As Americans await their much-needed paychecks from the government in response to the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people on the front lines of the crisis won’t be getting a dime: undocumented workers.
When Congress passed the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package last month, it included urgently needed cash payments for low-income Americans as businesses shuttered nationwide: $1,200 per individual, $2,400 for joint filers and an additional $500 per child.
However, it excluded millions of immigrants from getting relief. The bill’s language leaves out those without Social Security numbers — largely undocumented people — who may file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In 2015, 4.35 million immigrants paid over $13.7 billion in net taxes using an ITIN, according to the American Immigration Council.
The bill also cuts off aid to potentially millions of U.S. citizen children, since “mixed-status” families that include both undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens are not eligible for the cash assistance. Of about 11.3 million undocumented people in the U.S., some 3.3 million live with at least one U.S. citizen child, per a Migration Policy Institute analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
Meanwhile, these same undocumented immigrant workers are overrepresented in fields that have experienced massive layoffs due to stay-at-home orders, including workers in the restaurant and hotel industries and domestic workers like nannies and house cleaners.
They also make up significant portions of the front-line workers deemed “essential” — from farmworkers to building cleaners — who are still going to work, risking their lives in a pandemic while millions of Americans stay home.
These same workers are often earning meager wages — 38% of immigrant workers are in low-income households — working in jobs that don’t provide access to unemployment benefits or paid sick leave.
“Immigrants are critical to fighting back against the virus: They are caring for our children and elderly, working on the front lines of urgent medical response, providing our food. They are critical to keeping our buildings clean, putting food on our table, ensuring the rest of us are able to get through this,” said Wendy Cervantes, director of immigration at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
“By punishing them and their families, we’re not only hurting them, we’re also hurting ourselves.”
While immigrants represented 17% of the 156 million people working in the U.S. in 2018, they made up a far larger proportion of those in “front-line” industries, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Nearly 60% of house cleaners were immigrants, as well as 40% of janitors, building cleaners and packagers, and 24% of grocery workers and home health care service workers.
“The whole purpose of trying to get cash into the hands of working families was a recognition that people who experience the greatest harm are low wage workers — many in service industries, without job security, without benefits, without health insurance,” said Haeyoung Yoo, senior director of immigration policy at National Domestic Workers Alliance. Many, like nannies and restaurant workers, cannot work from home and have been laid off.
Many of the workers putting food on America’s tables are immigrants. Of some 2.4 million farmworkers in the U.S., anywhere from 47% to 70% are undocumented. And they’re at risk: This week, several major meat-packing plants closed as workers got sick with COVID-19.
Domingo Garcia, president of Latino civil rights group the League of United Latin American Citizens, noted that many workers at meatpacking plants are Latino immigrants.
“That is a potential ticking time bomb for America,” Garcia said, noting that many workers in these industries don’t have access to paid sick leave, so they have a “cruel incentive” to keep going to work even if they have symptoms of illness — because they need the money.
And now they won’t be getting any support from the government stimulus checks.
“The virus doesn’t ask for papers, for citizenship or immigration status,” Garcia added. “So if people are concerned about fighting for toilet paper at the grocery store — wait until there’s no meat and no vegetables.”
“The virus doesn’t ask for papers, for citizenship or immigration status.”
Chuck Marr, the director of federal tax policy at the nonprofit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, called the stimulus bill’s exclusion of immigrants a “glaring omission” and “the biggest hole in an otherwise good stimulus rebate law.”
He noted that while immigrants in service jobs were once “all too invisible” in society, now the virus has made clear how much “everyone relies on them and takes them for granted.” He urged lawmakers to allow immigrants to receive stimulus checks, both in this first round of payments — which still have not gone out to most Americans’ accounts yet — and in any future bills.
Immigrants are already on some Democratic lawmakers’ radars, with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) noting in a late March statement that the bill “goes out of the way to leave behind our immigrant neighbors in a time of crisis.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) also slammed that stimulus checks “will be cut off the backs of taxpaying immigrants, who get nothing.”
Last week, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and others introduced the “Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act,” which would allow immigrant taxpayers to access cash relief benefits using their ITINs, among other proposals.
Garcia urged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to “stop using immigrants as a political piñata.”
“Realize they are frontline troops just as important as doctors and nurses,” Garcia said. “They’re putting food on America’s table. If they go down, it will be a devastating blow. ... They need to be taken care of as essential frontline troops.”