As cities, states, and countries lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19, deep-seated inequalities and vulnerabilities in the US––long recognized by many––are being exposed and highlighted for the world to see. The status of undocumented immigrants is one such example of this phenomenon. Immigrants have been left out of the congressional CARES stimulus package, are ineligible to receive unemployment benefits, and do not qualify for public health insurance, but many continue to work and pay taxes.
The Brookings Institution estimates that in 2017 the number of undocumented people living in the US was between 10.5 and 12 million. According to the IRS, in 2015, 4.35 million tax returns were filed with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs); according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, “most experts believe the vast majority of tax returns filed with ITINs today are filed by undocumented immigrants.” In 2014, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that undocumented taxpayers accounted for $11.7 billion in taxes, $7 billion in sales and excise tax, $1.1 billion in state income tax, and $3.6 billion in property taxes. Although they are not recipients of public programs, many undocumented immigrants continue to pay taxes in the hopes that it will bolster their case for legal residency. The ITIN is a tax processing number created by the IRS to ensure that even undocumented immigrants can pay taxes, and is available to documented and undocumented immigrants who do not qualify for social security numbers––the IRS does not share applicants’ personal information with immigration enforcement authorities.
According to the Pew Research Center, undocumented workers make up about nine percent of the workforce in Texas and California, and ten percent in Nevada. While they represent five percent of the total workforce, they constitute 53 percent of hired farm work, 24 percent of domestic workers, 15 percent of construction workers, nine percent of the production workforce, nine percent of services, and six percent of transportation workers. The League of United Latin American Citizens estimates that 80 percent of the meat processing workforce––currently facing a devastating COVID-19 outbreak––is made up of undocumented workers or refugees. All of these industries have been declared essential to varying degrees in some or all states. In mid-March, essential workers around the country were given letters stating their labor was deemed critical by the Department of Homeland Security. Though the notices communicate the gravity of the industries and workers, they offer no assurances that ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) would abstain from detaining and deporting undocumented workers. President Trump has made remarks suggesting that he may request “sanctuary-city adjustments” in exchange for additional financial relief to states––a political move that plays on the lives of those who live in states with sanctuary cities, both undocumented and documented. The only state to pass its own stimulus package for undocumented immigrants is California under the governorship of Gavin Newsom (D), which will provide $500 per undocumented adult, with a cap of $1,000 per household. The fund combines $75 million in state donations with $50 million in private donations. Private donors to this fund include the Emerson Collective, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, James Irvine Foundation, California Endowment, and the Blue Shield Foundation, and 150,000 people are expected to benefit from it. Immediately following the passage of this bill, the Center for American Liberty and the Dhillon Law Group filed a lawsuit against the state of California claiming that the package breaks state and federal law given that undocumented immigrants are ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Though social distancing protocols have been put in place and the active workforce cut to essential workers only around the country, ICE agents continue to conduct raids on communities with the intention of deporting undocumented immigrants. On March 20, ICE submitted a request for 45,000 N95 protective masks, despite the surgeon general issuing a statement that all N95s be reserved for medical providers due to severe shortages. Detention presents a danger to personal and public health, as the likelihood of virus spread rises in holding centers and jails; on March 24, ICE reported the first instance of a positive case in custody. ICE maintains that they will focus detainments on “public safety risks,” but who they qualify as a “risk” is unclear, and the risk posed to detainees and staff in jails and prisons is exponential.
It is inconceivable that the US will weather the pandemic if significant portions of the population are systematically rendered invisible and vulnerable. The pandemic has once again proven that the health of a single person can impact that of the entire world, and policy that so blatantly endangers a part of the population endangers all of it. The following policy changes should be considered as we move through, and forward from, this pandemic.
- Halt ICE raids in perpetuity: Despite assertions to the contrary, the raids do not target only those that pose public safety risks. Under the Trump Administration, ICE was ordered to target all undocumented immigrants, regardless of criminal record, and in 2018, 36.5 percent of those detained had no criminal record. Rather, they often go after individuals and families living their day-to-day lives. The raids are degrading and destructive, and reflect a deep hypocrisy as those very workers are now being called on by the government.
- Ensure hospitals are sanctuaries: The fear of going to a hospital for care and subsequently being reported to ICE runs deep in immigrant communities and poses an individual and societal risk. Preventive care to address diabetes, asthma, heart conditions, and other conditions, is fundamental to both the long-term health of a person and their family and their ability to fight off viruses such as COVID-19. The government needs to ensure that hospitals and health centers, both public and private, are permanently barred from providing personal information on undocumented immigrants to ICE, and that ICE is not permitted under any circumstances to enter these spaces, enabling all people to safely receive necessary care.
- Assurances of protected Census information: The United States Census counts every person living in the United States, regardless of immigration status, and provides population statistics that allow for data-driven political advocacy. The results of the Census also determine the distribution of federal money to states and the allotment of representatives within the House of Representatives. Though not eligible for public programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and unemployment, undocumented immigrants still constitute an important part of the population within schools, hospitals, and other public spaces. And, although non-citizens are ineligible to vote, representatives within the House vote on policies that affect their communities, and should be apportioned in accordance with the truest count of the population. However, concern over the use of personal information collected on the census may prevent many people (undocumented and not) from responding to it. Title XIII of the census protects the privacy of census data, and the citizenship question was removed from the 2020 Census, but these fears still remain. The Census Bureau has recently spent millions on advertisements combatting worries about the citizenship question, but the bureau and the government need to take this further and permanently guarantee that under no circumstances will personal information be shared.
- Undocumented immigrants should be eligible for some stimulus benefits: Although undocumented immigrants cannot normally receive unemployment benefits, COVID-19 aid packages are not standard unemployment programs, and have been passed to respond to the very specific circumstances of this pandemic in an attempt to stimulate the US economy and support workers. The stimulus packages do not require that citizen recipients be unemployed to receive the stimulus checks. Taxpaying non-citizens should be given the same opportunities. Aid could be distributed as California’s package has (direct payments)––as guaranteed paid sick leave, provision of Personal Protective Equipment by the employers, assistance with healthcare costs, childcare, assurances of paid sick leave, amongst other options. Given the difficulty such a bill would face in Congress, such programs would likely have to be provided through states, rather than through the federal government.
It is imperative that the US government pass comprehensive immigration reform that makes it easier, and cheaper, to access the opportunity to live a documented life in this county. In the meantime, we must recognize the contributions made every day by those that have not been able to arrive through authorized processes, and allow them a humane existence now and a path to residency in the future. The virus and the US economy do not discriminate based on nationality or residency status, and the US federal and state governments should be prepared to support all those that contribute to the sustainability of the nation.