clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For immigrants without legal status, federal coronavirus relief is out of reach

Many have helped keep essential services running but have no financial safety net. 

Undocumented Essential Workers Want Support During Coronavirus Pandemic
Undocumented immigrants held a protest in front of Pasadena City Hall to call on elected officials to support essential workers on Wednesday, April 29, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Americans have relied on low-wage workers to keep essential services running during the pandemic, from harvesting and delivering food to cleaning public spaces. But many of these workers who lack legal immigration status have done so without receiving any financial assistance from the federal government.

The $2 trillion CARES Act gives most taxpayers unemployment benefits and up to $1,200 in cash payments. But even though the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the US are no more immune to the effects of the current crisis, fearing for their livelihood and their health, the bill has conspicuously omitted them.

Unauthorized immigrants — who make up about a quarter of farmworkers and 8 percent of service sector and production workers — are typically ineligible for unemployment, but policies differ by state. And even if they pay taxes, they also aren’t eligible for stimulus checks, which the government started sending out in April, because they don’t have Social Security numbers. These exclusions impact not only the immigrants themselves, but also their families, including their US citizen spouses and children.

“People say that this pandemic is the great equalizer,” Rosana Araujo, an undocumented immigrant and domestic worker living in South Florida, said. “Sure, it could be an equalizer in terms of how everyone shares anxiety. But this actually exposes the deep inequalities our communities face. They haven’t taken undocumented immigrants into account.”

Some cities and states have taken steps to bridge this gap in financial relief for these workers who have become critical to the US’s coronavirus response: California and New York City, for example, have created funds totaling $125 million and $20 million respectively to support unauthorized immigrants impacted by Covid-19. Advocates are putting pressure on Congress to offer such aid on a federal level, as well.

But absent further relief for the rest of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants, many won’t have any choice but to continue working despite public health warnings to stay home, which could further spread the virus and pose a risk to public health. And should they contract the virus and have to seek medical care, they will have no financial safety net.

Many unauthorized immigrants have no financial safety net

While many immigrants are continuing to work in essential fields, ranging from medical care to cleaning to grocery stores, they are taking an economic hit like many other workers who are facing layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts.

For Joel and Emilio, both unauthorized immigrants living in Panama City Beach, Florida, the pandemic has left them without full-time employment and unable to continue supporting their families in their home countries. (They both asked to be identified only by their first name to protect their privacy.)

Before the pandemic hit, Emilio and Joel were both working full-time on restoring hotels in the area as members of the organization Resilience Force, which helps rebuild homes and buildings devastated from natural disasters. But they were furloughed amid the pandemic and now, they’re making a living by shopping and delivering groceries for Instacart.

They arrived in the US in 2018. Emilio, who is originally from Argentina, was seeking economic opportunity. Joel was escaping the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. His mother, who is also an unauthorized immigrant, came to live with him the following year and was working at the same hotel as him before she was furloughed during the pandemic.

They always sent a portion of their paychecks home to their families. Emilio was sending about $100 to $200 weekly to his mother, and Joel was sending money to his grandmother, but neither of them have been able to afford to do so for weeks.

“It was completely terrible because I had normal weekly earnings and then when all this happened, I stopped having that income,” Emilio said, adding that now, his earnings on Instacart are “random and only by luck.”

Araujo said she has also been sending money to her two sisters and nephew back home in Uruguay. She has been cleaning houses and warehouses ever since she left Uruguay in 2002 amid an economic crisis in the country. But she’s been without work since early March, and she’s not expecting to be able to return to work for possibly another two months.

She’s nevertheless still sending even more money home these days because her family is also experiencing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic.

Maribel Cruz, a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program living in Long Beach, California, said she is also worried about financially supporting her family. She has been able to continue working from home for her job at a nonprofit, but her parents, who don’t have legal status, have taken a big income hit. Her father, who previously worked in a factory producing T-shirts for sporting events, is without work and her mother, who cleans houses, has seen her hours reduced from four to two days a week.

Cruz has received a stimulus check because she files taxes with a Social Security number she obtained through DACA, which has allowed over 700,000 young undocumented immigrants to live and work in the US without fear of deportation. But her parents aren’t eligible for the checks.

During her day job, Cruz has encountered hundreds of other unauthorized immigrants in her area who are similarly struggling financially. She works for the Long Beach Immigration Rights Coalition, which recently created a $40,000 Covid-19 emergency fund for such families. But the organization received so many applicants that it will have to turn some down.

Other nonprofits, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Resilience Force, have also set up their own funds to offer immigrant workers financial support.

“The pandemic has really brought to the forefront their lack of access to resources,” Cruz said.

Coronavirus medical bills could be devastating

Unauthorized immigrants are particularly vulnerable to the virus due to inadequate access to health care. Noncitizens are significantly more likely to be uninsured compared to US citizens, which may dissuade them from seeking medical care if they contract the virus.

