Undocumented workers in U.S. falling through cracks of pandemic safety net
Ana’s 9-year-old son was the first in the family to come down with symptoms that looked like covid-19 last March. Soon after, the 37-year-old unauthorized immigrant and three of her other children, including a daughter with asthma, struggled to breathe.
For the next three weeks, the family fought the illness in isolation — Ana clutching the top of door frames to catch her breath — while friends and neighbors left food on the porch of their home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Ana and her children never took tests to confirm they caught the coronavirus, but the pressure in her lungs, the fever, the headache and the loss of smell and taste convinced her it couldn’t be anything else.
“It was horrible,” said Ana, a Colorado resident for more than two decades who requested her last name not be used because of her immigration status. “We had to lay on the floor to breathe.”
Nearly a year later, the effects of the virus go far beyond nagging shortness of breath for Ana. She lost her job cleaning houses when she got sick last March, so she couldn’t pay rent. A local nonprofit’s cash assistance funded by some federal covid relief helped her catch up in the fall, but she still had no work and fell behind on rent again. Her landlord finally threw the family out of their home at the beginning of January with 30 hours’ notice, she said.
Ana is one the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission, who are particularly vulnerable to the economic fallout wrought by the pandemic and have no direct access to the billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief over the past year. An estimated 4 in 5 of them work essential jobs that put them at high risk to catch the Covid virus. They are also more likely to suffer the economic consequences, even with protections in place — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium, extended through March — because they fear that reaching out for help or reporting landlords could lead to deportation or detention.
President Joe Biden’s inauguration brought some encouraging news, as he’s said he wants to create a path for citizenship for many of the nation’s undocumented immigrants. He also said they should be able to be vaccinated against covid without worrying that they will be arrested and deported.
Even though the Covid vaccines are available to everyone no matter their citizenship, a distrust of government and law enforcement in the immigrant community and a lack of culturally competent vaccination information and even misinformation have made some undocumented immigrants reluctant to come forward early in the vaccination rollout.
Even if Biden makes good on his pledge of equitable access to a vaccine, unauthorized U.S. residents continue to have no direct access to billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief. The issue was brought up again on March 6 when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz claimed Biden’s new $1.9 trillion aid package would send stimulus checks to every “illegal alien” in America. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin clarified that undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for checks in the measure that passed the Senate. The House was set to take up the Senate’s changes on Tuesday.
Advocacy groups have argued for “inclusive” aid packages that provide direct aid to as many immigrants as possible no matter citizenship status, and while a few states set up aid for the undocumented, it’s not nearly enough, according to Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
“Immigration status shouldn’t be the gatekeeper to any of these programs. It really ultimately is about need and ensuring that families have the economic stability, to not only survive, but to get through this pandemic that all of us are impacted by,” Hincapié says. “Eighty percent of undocumented immigrants are working as essential workers. We are relying on them, and yet are denying their families this basic support that everyone else is getting.”
Couples with mixed immigration status — in which only one partner is a U.S. citizen — were also blocked from aid until December. They can now apply for stimulus payments retroactively but will still receive less than couples who are U.S. citizens. Though the change made millions more families eligible for some aid, couples in which both partners are undocumented immigrants also have not received stimulus payments for their children even if their children were born in the U.S. and are citizens. A group of families sued the Trump administration in May 2020 after it excluded children in the first COVID-19 aid package known as the CARES Act. The Department of Justice under the Biden administration has continued to defend the policy and has asked a federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit. A decision is pending.
Meanwhile, in February, eight Senate Democrats, including John Hickenlooper of Colorado, voted in favor of a budget amendment that continues to block both documented and undocumented immigrants who pay taxes using ITINs (individual taxpayer identification numbers) from receiving direct relief. (A Social Security number is a requirement for federal pandemic aid, which means immigrants who pay taxes with ITINs can’t qualify.) After getting blowback for his vote from Colorado’s immigration rights community and a letter from the Colorado ACLU accused the senator of breaking campaign promises to stand with immigrants, Hickenlooper met with community members and released a statement to a local news station: “I recognize how this vote has distorted that important fact and fed dangerous and damaging narratives about the undocumented community. … I remain committed to working together to finally achieve a comprehensive fix for our broken immigration system, including a pathway to citizenship.”
Hincapié calls the vote “morally unconscionable.” “The pandemic has shown how interdependent we are and that this is a time in our nation to make sure we’re taking care of everyone. It’s the only way we’re going to get out of this,” she said. “There is no recovery without including immigrants.”
Nearly half of the nearly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States (including some 190,000 in Colorado) pay taxes, according to the American Immigration Council, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. In Colorado, they paid an estimated $272.8 million in federal taxes and $156.5 million in state and local taxes in 2018. According to the IRS, ITIN filers nationwide pay over $9 billion in annual payroll taxes.
The Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., reported in January that 9.3 million unauthorized immigrants whose income meets the threshold for covid aid are blocked from accessing it, and also can’t apply for federal programs that provide cash and food assistance. It reported that undocumented people represent more than half of the workers in the hardest-hit industries, such as meatpacking, the restaurant business, health care and child care.
The Colorado nonprofit that provided Ana with rental assistance, Servicios de la Raza, received applications from 300 families for rental help. The group could assist only 51 of them, said Julissa Soto, the group’s director of statewide programs. Soto, who used to be undocumented herself, said she knows of at least 30 undocumented families that are homeless because of the pandemic in El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs. She said she is frustrated by a lack of action by Colorado’s political leaders to address the problem.
“My community is starving and getting evicted, and this is because we are undocumented and we don’t exist,” she said. “No one wants to talk about the undocumented community.”
It’s unclear how many people living illegally across the nation have been evicted during the pandemic. One reason for the uncertainty is because they often leave the moment a landlord threatens to kick them out to avoid going to eviction court and risking deportation, immigration advocates say. As a result, landlords can often evict undocumented people without ever officially filing in civil court and without following the state and federal rules, so there is no paper trail to track.
“Rather than go to court and assert their rights, they just move out,” said Zach Neumann, founder of the Colorado COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project. “They often do so in a way that’s really disruptive to their families and their lives.”
Ana’s landlord evicted her at the end of her lease exploiting a loophole in the federal eviction moratorium that allows evictions when leases expire. She said her landlord threatened to call the police, so she left as quickly as possible. The short time frame her landlord set does not follow Colorado law, which allows tenants 10 days to appeal an eviction in court or leave the property after official notice is given.
A phone number listed for the landlord, AB Property Management, was disconnected, and multiple attempts to contact the owners of Ana’s past rental property were unsuccessful.
Though President Joe Biden’s proposed emergency pandemic aid package mentions ensuring vaccine access to Americans “regardless of their immigration status,” there is no similar statement included for the $30 billion proposed in rental and critical energy and water assistance, or extended unemployment benefits or individual stimulus checks..
California and New York City developed payment programs for undocumented residents. But despite having an undocumented population of almost 200,000 — accounting for about 3% of the state’s population in 2016 — Colorado has no financial aid program to address that community.
Ana and her children are now sleeping on the floor in a friend’s unfurnished spare room. She recently found a cleaning job that pays $300 a week. It’s not much, but she’s thankful to have it after nine months of looking for work. She’s still terrified of losing her kids if social-service workers find out the family is homeless.
“This is not living. This is just surviving. Let’s be clear. This is just surviving, and I want to live. I want a house for my kids,” she said.