WASHINGTON — Like many Americans, Rosalba, 40, is spending anxious days indoors, away from her restaurant job and without income. Both have vanished as fear of the novel coronavirus paralyzes the country.
Unlike other residents, she takes no comfort in President Donald Trump’s promises of free money. She and her husband are as petrified of contracting COVID-19 as anyone else, but as undocumented immigrants from Mexico, they have little hope the president will help them.
If this crisis goes on, they’ll have to leave the safety of their home in San Diego to find work amid a pandemic, she said. Their choice is to risk the health of their family and the general public or risk homelessness and hunger with their U.S.-born 4-, 8-, 11-year-old children, and a 17-year-old who is a Dreamer.
“Our whole community is living with fear, anxiety and terror,” Rosalba said in Spanish, speaking on the phone with the help of a translator. “What will we do after tomorrow with the little bit of money and the few basics we currently have to survive the following 15 days or three weeks?”
ICE raids have been paused, so Rosalba (last name withheld) and the millions of undocumented immigrants like her may be able to stop looking over their shoulders for now. Her restaurant has been raided before. Now, Trump may not be actively trying to seize her, but will he actively support her?
“Those of us who have no benefits must come out to work.”
Political ideology is being turned upside down, as Senate Republicans are set to unveil a $1 trillion economic stimulus package Thursday, and the Trump administration promises direct payments to most Americans. But immigrants and their advocates wonder whether Republicans’ ideological elasticity extends to a population Trump has falsely blamed for bringing “tremendous infectious disease” to the U.S.
If not, they asked, what message is the president sending? That they’ll pay Americans to stay home to flatten the curve, but leave a medically underserved population to their own devices, to continue venturing into the public for work, potentially falling ill themselves, or spreading the virus to others?
“It's not even clear we can ask someone who's literally feeding their children from their daily wages to put the collective health interest first,” said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a Phoenix-based immigrant advocate. “People who don't have the privilege of just sitting on their couch with Netflix and just staying home as if it's a mini-vacation, people who don't have paid leave or are able to work from home, they're undoubtedly going to be looking for any job they can find.”
Fear of the public charge rule
The climate of fear immigrants have lived under during the Trump Administration has been well documented. Well before the coronavirus pandemic became a mainstream concern, immigrants had been afraid to participate in public aid programs like food stamps or Medicaid.
That’s because administration rules, greenlit by the Supreme Court, allow immigration officials to deny visas or citizenship applications to immigrants who’ve relied on public benefits in the past, on the basis that they could be a financial burden on the system.
The so-called “public charge” rule has already led to immigrants dropping benefits. And even though the administration has promised not to enforce the rule for coronavirus cases, it’s had a preemptive chilling effect.
Not only are immigrants less likely to come forward and identify themselves for fear they could be tracked and deported later, they’re also scared to take any kind of handout because they don’t want it to be held against them if they have a chance to become citizens later.
“I'm not even gonna bother trying,” said Christian (not his real name), a 32-year-old undocumented worker at a tech start-up in Austin, Texas. He was born in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, but has lived his whole life undocumented in Texas. He gets paid a salary, but business has ground to a halt and he’s worried he might be laid off.
“Speaking with my lawyer, I've gotten laid off from a job back in January, and the one thing they always told me was, ‘You do not file for unemployment, because if it does come a time when you have to adjust your status, they're going to see that you were taking advantage of government programs,’” he said.
Peter Manzo, president and CEO of United Ways of California, said he’s seen the negative effects of limiting public benefits, even in an immigrant-friendly state like his. His group had already been campaigning to make the state’s earned income tax credit available to all residents, not just citizens and permanent legal residents. Now, he says they’re advocating the same for the Trump bailout.
“In a public health emergency we want people to be able to stay self-quarantined, avoid contact with others, to keep everyone safe, right?” Manzo said. “We have a climate of fear we also need to adjust. People are worried about what the public charge rules will mean for them.”
All this is easier said than done, especially in a Senate controlled by Republicans who have often tried to keep immigrants from benefiting from social programs.
Already the discussion is seeping into the coronavirus response: On Wednesday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul unsuccessfully offered an amendment to the House-passed coronavirus package to limit the federal child tax credit only to people with Social Security numbers — in other words, not to undocumented immigrants.
The question now is whether Trump’s checks will only be available to people with Social Security numbers. There is precedent for that. After the 2008 market collapse, the George W. Bush administration sent stimulus checks only to Americans with Social Security cards, a population that includes citizens and people with green cards.
But that crisis was purely economic. Now, there is an immediate public health imperative to keeping every American resident, documented or otherwise, financially stable enough to feel comfortable staying home, said Greg Leiserson, chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
There is an easy way to do that, he said: Use Social Security information to identify American citizens and permanent residents, but also send checks, no questions asked, to people who file taxes with Individual Tax Identification Numbers. That’s a number the IRS issues to people, including undocumented immigrants, so they can pay taxes without a Social Security number, regardless of their immigration status.
“In a public health crisis, the case for drawing eligibility broadly is quite strong, but you could imagine this administration doesn't feel that way,” he said. “If Congress wanted to allay this concern, Congress could write the legislation, ‘Everybody with an [Individual Tax Identification Number] is eligible, and this payment shall be disregarded for any determination of public charge, ever.”
Lorena, who didn’t want her full name printed, is a New York City resident in her mid-30s who moved from San Salvador with her husband and two kids, all of whom live without documents.
She cleans houses for a living, she said, and her husband works in construction. “We who are undocumented always live in fear,” she said. “Those of us who have no benefits must come out to work.”
Cover: Rosalba and her husband will have trouble paying the rent and feeding her four children since the restaurants where they work closed down amid coronavirus fears. (Photo: United Ways of California)