Undocumented Immigrants Should Not be Excluded from COVID-19 Relief

Undocumented Immigrants Should Not be Excluded from COVID-19 Relief

The newly passed CARES Act aims to boost the economy and soften the financial hardships experienced by people and communities impacted by the devastating global coronavirus pandemic. While the act aims to support families, local businesses and more, the 2 trillion-dollar stimulus package fails to support some of the most vulnerable communities impacted by COVID-19–undocumented immigrants. While this is not the first time that this community has been left out of a United States stimulus package (in 2008 Congress passed similar legislation during the recession) it remains egregious that 12 years later Congress would pass an Act that once again ignores the economic impact that a crisis like COVID-19 will have on this community. While it’s important to move away from the common narrative that solely values immigrants based on their productivity or economic impact, the data below will show that undocumented immigrants continue to play an integral role in the U.S. economy and thus should be included in the CARES Act.

Economic impact of Undocumented Immigrants in the U.S:

Seven million undocumented people work in the U.S. and make up about 4 percent of the country’s labor force. Working in the construction, hotels, agriculture, and food service industries, these workers are overrepresented in industries that primarily pay low, hourly wages without access to comprehensive benefits. These are also some of the industries most impacted by the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. 

Seven percent of undocumented workers are home health aides, and one in four personal care aides, and nursing assistants are immigrants; notably, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic these employees have been deemed essential workers and have continued to work through the crisis despite the risk of exposing themselves and their families to the sometimes fatal virus. Dreamers, currently at risk of losing their DACA protection, also play a significant role within the healthcare industry, as approximately 27,000 DACA recipients are health care practitioners in health support occupation. It is clear that immigrants are serving critical frontline healthcare roles as well as other essential jobs that hold up the economy, especially in times of crisis. Undocumented immigrants also contribute billions in local and state taxes and to social services, despite being barred from accessing due to their immigration status.

The Office of Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration (OCACT), estimated that there were about 3.1 million undocumented immigrants working and paying social security taxes in the U.S. in 2010, which means 3.1 million paid federal income tax in 2010. State and local taxes attributed by the undocumented immigrant population are estimated at $11.64 billion a year, more than $6.9 billion in sales and excise taxes, $3.6 billion in property taxes and $1.1 billion in personal income taxes. According to a report published in 2017 by The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), in which it provides state-by-state and national estimates on the current state and local tax contributions made by the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as of 2014, they found that collectively, undocumented immigrants pay 11.7 billion a year. To put this in perspective, on a national level, undocumented immigrants pay on average an estimated 8 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes. The top 1 percent of taxpayers pay an average nationwide tax rate of just 5.4 percent.

Lack of access to Social Services:

Past United States’ legislation like the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) laid the ground work for the exclusion of undocumented communities from receiving social services.

Social safety net programs are crucial to the well-being of the millions of people in the United States that live in poverty on a daily basis and even more crucial during the current pandemic. However, while undocumented immigrants are among the most at risk for hunger, eviction and infection, in many cases they are not able to access programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, subsidized housing, or Medicaid.

Past United States’ legislation like the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) laid the ground work for the exclusion of undocumented communities from receiving social services. Under PRWORA undocumented persons are not eligible for any “federal public benefits” including; retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, food assistance, unemployment, food stamps supplemental security income, temporary assistance for needy families or any other benefit for which payment or assistance are provided. Barred from access to social services for over 24 years has not only made life in the U.S. extremely difficult for undocumented communities but it has robbed them from participating in the very programs that they significantly contribute to in state and local taxes.

For instances where undocumented immigrants are eligible to access these vital programs, anti-immigrant policies like the Public Charge Rule have further deterred immigrants from accessing social services they have every right to access during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the new rule was put in place, the use of most public benefits was not a barrier to legal status in the U.S. The new rule punished receipt of vital health, housing and nutrition programs, including federally funded Medicaid SNAP benefits and Section 8 housing benefits. While the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has stated that they encourage all “aliens” to seek necessary medical treatment of preventative services, and that such services will not negatively affect any “alien” as part of a future Public Charge analysis, many families, skeptical of this, continue not to seek out services. Thus, the continued racist demonizing of immigrants and stigma forces families to leave benefits on the table for fear of facing devastating repercussions.

The $2 trillion-dollar Stimulus Package:

The CARES Act approved by Congress and the White House will provide a direct cash payment of up to $1,200 per person ($2,400 for married couples filing jointly) and $500 per child. However, undocumented immigrants who aren’t authorized to work in the U.S. are not eligible to receive this assistance. This also applies to those who pay federal taxes using (ITIN’s) which about 4.4. million people had registered for in 2015. In addition, a family won’t be eligible to receive these checks if one parent is undocumented. Therefore, children that are U.S. citizens with undocumented parents won’t receive the $500 per child. The same rule applies to DACA recipients who file taxes as dependents of unauthorized parents.

In a brief published by the Center for American Progress, their analysis showed that about 16.7 million people in the country have at least one unauthorized family member living with them and more than 8.3 million citizen children live with at least one family member who is unauthorized. Not only do undocumented immigrants suffer disproportionately during these times of high need but their entire families do as well. We’ve already seen the detrimental impact of not including undocumented immigrants in these stimulus programs. During the 2008 recession alone, the Latinx immigrant unemployment rate jumped from 5.1% to 8%, a significantly greater increase than among other American workers. With the U.S. employment rate predicted to hit 20 percent, there’s just no telling how detrimental the already astounding impacts will be for undocumented families.


California is the first and only state to announce a $125 million-dollar disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants, and through this initiative families will receive a one-time cash payment of $500 – $1,000. These cash payments are not nearly enough to sustain families through a prolonged crisis as the payments are below what is provided through the CARES Act. Still, California’s disaster relief fund provides critical funds for families that have received little to no other financial assistance. By providing disaster relief funds, states can alleviate the pressure that local organizations and communities feel to provide basic needs for undocumented communities, as they too fight to stay afloat. Providing direct assistance to undocumented immigrants is a step in the right direction. 

Congress and other states should follow suit and recognize the value of all people regardless of their legal status. Excluding undocumented immigrants from the CARES Act and other forthcoming stimulus packages is detrimental not only the U.S. economy, but to the lives of millions of families that have paid their dues, served on the frontlines time and time again and who deserve support in meeting their basic needs. 

By Andrea Portillo

Andrea Portillo
Program Coordinator at SOMOS Mayfair & MIMS Alum, 2018.

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