Neither Emilio nor Joel have health insurance, so they not only fear getting sick, but also the prospect of getting hit with huge medical bills should they need to be hospitalized. And Joel is also worried about infecting his similarly uninsured mother, who suffers from hypertension and has had problems with her heart.

“Every single day, I think this is a big risk I’m taking because I’m the only one that goes out on the street and if anyone would be infected, I would be the only one to bear the responsibility for that,” he said. “This worries me a great deal because I am exposed to places that are very crowded. Every morning when I leave and every evening when I arrive home, I pray to God that I will not be one more of those who becomes sick.”

Araujo is also worried about getting the treatment she needs without health insurance. She has issues with her thyroid, but the hospital is no longer taking any cases that are unrelated to coronavirus and she can’t afford to go to a health clinic. As a result, she couldn’t get medication prescribed and her joints started aching.

She’s concerned about returning to work and contracting the virus. Her employers don’t give her protective equipment, and she can’t afford to spend $15 on a box of gloves that she won’t be able to reuse. Many cleaners also develop respiratory issues due to the use of chemical cleaning products that could put them at higher risk of complications from Covid-19, the illness caused by coronavirus.

“I’m living with paranoia because I don’t know when I’m going to be infected,” she said. “I feel constantly exposed.”

US citizen spouses of unauthorized immigrants are also left out

Congress has even barred many family members of unauthorized immigrants from receiving stimulus checks, even if they’re US citizens. The bill excludes those in households with people of mixed immigration status, where some tax filers or their children may use what’s called an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).

The IRS issues ITINs to unauthorized immigrants so they can pay taxes, even though they don’t have a Social Security number. If anyone in the household uses an ITIN — either a spouse or a dependent child — that means no one in the household will qualify for the stimulus checks, unless one spouse served in the military in 2019.

Immigrant advocates at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit on Tuesday challenging the CARES Act, alleging that it “discriminates against mixed-status couples” in violation of the US Constitution’s equal protection and due process provisions. But if the law is allowed to stand, it could impact an estimated 16.7 million people who live in mixed-status households nationwide, including 8.2 million US-born or naturalized citizens.

Sarah and her husband Juan, who asked to be identified only by their first names to protect their privacy, are one such couple living in Evansville, Indiana. She is a born-and-raised US citizen, but he came to the US 14 years ago from Honduras without authorization, seeking to earn enough money to support his parents and siblings back home.

The couple married three years ago and shortly thereafter, she started the process of sponsoring him for a green card. He’s still waiting for an interview at a consulate in Honduras, which has been postponed on account of the pandemic. But if all goes to plan, he will soon have permanent residency and be issued a Social Security number.

In the meantime, however, Juan is still living in the US as an unauthorized immigrant, filing taxes under an ITIN. Neither he nor Sarah, therefore, are eligible for stimulus checks.

It’s not causing them financial hardship. Sarah is continuing to work from home during the pandemic, making $45,000 a year in medical billing. And Juan chose to take a month off from his job in painting and construction because they feared he would contract the virus at work, but he is now back on the job. She said that together, they make a decent living, but they do have a lot of expenses, including his biweekly $120 remittances for his family in Honduras so they can buy food and pay their water and electric bills.

Still, she’s angry that both she and her husband are being penalized amid the pandemic.

“While not receiving the stimulus hasn’t been a burden, it feels like a slap in the face as a US citizen that even I won’t get it,” she said. “I personally am not opposed to my tax dollars paying for undocumented immigrants receiving aid during this pandemic, but I can understand why our government wouldn’t do this. But me? A US citizen? I’m insulted and angry. I feel like my country does not care about me in the slightest.”

Immigrant work is going unrecognized in coronavirus relief bills

As immigrants on the frontlines of the pandemic, Joel said he and his peers have gone out in public to serve the country that has welcomed them. He said he sees it as a “way of returning the favor of being allowed to be here.”

“I feel pride to at least collaborate and do this work of delivering food to many homes, for many people that cannot leave their homes under any circumstances, especially the elderly,” he said. “So, I feel very proud of that, and I would like that we would be recognized and that our work as immigrants could be recognized.”

But he also faces a lot of uncertainty about his health, his mother’s health and his financial situation absent any support from the government or the US medical system: “At night, I look around and realize that I don’t have any type of security that I will be ok or that nothing serious will happen.”

That’s why advocates are calling on Congress to include support for unauthorized immigrants in its next coronavirus relief package. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, is calling on lawmakers to ensure unauthorized immigrants have access to testing and treatment for the virus, which will also help stop the spread of the pandemic. It’s also pushing for all taxpayers to have access to expanded unemployment benefits and for all income-eligible residents to receive stimulus checks, regardless of immigration status.

“If they pass another stimulus package, they have to include everyone that’s living in the country,” Cruz said. “I just hope that they don’t think of relief as a political tool. I just hope that they have some humanity in them to provide life-saving assistance to families.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.