albarazi
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Law360 (May 6, 2020, 8:47 PM EDT) -- The California Supreme Court rejected a bid Wednesday by two Republican state legislative candidates seeking to stop California Gov. Gavin Newsom's plan to provide $75 million in public funds to immigrants living in the country illegally who have suffered economic hardship as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The state Supreme Court's ruling comes just one day after a Los Angeles Superior Court rejected a similar request from the conservative group Judicial Watch, according to the Supreme Court's docket.

Both cases took issue with Newsom's April 15 announcement that California's $75 million Disaster Relief Fund "will support undocumented Californians impacted by COVID-19 who are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits and disaster relief, including the CARES Act, due to their immigration status."

Newsom announced a statewide public-private partnership to provide financial support to unauthorized immigrants ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits due to their immigration status, saying that approximately 150,000 unauthorized Californians would receive a one-time cash benefit of $500 per adult, with a cap of $1,000 per household to help them deal with needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Every Californian, including our undocumented neighbors and friends, should know that California is here to support them during this crisis," Newsom said.

The California Supreme Court's decision Wednesday rejects the April 22 petition by Ricardo Benitez and Jessica Martinez, both Republican Party candidates for state Assembly, seeking to stop Newsom and California Department of Finance Director Keely Martin Bosler from distributing public COVID-19 relief funds to unauthorized immigrants.

Benitez is a native of El Salvador and immigrated to the U.S. as a minor in 1975. An unauthorized immigrant himself, Benitez became a U.S. citizen in 1986, according to the petition. Benitez is running for Assembly District 39, which includes parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties.

Likewise, Benitez's fellow petitioner, Jessica Martinez, is running as a candidate for Assembly District 57, in Los Angeles County. Martinez is of Mexican-American descent and a U.S. citizen, according to the petition. 

In the petition, Martinez says that "while she has concerns about the health and welfare of all Californians, including immigrants, she has great concerns about the governor expending COVID-19 emergency funds to give unemployment benefits to those who the law says are not entitled to unemployment benefits."

"We're disappointed that the California Supreme Court has decided, by denying our writ, to allow the governor's unconstitutional, illegal, and unaccountable gift of $75 million of taxpayer dollars to nonprofits to distribute unemployment cash benefits to undocumented workers," Harmeet K. Dhillon of the Dhillon Law Group Inc., a Republican Party official who is representing the petitioners, told Law360.

Dhillon previously slammed Newsom's plan, saying he is attempting to give "$75 million in lieu of unemployment benefits that state and federal law bar to aliens working here illegally."

"Taxpayer money must be appropriated by the legislative branch. This is not a slush fund for the governor to spend as he sees fit," said Dhillon, who also serves as chief executive officer of the Center for American Liberty.

Benitez and Martinez requested an emergency stay of "the illegal gift of public funds unconstitutionally approved by the governor," arguing that "moral considerations do not override legislature's authority to determine the appropriation of public money."

The California Attorney General's Office said in an April 28 opposition brief that the emergency disaster relief payments are not unemployment benefits, and that the governor received the go-ahead from the Legislature to provide public benefits to unauthorized persons.

The attorney general's office points to the passage of S.B. 80 in mid-2019, establishing a rapid response program to provide emergency benefits to unauthorized persons, as well as S.B. 89, which passed in mid-March, appropriating up to $1 billion in COVID-19 relief funds.

Bosler provided notice to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that $63.3 million of the S.B. 89 relief funds would be made available to unauthorized Californians in the form of one-time cash payments, the attorney general's office told the court.

State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell, chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, acknowledged the notification letter from Bosler and concurred in its expenditures, further noting that the "economic fallout from the COVID-19 epidemic is hitting the undocumented community particularly hard and a one-time disaster cash benefit will help lessen the impact on these families."
The parties did not immediately respond to Law360's requests for comment.

Ricardo Benitez and Jessica Martinez are represented by Harmeet K. Dhillon, Mark P. Meuser and Gregory R. Michael of the Dhillon Law Group Inc.

The governor is represented by Benjamin Matthew Glickman, Thomas S. Patterson and Anna Theresa Ferrari of the Office of the Attorney General.

The case is Ricardo Benitez et al. v. Gavin Newsom et al., case number S261804, in the Supreme Court of the State of California.

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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