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States Must Step Up to Help Immigrants Left Out of the COVID-19 Recovery

States have a responsibility to protect all their people by providing support where the federal government has failed.

Activist Michelle Lozano puts a mask on her children Maya and Iker as day laborers and their supporters participate in a "Caravan for Essential and Excluded Workers" in Los Angeles, California, on April 14, 2020. The caravan calls on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to ensure that COVID-19 related emergency financial aid from the federal CARES Act reaches day laborers, undocumented workers and their families.

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Nearly 1.5 million people who work in farming, delivery, trucking and other food supply professions — jobs that can’t be done from home — are undocumented immigrants or members of mixed-status families. Many of these workers lack access to affordable health care. They file taxes but can’t receive any benefits because of “public charge” and other rules that prohibit undocumented people from accessing welfare services.

These people, whom many consider essential to their own survival, are excluded from the CARES Act, the stimulus bill which Congress passed recently. This law — an attempt to put a Band Aid on all the consequences of COVID-19 — mainly aids corporations while enabling those who earn more than a million dollars a year to get up to $1.7 million each in tax breaks. Although the law does provide some relief to individuals, Congress deliberately left out the undocumented community and mixed-status families. Xenophobia, instead of compassion and humanity, defines this legislation.

While the CARES Act expanded access to COVID-19 testing and treatment through Medicaid, it excludes immigrants, including many lawful permanent residents, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Temporary Protected Status holders and those who are undocumented — as if the virus is going to ask people for their immigration status.

This is a dangerous public health measure, one that leaves out many who are harvesting and picking our food; who don’t get to go to the doctor regularly, and as a consequence, don’t know if they have high blood pressure, diabetes or other health conditions until they show critical symptoms; and, whether lawmakers like it or not, who live in our communities and perform work that is critical for our survival.

“More than ever, the wealth disparity is showing in neighborhoods like mine,” said Antonio Alarcon, who works as an immigrant rights organizer with Make the Road NY in Jackson Heights neighborhood of New York City’s Queens borough. “This pandemic will kill people for two reasons: COVID and/or hunger. This time I am not asking for papers for my community, what I am asking is for compassion — compassion [for] those who are dying because of the lack of resources.”

A lot of people in the U.S. who meet certain income requirements will receive $1,200 from the federal government. But this money won’t be available to anyone who filed their taxes with a tax identification number, which is what people who don’t have a Social Security number use to pay taxes. (Yes, undocumented people pay taxes.) It also leaves out anyone with a Social Security number who is included in the taxes of a person who files with a tax identification number, including their U.S. citizen spouse and children. The only exception is for military families.

This provision not only excludes undocumented immigrants, but it punishes those who file with them. It’s cruel to leave out people who don’t have any safety net (health insurance, paid time off, sick leave) and to also deny any cash assistance to all of those who have legal or financial relationships with undocumented immigrants.

Undocumented people can’t qualify for unemployment insurance. They can’t get any welfare benefits. This means that the same group of people who have to risk their lives by continuing to go into work during the pandemic and who don’t have health insurance are also left without any possible way to get an income if they lose their jobs due to COVID-19. When basic needs are all tied in a discriminatory way to Social Security and employment, we not only risk the lives of the people we leave out; we risk the lives of everyone, including U.S. citizens.

One ray of hope in this situation has been provided by the state of California, who earlier last week announced the creation of a $125-million Fund for All Immigrant Workers. This public-private fund will allow undocumented immigrants impacted by COVID-19 to access much-needed help, including one-time cash payments of $500 for each adult with a cap of $1,000 per household, and other direct financial assistance.

“[This] announcement is a necessary first step to close the widening gap between immigrants and vital assistance that could mean the difference between life and death for millions of Californians,” said Pablo Alvarado, the co-director of the National Day Labor Alliance. “The abject failure of Congress and the sinister policies of the Trump administration have created a domestic human rights crisis with a disproportionate impact on California. As a consequence, California lawmakers have a legal responsibility and moral obligation to respond accordingly.”

States like New York also have the moral responsibility to protect all the people living in the state by providing support where the federal government has failed. This is the time for true leadership and courage.

At the end of the day, income, race and immigration status should not matter. Immigrants need access to the same resources, care and opportunities as anyone else does to survive. By excluding undocumented communities and their families from the CARES Act, Congress is ultimately saying that these lives don’t have value and are disposable — despite that many of these people are being labeled as “essential” workers and heralded as “heroes” by corporate media and elected officials.

Leaving immigrant communities without any protections not only threatens their survival and well-being but also the health of everyone else in this country.

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