The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is proving to be one of the worst economic recessions in American history, and the federal government has rightly taken preliminary steps to mitigate the harm for working-class Americans. As a result of the first three stimulus bills, some economic relief is on the horizon for the average American. Unfortunately, there has been relatively little done to provide relief to a critical yet often overlooked segment of the American labor force: undocumented immigrants. As congressional leaders continue to negotiate with President Donald Trump the details of a potential phase four of stimulus spending, it is imperative that they actively include provisions aimed at extending protections to undocumented workers and their families.
Characteristics of the undocumented workforce
There are multiple estimates of the undocumented population, but a recent estimate based on data derived from the 2018 American Community Survey (ACS) puts it at around 10.6 million. A similar estimate drawing upon the 2017 ACS identified 7.6 million undocumented workers in the country’s labor force. To put this figure into perspective, the undocumented working population is roughly the same size as the combined total of the working populations in Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi, or about 4.6 percent of the entire American working population. Undocumented immigrants live in every state, and 22 states have undocumented populations of more than 100,000.
In many respects, this population is not markedly different from the U.S.-born one. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants can definitively call the United States home; some 66 percent of undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States for more than 10 years. About one-third of undocumented residents in the United States are homeowners, and annually they pay roughly $12 billion in state and local sales, income, and property taxes. Those who file taxes using Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITINs)—which undocumented workers commonly use—instead of Social Security numbers (SSNs) paid more than $13.7 billion in net taxes in 2015. And despite not having access to Social Security benefits, undocumented workers contribute a substantial amount to the old-age retirement program, according to the IRS. A net total of $12 billion was paid into Social Security trust funds from undocumented workers’ federal payroll taxes in 2010. And from 2000 to 2011, undocumented immigrants paid $35.1 billion more into Medicare than they withdrew.
The important role that undocumented immigrants play in the U.S. workforce is being driven home by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced hundreds of millions of Americans to remain at home while tens of millions more continue to report to work to keep the country running. To help policymakers make decisions at this time, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) developed a list of “essential critical infrastructure workers” that describes the types of positions in the workforce that are “critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security.”
Undocumented immigrants work in these critical roles at a higher rate than the U.S. population overall. Roughly 22 percent work as operators, fabricators, and laborers; 25 percent work in the service sector; and 9.5 percent work in farming, forestry, and fishing, which approximately overlap with the CISA’s essential categories of the manufacturing sector and food and agriculture sector. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2017 National Agricultural Workers Survey, half of all farmworkers are undocumented, making these workers essential to ensuring that the nation’s food supply is uninterrupted. Moreover, nearly one-third of all recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and more than 130,000 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders are in occupations classified as essential through the CISA criteria.
How the previous stimulus bills helped and excluded undocumented workers
The first three stimulus bills—the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act; the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA); and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act—have all included provisions that help undocumented workers and their families. With respect to health care, the CARES Act provided funding that will directly benefit undocumented immigrants. For example, $2 billion has been allocated to funding Community Health Centers, which provide primary and preventive health care to people regardless of immigration status or ability to pay, over fiscal years 2020 and 2021. The FFCRA likewise benefited undocumented immigrants by requiring that employers with fewer than 500 employees provide up to 10 days of paid leave for COVID-19-related illness or caregiving responsibilities. This provision, which lasts until the end of 2020, is available for all workers, also regardless of immigration status.
The FFCRA also has expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act to allow both documented and undocumented workers to take leave to care for a minor child whose school or care service has been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, under the CARES Act, businesses with fewer than 500 employees are eligible for loans to keep employees on payroll and cover costs of employer group health care plans, rent, mortgage interest, and utility payments.
The FFCRA further created an optional state Medicaid program under which the federal government pays for the entire cost of testing for COVID-19. This particular provision, however, only pays for testing for uninsured people who would otherwise qualify for Medicaid under the immigration eligibility criteria.
Both the FFCRA and CARES Act extensively expanded unemployment insurance (UI) programs in terms of who is eligible, the length of time for which benefits last, and the monetary amount received. The new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program—which extends UI eligibility to people who are self-employed, independent contractors, freelancers, part-time workers, and new-to-the-labor-force workers—was created specifically to address the anticipated layoffs and spikes in the unemployment rate related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Unfortunately, UI is only available to those who are work-authorized at the time of filing and the duration of the period for which they are receiving benefits. As such, undocumented workers are ineligible for UI regardless of whether they pay taxes or not.
The CARES Act further provides a direct payment of up to $1,200 for a single filer, $2,400 for joint filers, and an additional $500 per child claimed on the FY 2019 return. Unfortunately, a household is only eligible for this payment if all members have valid SSNs. This means that undocumented immigrant and mixed-status families will not receive these payments even if members of the family work but file taxes using an ITIN. By excluding ITIN filers, the federal government is excluding some 5.1 million children—the vast majority of whom are American citizens—from benefiting from this CARES Act provision. It is possible for mixed-status joint filers to receive half of the $2,400 by filing separately, but doing so may render the filer ineligible for Affordable Care Act subsidies, and the net benefit of doing so may end up being negative.
