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Many immigrants — some of them undocumented — are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic. They harvest and process our food and take care of our sick and elderly. They also pay billions of dollars each year in federal taxes.
Yet, so far, they have largely been left out of COVID-19 relief packages.
Congress should change this in the next stimulus bill, which is currently being negotiated.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, passed in March, restricted stimulus payments to people with Social Security numbers. More than 4 million American workers pay federal taxes through an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. People with ITINs include unauthorized immigrants along with resident aliens and non-resident aliens, according to the American Immigration Council. The IRS says it collected more than $13.7 billion in net taxes from those using an ITIN in 2015.
These people, and their spouses and children who may be American citizens, were excluded from the CARES Act stimulus payments. According to the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, 39,000 Maine families include at least one non-citizen.
Regardless of beliefs about America’s immigration system and its flaws, leaving these people out of coronavirus relief and response efforts is shortsighted, from an economic, public health and humanitarian perspective.
The HEROES Act, which the House of Representatives passed in May, would fix this in two ways. One, it makes the stimulus payments included in the CARES Act — $1,200 per qualified adult and $500 per child — retroactive to ITIN filers. It would also include these people in a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks.
The Institute On Taxation and Economic Policy calculated that ITIN filers would receive over $16 billion in direct economic relief from these payments. Much of this money would circulate in local economies, bolstering local businesses in these difficult economic times.
“Undocumented immigrants are living here, enriching our communities, contributing to our economy and some are working in jobs that public officials have declared essential. Excluding them is callous,” the institute said.
On a more limited basis, a bill sponsored by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio would extend future stimulus payments to the 1.7 million Americans who are married to non-citizen taxpayers who were excluded from the CARES Act.
Another problem in many states, but not Maine, is that these immigrants cannot access COVID-19 related medical services, such as testing and treatment, that are covered by Medicaid. Excluding these immigrants, who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, from medical care puts their health at risk as well as the health of their neighbors and coworkers.
This risk is often heightened by an anti-immigrant atmosphere in the U.S. caused by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and detention that has caused some immigrants to fear seeking health care. Undocumented workers in California say they are not seeking medical care despite exposure to COVID-19 because they don’t want to miss out on the work that is essential to supporting their families.
The Protecting Sensitive Locations Act, which Rep. Chellie Pingree has co-sponsored in the House, would prohibit immigration enforcement at hospitals, schools, churches, courthouses and other venues that provide essential services.
America is long overdue for reforms to our immigration system. In the meantime, and in the midst of a pandemic, lawmakers should ensure that non-citizens can access health care and fully benefit from their contributions to the U.S. economy.