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Gaps in social safety net leave undocumented immigrants most vulnerable in time of crisis

The COVID-19 or “coronavirus” crisis has exposed massive fault lines in U.S. health, economic and labor sectors. With no end in sight, undocumented immigrants are left most vulnerable because of systemic exclusion from health care and social safety nets.

“We still have uncertainty between protecting our health or working,” said Abraham, an undocumented immigrant originally form Guadalajara, Mexico, who requested not to have his last name published. Abraham was laid off from his job as a dishwasher in early March.

Working from home is not an option, and with no access to paid sick leave or unemployment benefits, Abraham must rely on his already meager savings to support his wife and daughter, both U.S. citizens. 

Of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, 7.6 million are part the country’s overall labor force, according to Pew Research Center.

Current federal law bars undocumented immigrants from basic social programs that could otherwise provide support, such as Medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance. Undocumented immigrant seniors don’t qualify for social security benefits and have limited options to save for retirement.  

The $2 trillion federal aid package signed into law on Mar. 27, expands financial assistance and healthcare treatment to millions of Americans, including direct cash payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child for households under $75,000 a year. 

But those without a valid Social Security number (SSN) and work authorization, have been cut out from receiving a single dollar.

Immigrant workers who file their taxes using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) and families with mixed immigration status will bear the weight of these impacts. If one person in the household lacks an SSN, the entire family (including U.S. citizen children, spouses, and legal permanent residents) is denied access to the cash assistance.

Undocumented immigrants living in the United States collectively pay an estimated $11.74 billion a year in state and local taxes, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).

“As immigrants, we support the country, we contribute to the economy, we pay our taxes,” Abraham said. He has allergies and his wife has asthma, and they worry for their health since they are among those most vulnerable to severe illness. “It’s frustrating that we’re unable to receive certain benefits in their totality.”

Illustration: Alexis Terrazas

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders can receive payments but would remain ineligible for Medicaid or Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) coverage needed to obtain treatment for COVID-19. 

Advocates argue that the coronavirus and its effects don’t discriminate based on immigration status and neither should relief efforts. Many have launched emergency relief funds to provide immediate resources and financial support. 

“When we say we’re devoted to the health, education, financial stability of every person in every community, there’s never been an asterisk or a parenthetical on that. This is an evergreen commitment and mission for us,” said Unai Montes-Irueste, communications director for United Ways of California.

But undocumented immigrants have been hesitant to request government benefits well before the coronavirus outbreak. Fears of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the “public charge” rule have pushed people farther away from the few critical programs that may still be available in their communities. 

“If we created a scenario in which anyone who raised their hand we could help, we’re afraid that a lot of immigrant households might not raise their hands,” Montes-Irueste said.

Instituted in February, the “public charge” rule denies visas or citizenship applications to immigrants who’ve relied on public aid programs or are deemed likely to use them in the future. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) confirmed it would not consider testing, treatment, or preventive care related to COVID-19 as a public charge.

ICE raids conducted on the first day of California’s “shelter-in-place” lockdown have prompted concerns that undocumented immigrants may avoid seeking medical treatment as a result.

According to official ICE statements, the agency will focus enforcement “on public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.” ICE assured it would not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

But given the historical policies that have sought to intimidate and penalize undocumented people, it’s understandable if many undocumented immigrants view ICE’s message with skepticism. 

California made significant strides last year, expanding Medi-Cal coverage to income-eligible adults ages 19-26, regardless of citizenship status. But undocumented immigrant seniors and older adults remain locked out of comprehensive healthcare. While they still qualify for restricted-scope Medi-Cal, which covers emergency and pregnancy-related services, benefits are limited.

David Huerta, President of SEIU United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW), says it’ll be up to California to step up and protect vulnerable workers in this crisis.

“California must take steps to ensure that everyone is included in our healthcare safety net—everyone. No one can be left out, or we will all pay the price. Our health, our safety, and our economy inextricably link us all to one another. There is no cure if there is not a cure for everyone,” he said in a statement.

SEIU-USWW, alongside the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC) and members of the CalEITC Coalition, urge state legislators to include ITIN filers and their families in the California Earned Income Tax Credit (CEITC) and Young Child Tax Credit, making it retroactive to 2019.

Doing so would put money back in the pockets of undocumented families excluded from federal relief and help reduce disparities for over 600,000 individuals, including 200,000 children, regardless of status, they say.

“What we’re trying to do is fundamentally change systemic inequities embedded in our tax system. Had the tax system been more equitable beforehand, that would have helped mitigate the impacts of this crisis that we see now,” said Sasha Feldstein, Economic Justice Policy Manager at CIPC.

These aren’t new issues for undocumented people across the country, but in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, gaps in America’s social safety nets are becoming more evident. 

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