A Bensonhurst woman, Z. (who didn't want her full name used) and her husband are among the millions of New Yorkers now struggling to pay rent, buy food and to basically survive amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
But with most city, state and federal stimulus funding, unemployment benefits and relief options only open to residents with social security numbers, it's left out mixed-immigration status families like Z., who is a citizen, and her husband, who is not.
The federal CARES Act disqualifies individuals who would otherwise be eligible to receive a stimulus payment of up to $1,200, but jointly filed their taxes with a family member who doesn't have a social security number. In the case of Z., her husband filed his tax return using Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITINs) instead of a social security number.
“We are in the process of (applying for) his citizenship right now,” said Z. “So we have to file our taxes jointly. So that's what we've been doing. Because of that, only I have social security [number]. He doesn't, and we are left out.”
Z. still has her job working remotely for a bank, but her husband was told to go home on March 15th from his job at a SoHo restaurant and hasn’t been able to work since. “We don't qualify for that check,” she said of the CARES Act stimulus funds. “I see that (there are) thousands and thousands and thousands of families like ours, right?” and added, “So then my question is where we can get any help?”
New York City’s undocumented immigrants have very few resources available during the coronavirus pandemic. A report by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs issued last week estimated that 192,000 undocumented workers have lost their jobs.
“Estimating the number of undocumented workers affected is necessarily imprecise, but many worked in industries hard hit by mandated closings, including restaurants, personal services, and construction," he study’s authors said. "Nearly one in six New York City jobs lost due to the pandemic was held by an undocumented worker. The 54 percent displacement rate among undocumented workers is twice that of the 27 percent overall private sector displacement rate."
While there is food distribution available from the city and evictions are currently prohibited during the state’s PAUSE, financial assistance for undocumented immigrants appears to be dependent on donations and philanthropy.
This week, the city’s top immigration official said that a $20 million donation from the Open Society Foundations to create the NYC COVID-19 Immigrant Emergency Relief program is the city’s main source of funding for the estimated 360,000 undocumented New Yorkers, despite many of them working as essential personnel delivering food, stocking and shipping supplies, and performing labor.
And the coronavirus’s spread has been deadly in immigrant neighborhoods. Last week, city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office released a report that drew a connection between “overcrowded” living conditions and immigrant neighborhoods: “Overcrowded apartments are particularly prevalent in neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants—and which today are among the hardest hit by COVID-19,” the report said.
“New York City is home to 3.1 million immigrants who comprise about 37 percent of the City’s population and 44 percent of its workforce – including approximately 360,000 undocumented workers and 48,000 undocumented business owners. And among the estimated one million essential workers in New York City working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic—delivery workers, EMS staff, drivers, health care personnel, and more—half are immigrants,” said Bitta Mostofi, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, in a statement Tuesday.
Details of how the $20 million from Open Society Foundations — funded by liberal philanthropist George Soros — will be used are still vague. Officials say the money will be disbursed through community-based organizations to help 20,000 undocumented workers in financial distress — the funding works out to $1,000 per family or $400 per individual, according to the New York Times. City officials with MOIA said they’re now working to finalize arrangements with partner community organizations and payment providers, “with a focus on working with organizations that have existing ties and ability to reach immigrant New Yorkers in the target population quickly, and that account for a diversity of impacted sectors, geography, and language.”
While Open Society Foundations is not typically a boots-on-the-ground type of outfit, a spokesperson for the nonprofit said the leadership felt compelled to act quickly, given the crisis: “We just felt like we had to do something that actually got immediate relief to those most vulnerable,” said Laine Romero Alston, Team Manager for Open Society’s International Migration Initiative. She later added in an email, “We are fully aware that OSF’s donation is a small drop in the bucket, so hope it inspires other donors (institutions and individuals), as well as prompts the kind of broader public and systemic responses as the state and national level to reach the millions of workers and families who are excluded from assistance at this moment.”
The federal government’s exclusion of undocumented workers leaves the burden on states and cities to provide relief. As Politico reported, “California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week that undocumented immigrants, who comprise about a tenth of California’s workforce, will be able to draw on a $125 million public-private fund. Minneapolis is offering $5 million in assistance to tenants and small businesses, regardless of their immigration status. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently extended the city’s coronavirus-relief benefit programs, including aid for housing and for small businesses, to undocumented immigrants.”
The exclusion of undocumented immigrants from federal benefits also hurts their children enrolled at school. Betsy DeVos, the country’s Secretary of Education, announced Tuesday that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and most undocumented students would not be eligible for CARES Act aid that provided $6 billion to colleges and universities for students to cover living expenses such as child care, housing, and food. Only students who were eligible for federal financial aid — namely citizens and some non-citizens — can benefit.
“It's disgusting that the federal government is really purposefully excluding folks in this way and that the Democrats have not stood firm,” said Deborah Axt, co-Executive Director of Make The Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. “It's an incredibly dangerous move at a moment when they're trying to contain the spread of this virus in immigrant-dense communities that are the epicenter of the epicenter.”
Axt added, “The Open Science Foundations grant is obviously extremely generous and will help today or tomorrow when it hits the streets to get some food in people's mouths. But people have missed April rent. They're about to miss May rent. We're going to end up with people homeless. We're certainly already ending up with people out on the street sick, looking for work, looking for jobs, because there is no hope of income coming in from any source.”
Juan, a churro-and-ice cream street vendor near Fordham University, has reluctantly stopped selling his wares because he was scared he’d bring the virus home to his family, including his elderly father and his mother-in-law who has diabetes. His lack of income makes him worried about paying rent on the Bronx apartment, but for now he only ventures out from their home a couple times a week to pick up food from the city Department of Education’s grab-and-go meals.
For the time being, his wife is still working at a warehouse near New Rochelle packing and shipping contact lenses. And Juan, who didn’t want his last name published because he’s undocumented, said he’s laying low so as not to not harm his future chances at citizenship by triggering the Public Charge clause — the Trump Administration’s policy to deny admission or permanent residency to most non-citizens who are “likely at any time to become a public charge” by using government benefits. His wife is a citizen, and they were married in February.
“My wife and I decided not to apply for unemployment benefits such as food stamps this time, or any help because if I apply for that maybe later when I want to fix my situation that can be considered like a public charge,” Juan said. “And I don't want that because at least we can handle it for now — this situation — and not take any public assistance. And that can affect my future and also my wife's future. If I can fix my immigration (status), maybe I can get a better job.”
But he said he won’t be staying home for much longer as money dries up. “Soon I have to work outside selling again, or go find a job maybe in Manhattan; maybe start making deliveries, washing dishes or something to start to make money,” Juan said, and added, “the only way is (stay) positive and try to make it here while we can.”