Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Jessica Rodriguez came to the United States from Ciudad Juárez 15 years ago. She met her husband, had two daughters and lately had been working two jobs – one performing as a clown at parties, the other cleaning houses.
Then, the pandemic and the ensuing public health emergency happened. Everything shut down, leaving the 35-year-old out of work.
But Rodriguez and her husband – a “mixed-status couple” who live in the South Valley – are not eligible for any of the federal assistance made available to millions of families across the country to help them get through the economic shutdown. Undocumented workers are also not eligible for unemployment insurance, even though many have been paying taxes themselves for years.
“My daughters are U.S. citizens,” Rodriguez said through a translator in an interview last week. “Because we make up a ‘mix family’ of documented and undocumented, any aid the president is offering does not apply to us. We are not getting any aid whatsoever.”
On Tuesday, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a class action lawsuit in Maryland federal court alleging the government is acting unconstitutionally by discriminating against mixed-status couples in denying them the stimulus checks it provided to other married couples.
Some states and cities across the country have provided aid specifically to immigrant families, and New Mexico’s senators have urged Congress to include them in future relief bills, but tens of thousands of families like Rodriguez’s still remain in dire straits as they enter their seventh week out of work.
“These have always been issues, but now during this crisis, it’s particularly upsetting,” said Marcela Díaz, executive director at Somos Un Pueblo Unido. “It’s obviously unfair because folks have been paying into the system and have been paying taxes, and are now left out of federal packages.”
Missing out on $55 million in aid
More than 80 million families are expected to get recovery rebates, or stimulus checks, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, passed by Congress last month.
But more than 30,000 undocumented New Mexicans by one estimate, including families like Rodriguez’s, which include one undocumented parent and one documented parent, are left out.
Advocates say in order for a family to receive the $2,400 payment for married couples and $500 for each child, every member of the household must be a U.S. citizen.
Amber Wallin, deputy director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said the act was written so that individuals and families would get stimulus payments based on their most recent tax return. However, she said, it excludes families who have filed joint tax returns in which one member of the household is undocumented and therefore has an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) instead of a Social Security number.
“It’s a shorthand way of doing this to get out the money as soon as possible,” Wallin said. “But in writing it so that people who had someone with an ITIN on their tax returns – by excluding those tax returns – you are automatically excluding everyone else on those returns who has a Social Security number.”
Wallin said an analysis by New Mexico Voices for Children estimates upward of 30,000 adult New Mexicans would not get the stimulus payments because they are not U.S. citizens. Furthermore, they estimate 38,000 children in New Mexico were ineligible because their parents are undocumented, regardless of whether the children themselves are U.S. citizens.
“There’s at least $55 million that our families and communities, and the New Mexico economy is missing out on because of that provision that everyone in the household has to have a Social Security number,” Wallin said.
Furthermore, Wallin said, her organization estimates there are at least 16,000 undocumented immigrants who have been working and paying taxes in the state over the past two years. Of those, they estimate about 2,100 are now unemployed, but are not receiving benefits under unemployment insurance.
“The problem for undocumented immigrants, if they’re not work-authorized or they lack documentation, they’re not usually eligible for unemployment insurance benefits,” Wallin said. “What that means is some Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) workers, undocumented workers and those with temporary protected status, may not be seeing those unemployment insurance benefits.”
Rodriguez, who has been paying taxes as long as she’s been working, is now holding bake sales and providing child care in an effort to get by without her regular jobs. Her husband, who works in construction, is still able to work, but she says she worries about him leaving the house.
“As an undocumented family, our fears are plenty on an everyday basis,” Rodriguez said. “But now, with the pandemic, we feel like we’ve been pushed aside and forgotten about.”
‘A whole-of-society approach’ needed
Last week, New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich joined 27 senators and 77 members of the House of Representatives in writing a letter to congressional leadership calling for a coronavirus relief package that makes economic and other assistance available to all individuals, regardless of their immigration status or English language proficiency.
“COVID-19 has caused one of the greatest public health and economic crises our nation has ever faced, and it requires a whole-of-society approach,” the letter states. “A response that leaves out immigrants – many of whom are on the front lines in our fight against COVID-19 – will be ineffective and detrimental to our efforts to stop this pandemic.”
The letter references the cash assistance under the CARES Act and urges lawmakers to extend it to immigrant families who file taxes with an ITIN rather than a Social Security number.
“In 2015 alone, 4.35 million people paid more than $13.7 billion in net taxes using an ITIN, according to the American Immigration Council,” the letter states. “By excluding ITIN filers and their family members from access to cash payments, spouses and children in mixed-status immigrant families will be denied critical economic support, including 5.1 million children, the vast majority of whom are U.S. citizens.”
Some states, including California, have taken steps on their own to provide financial assistance to undocumented immigrants. In mid-April Gov. Gavin Newsom of California announced the commitment of $125 million in financial support for undocumented immigrants impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
And cities including Minneapolis and Chicago have offered relief programs and assistance to renters and small-business owners who are undocumented.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not announced any plans aimed specifically at undocumented populations.
“We hope that with additional stimulus packages to come, the number of people eligible for assistance will be expanded,” governor’s spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in a statement to the Journal. “As we continue to work to slow the spread of COVID-19 in New Mexico, the governor is considering any number of economic options for the state and ensuring that they reach the greatest number of affected New Mexicans possible will be a top priority.”
Pandemic ‘is affecting everyone’
Diaz of Somos Un Pueblo Unido said the lack of financial assistance is not the only thing that has made the pandemic more difficult for undocumented immigrants or mixed-status families. For many, there’s also a language barrier.
Diaz said her organization has been working to get information about the virus translated into Spanish and disseminated widely, including by holding Facebook town halls to share information over the past several weeks.
Signs over the highways urging residents to wash their hands and the governor’s briefings are now also being translated into Spanish.
Diaz points out that while scores of undocumented immigrants are out of work, others have been deemed essential employees in industries where they’re still being told to come in. Now, they’re afraid they’re going to catch the virus at their job.
She said she heard from a group of immigrant women who were working at a recycling center that they weren’t being given masks or gloves and had to stand close together sorting the materials. She said that after her organization intervened, things changed.
Others working in restaurants are still employed, but have seen drastic reductions in their hours and paychecks.
“If I don’t have $200, if I only have $50, it means more trips to the grocery stores, opposed to others who might have more money,” Diaz said. “These are the things we’re hearing about.”
Javier Alonso, 50, came to the U.S. 25 years ago and has made Albuquerque his home. He is the only member of his family who is undocumented. His wife and three children, ages 15 to 23, are all U.S. citizens. But with his hours halved at the restaurant where he works, he said he’s making a lot less money and worries about what will happen if the shutdown stretches on.
Alonso’s wife, on the other hand, works at a hospital, cleaning and doing maintenance, and therefore has continued going to work.
“This situation (the pandemic) is affecting everyone,” he said through a translator. “U.S. citizens, undocumented, Hispanics, Americans – everyone.”
Journal staff photographer Roberto E. Rosales contributed to this report.