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John Sobrato’s Big Challenge

By Michelle Konstantinovksy

John A. Sobrato has announced a $5.2 million grant to launch a new Immigrant Resilience Fund in San Mateo County.

The legendary Bay Area philanthropist launches a major effort to support undocumented immigrants impacted by COVID-19.

None of us expected 2020 to play out this way. Aside from the clear and present health implications of the COVID-19 crisis, the economic repercussions of the pandemic have been far-reaching. In the Bay Area and beyond, individual breadwinners, small businesses and families struggling to pay the bills have been hit hard. And while millions of U.S. citizens and resident aliens are eligible for modest stimulus payments to offset some of their monetary burdens, at least 3.2 percent of the American population has been largely ignored in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak: undocumented immigrants.

John A. Sobrato — the legendary Bay Area real estate developer and one of the region’s most prolific philanthropists — is prepared to change that.

On July 7, Sobrato announced a $5.2 million grant to launch a new Immigrant Resilience Fund in San Mateo County. Sobrato’s generosity inspired several others, bolstering the fund to $8.9 million, including more than $1.7 million in contributions from the Grove Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, SHP Foundation, Taube Philanthropies, Janet and Clint Reilly (owners of the Gazette), Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund, the Atkinson Foundation, Sunlight Giving, Steven P. Dostart Charitable Foundation, the George and Judy Marcus Family Foundation, Connie and Bob Lurie, Mark and Mary Stevens, and Yael Goshen and Dylan Smith. Additionally, the County of San Mateo will contribute $2 million.

The fund promises to have a massive impact on the local community and provides a blueprint for other regions throughout the country. San Mateo County alone is home to nearly 60,000 undocumented individuals, according to the Migration Policy Institute, making the group critical to the county’s economic growth and development

“Many of these individuals are essential workers who have worked on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, keeping so many others safe and fed in these trying times,” says Sobrato. “Now these families are suffering. Reduced wages and unemployment have taken a huge toll, they are struggling to feed their families and keep their housing. Their situation is absolutely unacceptable — the need is massive and the time to act on that need is now.”

According to the MPI, Sobrato is correct about the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had — and continues to have — on immigrant workers. A March 2020 fact sheet from the organization reported 6 million immigrant workers are at the front lines of the pandemic, filling roles in industries ranging from health care to food production. That number, according to an April Time magazine report, doesn’t take into account legal status, meaning an unknown number of undocumented workers in essential agricultural, domestic work and service industry jobs have not been included in government assistance programs. Although some emergency funds exist in the Bay Area and elsewhere, undocumented individuals have largely been forced to risk either their health or their finances as the pandemic has ravaged the economy and threatened the well-being of essential employees over the last several months.

Although California is providing one-time, state-funded disaster relief assistance to about 150,000 eligible undocumented adults, that still leaves as many as 2 million people without aid. With Sobrato’s new Immigrant Resilience Fund, individuals in San Mateo County could find the emergency funding that will keep their families afloat. The fund unites a variety of nonprofits to distribute grant funds and provide services to support recipients’ long-term resilience, including Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County, Samaritan House, Faith in Action Bay Area, and Mission Asset Fund. In collaboration, these nonprofits will provide undocumented families with unrestricted $1,000 cash grants and wraparound services to help them navigate an increasingly uncertain future.

Faith in Action Bay Area and the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County will lead community outreach for the Immigrant Resilience Fund, with MAF administering the assets, supporting clients through the application process for cash grants, and prioritizing applicants with the greatest financial need. Samaritan House’s case management process will help identify grantees’ needs and connect them with the appropriate wraparound services, including food, access to shelter, health care and more.

As a result of the grant, nearly 6,000 families will receive assistance to address their most urgent needs, but Sobrato is looking to do even more: He’s contributing an additional $200,000 to support the infrastructure and administrative costs of the program’s lead organizations.

“As the son of immigrants myself, this issue feels particularly personal,” Sobrato says. “These individuals work hard for their community and they deserve nothing less than to have their entire community rally around them to help them weather this crisis.”

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