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A Bailout That Excludes Immigrants Hurts Everyone

A Bailout That Excludes Immigrants Hurts Everyone


This research and analysis is part of our Discourse series. Discourse is a collaboration between The Appeal, The Justice Collaborative Institute, and Data For Progress. Its mission is to provide expert commentary and rigorous, pragmatic research especially for public officials, reporters, advocates, and scholars. The Appeal and The Justice Collaborative Institute are editorially independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.

Marion County, Oregon, has the highest number of coronavirus cases in that state. According to a recent news investigation, this is largely due to the lack of health services, information, and employer cooperation. The region is home to a large community of immigrant workers who have been deemed “essential” because they work in agriculture and food processing plants. Yet, they have received diminished services, and, as a result, the virus has spread. Because many are not eligible for economic relief, these families continue to suffer and face homeslessness and hunger, putting everyone in danger.

The same dynamic is being replicated across the county. Immigrants, including undocumented immigrants and mixed-status families, are an essential part of the economy—working in health care, fields, factories, and construction sites, all “essential” businesses that have remained open. They are also suffering as a result of the pandemic and economic free-fall, losing jobs, taking care of children no longer in school, and struggling to pay for rent and food.

Despite this reality, immigrants were left out of the $3 trillion CARES Act, intended to provide coronavirus relief to families. Denying immigrants and their families economic relief jeopardizes everyone’s collective health, safety, and well-being. The coronavirus does not discriminate, and economic relief should not either. Therefore, any future legislation must provide financial relief for immigrants, regardless of status, and their families. 

Current CARES Relief Excludes Immigrants

In response to the pandemic and related recession, Congress passed the CARES Act, which was intended to help families stay fed and housed while the country focuses on a health crisis. The CARES Act, however, isn’t comprehensive. It excludes about 15.4 million people—including almost 4 million children—because of restrictions on residency and citizenship.

The CARES Act completely excludes undocumented immigrants as well as authorized workers with social security numbers who do not meet the “substantial presence” test. Importantly, U.S. citizens who filed jointly with ineligible spouses have also been denied relief. As a result, U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants have filed a class action lawsuit, alleging that the CARES Act violates their equal protection rights in denying their parents relief. It’s unclear what the result of this lawsuit will be.

States have moved to fill the gap, but the need is great and their budgets are tight. For example, California offered $125 million in coronavirus relief for undocumented immigrants: $500 per adult and a maximum of $1,000 per household. Despite this effort, only about 150,000 undocumented adults out of the 2.2 million residing in California are expected to receive relief. Similarly, New York City made $20 million available for undocumented immigrants, but that amount only covers a fraction of the undocumented immigrants living in New York City. Other cities, including Chicago and Minneapolis, have made funds available for all residents, including non-citizens, to assist with rent or mortgage payments. In some states, including Massachusetts and Michigan, non-profit organizations have moved to establish relief funds for undocumented immigrants.

The need for assistance to immigrant families clearly exists but is unmet by current policies and programs. The fact that states have stepped in to fill the gaps reflects the common-sense notion that there is no legitimate reason to exclude immigrants from CARES relief. The federal government needs to meet this need in future stimulus packages. 

Assisting Immigrants Is Essential To Public Health

The coronavirus does not discriminate, nor should any credible public health response. CARES relief was intended to help families stay housed and healthy during an uncertain time when federal, state, and local governments asked people to stay at home to prevent the spread of disease, which might overload hospital capacity and overwhelm health providers. There is simply no underlying logic to excluding immigrants and their families.

As of mid-May, nearly 100,000 people in the United States have died from the coronavirus, and more than 30 million people have filed for unemployment, with expectations that the unemployment rate will likely exceed that at the height of the Great Depression. Many immigrants work in areas disproportionately impacted by coronavirus, like hospitality and restaurants. 

For those who go into the community for work in order to survive, the greater the health risk that they bring coronavirus home or that they spread the virus throughout their workplaces and communities. Further, CARES Act funding that went to testing and medical care also excludes immigrant workers and families, so these groups must struggle with both a lack of financial assistance and significantly fewer medical services.

Funding for testing and economic relief is particularly necessary because some immigrant communities are structurally vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks. Immigrants are more likely to have larger household sizes, live in denser metropolitan areas, and use public transit. Because of existing health inequalities, they are also less likely to have healthcare coverage or feel safe getting tests that might be tracked by the government. In many states, health agencies have failed to translate and disseminate health information for non-English speakers.

While financial assistance will not eliminate these inequities, it would unquestionably help in tangible ways that improves the quality of life—and public health—for everyone.

Assisting Immigrants Is Good For The Economy

The economic rationale for CARES relief is to allow unemployed or underemployed individuals money to spend and contribute to the economy—and individuals who were still employed could spend more, stimulating the economy.    The U.S. economy relies heavily on immigrants as employers, workers, consumers, and taxpayers. Denying them relief unnecessarily limits the effect of the stimulus, thus stunting the economy. 

From an economic perspective, immigrants, documented or not, are a substantial segment of consumer spending. They contribute to the economy both as consumers and taxpayers. Immigrants have over $900 billion in spending power and their purchases of goods and services fuel economic growth. Undocumented immigrants also contribute $11.74 billion a year in taxes to state and local governments and pay between $12 and $13 billion a year in social security benefits, making their contributions crucial to the long-term solvency of the social security administration.

Amidst the pandemic, immigrants have also made outsized contributions to the essential functioning of the country. There are an estimated 1.7 million immigrant medical and health care workers caring for patients impacted by coronavirus and around 27,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients working as doctors, nurses, and paramedics. Without field laborers, who are disproportionately immigrants and disproportionately undocumented immigrants, our food supply chain would be disastrously interrupted. In New York City, nearly one in five essential workers are noncitizens. 

Immigrants make a substantial contribution to the economy and tax base by creating jobs and businesses. They are twice as likely as U.S. born individuals to start a business. Immigrants form 25% of new businesses in the U.S. and over 40% of new businesses in New York, California, and New Jersey. These new immigrant businesses created three and four million new jobs.  Immigrants also founded more than half of the country’s businesses worth $1 billion or more, and these businesses employed 760 people on average. 

Shutting so many immigrants out of coronavirus relief does nothing to help the U.S. economy, and instead is only likely to hurt it. Essential economies rely on the labor and spending of immigrants and their families. It would be contrary to the goals of economic stimulus to exclude immigrants and their families or to tie the stimulus to residency status.

Immigrants Are Crucial To America’s Health And Strength

The CARES Act was designed to alleviate economic suffering caused by the pandemic, to stimulate the economy, and to protect public health. Cutting off relief to non-citizens unnecessarily interferes with these goals, while also causing undue hardship for immigrant families. The federal government’s next relief package must include aid for non-citizens; in the meantime, states and localities will have to step up and fill this tremendous gap. Immigrants are crucial to this country’s health and strength, and any attempt at a recovery that excludes them will be no recovery at all. 

Chrystin Ondersma joined the faculty of Rutgers Law School in Spring 2010. Her scholarship focuses on Bankruptcy and Commercial Law. She received her J.D. magna cum laude in 2007 from Harvard Law School where she was the recipient of a Goldsmith Academic Fellowship and an executive editor of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. From 2007 to 2008 she clerked for the Honorable Michael Daly Hawkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Prior to joining the Rutgers faculty, she was an associate in the Business Finance and Restructuring Department at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP in New York.