Programs have been launched in two of the largest U.S. states to provide economic assistance to undocumented immigrants who have been ineligible for benefits under massive federal stimulus packages enacted to combat financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Immigrant relief funds have been set up in California and Pennsylvania. A similar initiative was launched in Baltimore, Maryland.
Immigrant advocates say that at a time when much of the U.S. workforce has been idled to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it is counterproductive to exclude those lacking legal status from assistance that has made it easier for people to stay at home.
“Immigrant rights organizations recognized immediately that this was going to exacerbate our public health crisis,” Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizen Coalition executive director Sundrop Carter told VOA.
Enacted in March, the CARES Act provided stimulus checks of up to $1,200 to low and middle-income individuals. Families were also eligible for $500 per child under the age of 17.
Passed by a Democratic-led House and a Republican-led Senate, the bill provided benefits to U.S. citizens and permanent residents but excluded undocumented immigrants and individuals in mixed-status families.
Some Democratic lawmakers criticized the exclusions as unjust, noting that many workers lacking legal status pay federal taxes.
“COVID-19 does not care about your immigration status, so neither should our response," Arizona Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva said in an April statement.
President Donald Trump’s Republican allies on Capitol Hill were unmoved.
Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced the “No Bailouts for Illegal Aliens Act.” Congressman Ken Buck of Colorado introduced a companion legislation in the House. Their goal is to block funds being sent to U.S. states giving coronavirus-related stimulus checks or other cash payments to unauthorized workers.
“The federal government shouldn't be subsidizing states' efforts to send cash to illegal aliens," Cotton said in a statement last month.
With federal aid restricted, California stepped in with its own initiative. America’s most populous state set up a $125 million fund that is providing a maximum of $1,000 per undocumented household.
In Pennsylvania, more than 40 nonprofit groups have joined with a charitable foundation to launch the PA Immigrant Relief Fund. The program, which several cities are promoting but receives no state money, has provided financial aid to hundreds of families in its first days of operation, and organizers hope to help thousands more in the weeks and months to come.
“So many organizations really wanted to match the federal stimulus of $1,200 dollars, but we ended up on $800 (per undocumented household in Pennsylvania),” Carter said, adding that the initiative aims “to reach as many people as possible” with funds she describes as “a drop in the bucket.”
Some local governments are stepping in, as well. In Baltimore, Maryland, a mayoral office for immigrant affairs established an emergency fund to “help families achieve economic stability by using funds towards rent, utilities and/or other basic needs.”
The key requirement for federal stimulus money is a social security number given to U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents. The stipulation has served to deny benefits to mixed status families in which a citizen or resident is married to an undocumented immigrant who files taxes using an alternative to the social security number.
Multiple lawsuits are underway challenging the withholding of stimulus money to mixed-status families, as well as undocumented immigrants with children who are U.S. citizens.