This article is a part of our news series on the COVID-19 pandemic. For information on how to prevent the spread of the virus, click here. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a number of changes to San Diego, including the closure of beaches and parks, the cancellation of upcoming events, and a significant departure from the normalcy of living in San Diego. With these changes have come heightened emotions and unrest, which at times have boiled over beyond the social media sphere into in-person protests.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has been a prominent figure throughout this pandemic. Gonzalez joined a group of activists on Friday, April 24 to deliver approximately 1,000 masks and gloves to detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, but was turned away. Likewise, Gonzalez has been vocal about the lack of law enforcement at the various San Diego anti-lockdown protests. Recently, she called out the Sheriff’s department on Twitter for ticketing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement protestors at the aforementioned detention center but not those at the anti-lockdown protests in Encinitas, downtown San Diego, and Pacific Beach.
The UCSD Guardian sat down with the Assemblywoman via Zoom to discuss the work she has been doing in regards to the ongoing pandemic, both within the California State Assembly and on the ground in San Diego.
What pieces of legislation or projects have you been working on in regards to the pandemic?
Lorena Gonzalez: Mainly I am continuing to do my legislative package, which tends to center around workers … We’re working with other members on making sure that essential workers will be paid sick days beyond the state law [so that] if they get diagnosed they can stay home, or if they are in quarantine they can stay home and still be paid.
[We’re also working to ensure] the right for workers after the pandemic to get their jobs back. What we’re seeing is that there are some big employers who have told workers that they’re going to have to reapply for their job, which could [cause them to lose] seniority or they may not make the same amount, so the right to recall and retention is important. We’re doing bills on worker’s compensation to make sure that workers who get the virus at work [are protected financially].
Last week you attempted to deliver about 1,000 face masks to detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center but were turned away. Can you explain a little bit as to what happened, and since then have you been able to provide these masks or any other resources to the detainees?
LG: There are groups that have been working with the Otay detention facility for a while, and they’re in touch with family members on the outside. These detainees have been calling out, and that’s where we knew there may have been deficiencies of [personal protective equipment] that they had inside of the detention facility. We also knew that they had over 124 positive cases between workers and detainees.
[The organization] had invited me to try to come deliver a thousand masks to the detention center since that is something that the detainees had been calling their family members about. The warden wouldn’t come out and meet with me and he wouldn’t accept the masks, so we’ve been calling since then. I finally got him to call me back yesterday. He told me that they have plenty of masks, and that they have 7,500 masks and any detainee that asks can get one. I don’t know if that’s a new feature, but clearly that’s important. We also asked about soap because we had heard that there wasn’t enough soap, and I was willing to purchase soap for the detainees if that was necessary. He said that it was unnecessary and that they had plenty of soap and that it’s up to the detainees if they want to social-distance.
He made a lot of assertions, so I asked if I could come and see the facility and he said he couldn’t authorize that and that I’d have to go through ICE. So we called ICE and made a formal request to view the facility. In talking to Congressman [Juan] Vargas, who had a while ago viewed the detention facility, he said that he doesn’t think they have the ability to social-distance, and that’s a huge issue. We’re still working and putting pressure on that. We’re also supporting the ACLU’s lawsuit to release nonviolent detainees.
[The detention center] insists that they have the resources and they blame it on ICE that they can’t accept [these donations] You would hope that people aren’t that cruel, that they just care so little about humanity that they’re unwilling to take donations. The entire premise of the detention center is that it is for people who have presented themselves legally to seek asylum, so that alone is an issue.
We have seen a recent uptick of anti-quarantine protests. Have you been able to work with law enforcement to try and contain these protests? If not, what would you like to see done?
LG: One of our biggest issues was that people weren’t being treated the same. Having engaged in civil disobedience in the past, there are consequences for that. If people are going to face consequences they should apply equally. We were assured by the Sheriff’s department that the honking tickets that were given in Otay Mesa [for the anti-ICE protest] were repealed, so that was their way of dealing with it.
I think law enforcement’s in a tough position. They are trying to contain these protests, there’s a political agenda behind them, but yet at the same time [the protests] attract a wide variety of folks — you have a lot of Trump folks, you have people who are putting themselves and others in danger, but they have a right to first amendment speech. I think during these times we need to be a little more diligent about not allowing people to put themselves in danger because what they do affects all of us. Whether or not they or someone else gets infected, it’s something that they should have to take into consideration.
What are common concerns about the pandemic that your constituents have expressed to you, and what sorts of resources or advice do you give them in response?
LG: So we on an almost daily basis send out emails to our constituents on everything from where to get free food, how to sign up for CalFresh, how to get your unemployment insurance checks, how to get relief from rent, how to get legal and healthcare services. There are so many needs right now. Everyone’s individual situation is different. There are some people still getting their paycheck, there are some people out of work but are getting unemployment with an additional $600 so they’re doing okay financially. And then there are some people who are still waiting on their [unemployment insurance] who got nothing.
What I think is one of the most devastating things is, in my community where there is a lot of mixed-status households, people who are undocumented not only don’t get unemployment insurance despite the fact that it’s been paid into for them, but they also are unable to get the stimulus check. If they’re married to a citizen, that citizen doesn’t get the stimulus check. We do have people who not only have no income, but have no foreseeable way to [receive it]. So one thing we’ve been working hard on with the Latino Caucus and the governor is to provide money for undocumented workers who are left without a safety net during all of this.
We have a lot of questions about school, everything from Pre-K and childcare all the way up to college students who don’t know what [education] is going to look like [and] how long it’s going to look like this. [For me,] my 8-year-old is doing okay, with my 11-year-old with middle school it’s been really tough getting all of that work done, and my 11th grader is doing fine, like a lot of it is just writing. But we have all of the resources we need. We have a computer for each kid, we have internet access, we have a room where they can do work. Those are struggles that a lot of working class parents are facing right now.
What would you like to see moving forward after the pandemic is over?
LG: I think we’ve got to look at this as an opportunity, and that’s really where your generation comes in. We’re going to come out of this, and the world will look different, and what do we want that to look like. Right now our air is clean, we’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions, we’re looking at a climate that would be more sustainable.
How do we come out of this pandemic and adopt some of the policies, whether it’s work from home policies, utilizing transit more, reinvesting in our neighborhood schools — what changes in behavior can we make, what kind of protections can we give low wage workers who are essential workers during all of this and ensure that, you know we call them critical and essential workers and heroes and yet we’re thinking about suspending increases to the minimum wage … What are we going to demand as far as a world as we would like to see it?
Artwork by Anthony Tran for the UCSD Guardian.