My immigrant parents lost their jobs, but the CARES Act won’t help mixed-status families like mine

by Rocio Perez

Within weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, my parents — both undocumented workers in Los Angeles’ garment industry — lost their jobs. For weeks I was the only gainfully employed member of my family. The income from my internship in Washington, D.C., had to support me, my unemployed parents and my younger sister who’s in college. I’m 22.

While millions of American citizens have become financially insecure because of the coronavirus outbreak, many are eligible for paid sick leave or unemployment benefits and have access to COVID-19 testing. This is not the case for many immigrants in the U.S. illegally who, like my parents, are low-wage workers and ineligible for public benefits because of their immigration status.

For years, my parents have worked in garment sweatshops in unsanitary conditions under an exploitative piece-rate system. Like many, they sewed, trimmed, ironed and packaged suits, dresses and blouses. Thankfully, my dad was called back to work last week to help make the face masks that are in such great demand.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced my parents to tap into emergency savings that will be depleted in less than a month’s time. My dad has diabetes and my mom has high blood pressure, chronic conditions that make them even more susceptible to serious health consequences from the coronavirus.

As the U.S.-born Latina daughter of immigrants, I am seeing firsthand how the virus disproportionately affects mixed-status families like mine, whose members have varying legal status. It has exacerbated our financial instability and food insecurity.

As a direct result of the pandemic, 49% of Latino households in the U.S. have either had their pay cut or lost their jobs, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Meanwhile, an estimated 6 million immigrants have been designated as “essential workers” who are exempt from quarantining so they can work.

About 200,000 of these workers are legally here as DACA recipients, among those who came to the U.S. illegally as children but qualified for relief from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. An additional 130,000 workers have temporary protected status, which allows them to live legally, if temporarily, in the U.S.; many are healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. These immigrants who are here legally also deserve to have all federal government COVID-19 relief extended to them, including having their work permits extended to avoid deportation.

Many undocumented workers earn their living as farmworkers, grocery store clerks or construction-site workers — without unemployment benefits, paid sick leave or access to COVID-19 testing. They are often underpaid.

Yet, despite their critical role in the workplace, these immigrants aren’t benefiting from recent legislation passed by Congress to address the economic fallout from the pandemic.

The recently passed federal CARES Act offers $1,200 to Americans earning up to $75,000 in adjusted gross income and who have a Social Security number; it also provides $500 for each child in the family. However, it excludes millions of undocumented workers and mixed-status families because the COVID-19 stimulus checks are available only to those with Social Security numbers.

Many immigrants, including my parents, pay taxes every year using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, issued to people working in the U.S. without permission but who are still required to pay taxes.

But my parents will not receive the $1,200 stimulus check, and neither will my sister, who is also U.S-born. If one member of a family is undocumented, the entire family — including members who are U.S. citizens — are excluded from benefiting from the CARES Act. Two lawsuits were filed last week that challenge the legality of excluding mixed-status families from receiving federal coronavirus relief payments.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, also approved by Congress in March, requires certain employers to provide benefits for workers affected by the pandemic and includes a provision to provide 100% of the costs for testing uninsured people.

However, the measure excludes uninsured immigrants who do not otherwise qualify for full Medicaid coverage. Immigrants who fall into this category, like my parents, rely on emergency Medicaid that low-income earners can use for immediate medical emergencies but not chronic conditions. To protect the health of immigrants, all states should extend emergency Medicaid to include COVID-19 testing, diagnosis and treatment.

At the state and local level, policymakers are trying to offer protections to immigrants, regardless of status.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed an executive order extending government benefits to all refugees and immigrants that includes such COVID-19 relief as a one-time $1,000 housing assistance grant. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a privately funded Immigrant Emergency Relief program that would provide up to $1,000 to 20,000 immigrants, regardless of documentation.

And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a $125-million Disaster Relief Fund to provide aid to immigrants who are ineligible for unemployment benefits. About 150,000 immigrants will receive a one-time cash payment: $500 per person and $1,000 per household.

The measures put in place in Chicago, New York City and California are not only fair but humane. The next federal stimulus package should mirror those efforts. No one’s health should be jeopardized because of a lack of means.

The financial support provided by California gives my parents some hope, but millions of immigrants across the U.S. can’t expect such help. Most immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally — an estimated 15 million — are not receiving the immediate financial help or healthcare assistance they need during the pandemic.

This increases their vulnerability, but it also harms broader society. Failing to provide direly needed support to immigrants could hamper efforts to defeat the pandemic. In a public health crisis, an effective national response should extend relief to everyone, regardless of their immigration status.

Rocio Perez is an intern at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

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