How a phase 4 bill should fix these problems
A phase four stimulus bill should fix these shortcomings. First, it should ensure that all people residing in the United States have access to COVID-19 testing and treatment regardless of immigration status. Aside from the moral reasoning for offering free testing, there are social, economic, and epidemiological benefits as well. Even President Trump acknowledged in March that it is in the country’s best interest to provide testing to undocumented immigrants. The more than 200,000 DACA recipients who are “essential critical infrastructure workers” remain working on the front lines of the pandemic, in public, and in contact with others. Providing them with the means to get testing and treatment will help stop the spread of the coronavirus. As such, Congress should confirm that COVID-19 is classified as an “emergency medical condition” under 42 U.S.C. 1396b(v).
Second, mixed-status families and undocumented immigrants should have access to the emergency economic support being made available to all Americans. Undocumented workers as well as DACA recipients and TPS holders are disproportionately likely to be essential workers and thus are critical to preserving public health and supporting the systems that allow millions of Americans to observe social-distancing rules by remaining at home. As they continue to carry out their duties to keep the country functioning, they are increasing the chances that they expose themselves to infection.
Furthermore, it is in the economy’s best interest that all income-eligible residents receive direct stimulus payments from the federal government. These payments have a twofold purpose: help people make ends meet and inject money into the economy. The CARES Act’s efficacy is only blunted when certain segments of the economy are excluded from its direct payment provisions. Just as paid sick leave is meant to help both the individual and the public as a whole, the direct payments work better when provided to all. In the absence of federal action to date, California partnered with private philanthropy to establish a $125 million fund to provide necessary financial support to undocumented adults affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the fund, qualifying California residents may receive a one-time payment of $500, up to $1,000 per household. The federal government should follow California’s lead and recognize that providing stimulus support without regard to immigration status is both the right thing to do and a smart investment in the nation’s economy. These goals could be achieved by allowing tax filers who use ITINs to access the $1,200 direct payment, the $500 child payments, and any future stimulus support.
Everyone who files tax returns, regardless of immigration status, should be extended access to unemployment benefits, including UI and paid family leave for COVID-19-related illness. Paid sick leave and family leave should also be extended to all employers, regardless of size. Other measures that could soften the blow of the recession on undocumented immigrants, and indeed the country as a whole, include providing quality child care for all and better enforcement of workplace standards. Mixed-status families are projected to be disproportionately negatively affected by this crisis, and their economic well-being is essential to the overall economic well-being of the United States.
Third, Congress must ensure that immigrant workers are not unnecessarily removed from the workforce at this critical moment due to expiration of their permission to work in the United States and that people with desperately needed specialized skills have the opportunity to use them. Because the coronavirus has caused certain U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices to close, the government is not currently collecting biometric data that are required to process various applications. While they have adopted partial workarounds, some individuals remain at risk of losing their work authorization in the weeks and months ahead. Meanwhile, more than 1 million DACA recipients and TPS holders are waiting anxiously to see whether federal courts will overturn lower court decisions that are currently the only things standing in the way of the Trump administration’s efforts to end their protections and eliminate their ability to live and work lawfully in the country.
To avoid unnecessary confusion and anxiety and prevent hundreds of thousands of front-line workers from being pulled out of the workforce precisely when we need them most, Congress should automatically extend work authorizations for at least those individuals whose documents recently have expired or are set to expire in 2020. Congress should additionally consider how to encourage the administration to take the steps needed in order to allow foreign-born health professionals to fully use their training at this important moment. Congress should also suspend the public charge rule as a criterion in immigration applications. Despite USCIS guidance clarifying that testing, treatment, and preventive care related to COVID-19 will not be considered in future public charge determinations, the confusion surrounding the details is nevertheless discouraging even those who are entirely unaffected by the public charge rule—including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents—from seeking health care and essential services.
Finally, Congress should make sure that the fear of immigration enforcement does not stand in the way of individuals accessing necessary services for themselves and their family members. To date, DHS has still not issued a formal statement declaring that its highest priorities will be promoting “life-saving and life-sustaining activities,” including by not conducting any immigration enforcement actions at or near hospitals, health care facilities, and other COVID-19 testing or quarantine sites or against people traveling to such sites. And while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has issued some statements suggesting that it will modify its enforcement and detention practices to promote public health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic, any changes have been difficult to spot on the ground or in the data. As the coronavirus continues to spread in alarming fashion within immigration detention facilities around the country, Congress should ensure that meaningful changes take place without further delay.
Stories abound of how undocumented workers are facing economic ruin and how fear of deportation is suppressing access to necessary COVID-19 testing and treatment. There is a moral imperative to extend help to this group of workers who not only make up a significant portion of the workforce but also supply it with labor in sectors that are critical to ensuring that the United States successfully combats the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic recession. Beyond the moral imperative, ensuring that all people have access to necessary testing and treatment—as well as the legal and financial support to remain home when they are sick or may have been exposed to the coronavirus—is critical to the nation’s effort to stanch community spread and beat this virus. To blunt these effects, Congress and the president must ensure that the fourth coronavirus response package extends its protections and benefits to all Americans regardless of immigration status.