‘The Pandemic Doesn’t Check Papers’: COVID Relief Sidesteps Undocumented

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New York Army National Guard members are briefed by a New York State Department of Health administrator in New Rochelle, N.Y., one of the epicenters of the outbreak. U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Sean Madden via Flickr.

The nation’s estimated eight million undocumented workers have been largely ignored by federal relief efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, but several states are weighing measures that could provide help.

California this month passed new legislation expanding the list of adults eligible for disaster food aid to the undocumented. Under the bill awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, undocumented individuals would qualify for $600 prepaid grocery cards.

Similarly, the Vermont House of Representatives has approved a bill providing COVID relief to people who didn’t get federal monetary assistance earlier in 2020 because of their immigration status. If the bill is approved by the state Senate and enacted into law, it will affect an estimated 3,000 undocumented individuals, reported the VT Digger

Such measures counter the increasingly hostile climate fanned by the federal government’s zero-tolerance immigration policies.

But they are supported by many local legislators who point out that undocumented immigrants not only pay taxes but are mainstays of their local economies.

Even though many are working in “essential” occupations that place them at greater risk from contracting COVID-19, they don’t qualify for economic assistance, such as unemployment benefits, and are not eligible for COVID-19 relief under the federal CARES Act.

“The pandemic doesn’t check if you have papers or not, and those of us who don’t have a Social Security Number were not able to get the stimulus check,” Elsy Perez, a Los Angeles resident who lost her job as a result of the pandemic lockdown this spring, told Cal Matters.

“For now we are so glad that food banks provide help. It is very good, but it’s not enough.”

A recent report released by the San Jose, CA., Office of Immigrant Affairs, found immigrants who are essential workers face increased risks of COVID-19 infection.

“The immigrant population is essential to keeping San Jose running, yet especially vulnerable,” said Mo Kantner, director of state and local initiatives at New American Economy, a national nonprofit research organization which released the report.

COVID-19 has hit rural areas in the state particularly hard, where many of the undocumented are employed in agriculture and domestic service jobs.

Some argue that the high level of need should bring about systemic change.

The state should provide a “safety net” for all those impacted by catastrophes like pandemics or wildfires, regardless of their citizenship status, argued Eder Gaona-Macedo, a former undocumented worker who is now executive director of Future Leaders of America (FLA), a Santa Barbara, CA., nonprofit that operates a special fund for undocumented workers in collaboration with other organizations, called 805 UndocuFund.

Some organizations in other states, such as WeCount! in South Florida, and the Arizona Undocumented Workers Relief Fund, provide monetary help to pay for rent and food to undocumented and legal immigrants.

According to Open Society Foundations, one in six undocumented workers lost their jobs in New York City as a result of the pandemic.

TCR News Reporting intern Laura Bowen contributed to this report.

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