(Stop) Leaving Immigrant Workers Out

by Cristina A. Godinez, Esq.

Farmworkers in California | Photo courtesy of nny360.com

(Last of 2 parts) As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage America, essential workers valiantly carry on, surely buoyed by the public recognition of their heroism, but sorely weakened by our collective failure to support or protect them where it matters most.

Immigrant workers comprise about 17 percent of America’s total workforce, but represent 69 percent of occupations designated by the federal government as “essential.” They are the meatpackers at the Smithfield meat processing plant working shoulder-to-shoulder without protective gear. They are the farmworkers in California who are mostly undocumented, paid meager hourly wages and living in crowded housing. They are the city sanitation workers of Chicago picking up 50 percent more garbage now, without protection. They are the doctors and nurses in New Jersey who are pressured to return to work despite being infected with Covid-19 while at the front lines.

A provision in the law, however, prohibited the payment of the $1,200 stimulus check to persons who filed tax returns using the Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The IRS-issued ITIN is often used by undocumented persons to file their tax returns and pay taxes.

When COVID-19 struck, immigrant workers were hit first and hit hard, not only because of the “essential” nature of their occupation, but because of their status as non-citizens.

When the economy shut down during the early months of the pandemic, millions who lost their jobs desperately needed the Economic Impact Payments under the $2 trillion CARES Act. Immigrant workers and their families were no exception.
A provision in the law, however, prohibited the payment of the $1,200 stimulus check to persons who filed tax returns using the Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The IRS-issued ITIN is often used by undocumented persons to file their tax returns and pay taxes. This prohibition hurt many mixed status families – those with at least one family member who had no legal immigration status. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 15.4 million people (undocumented immigrants, green card holders and U.S. citizens) were excluded from the CARES Act economic assistance because of this provision.

Clearly, this is not fair. It is also self-defeating. People who were excluded from this much-needed economic lifeline now do not have any incentive to comply with public health mandates needed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Without the stimulus check and unemployment assistance, immigrant workers have nothing to support themselves and their families – and every reason to go out, take risks to make a living, viral footprint be damned.

Many immigrant workers contracted and unfortunately succumbed to COVID-19 because they have no access to testing and preventive care.

“The implementation of the public charge rule, which makes it more difficult for persons with low income from seeking admission to the U.S. or from applying for a green card, have created a chilling effect that resulted in a reluctance or refusal among immigrant families to obtain medical care.”

With current efforts to weaken the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), more immigrant families are finding it hard to enroll and get health insurance coverage. Those who had employer-sponsored health insurance, on the other hand, lost their coverage when they lost their jobs. The implementation of the public charge rule, which makes it more difficult for persons with low income from seeking admission to the U.S. or from applying for a green card, have created a chilling effect that resulted in a reluctance or refusal among immigrant families to obtain medical care.

Boxing out immigrant families from access to medical care during the COVID-19 pandemic is not the way forward. It will only make it harder for all of us to overcome this public health crisis.

Economic and social safety nets cannot be selective. It must cover all U.S. residents, regardless of immigration status.


Cristina Godinez is an attorney who has provided immigration solutions to families, businesses and at-risk migrants in the United States for over 15 years. She worked with the immigration law practice group of a top-tier global law firm and later, with the world’s largest immigration law firm. She is also the attorney at the faith-based Migrant Center of New York where she oversees the delivery of immigration legal services to low-income clients. Cristina is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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