Recovery for All: Including Immigrants in COVID-19 Relief

By Esther Davila, Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow

Last week, dozens of immigrants and advocates stood outside of New Jersey’s State House chanting “Alivio para todos” (“Relief for all”). Tents were set up as protestors planned to stay overnight to urge state policymakers to extend economic aid to undocumented residents impacted by COVID-19. The event was organized by Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant advocacy group based in Elizabeth, New Jersey that has been actively highlighting the ongoing impact of the current public health and economic crisis on immigrant families. 

During the first month of the COVID-19 crisis (April 2020), Make the Road New Jersey held in-depth conversations with over 200 immigrants in the state. The organization released the findings from those conversations in a report titled “Essential and Excluded: A survey of Immigrants in New Jersey under COVID-19.” The report found:  

  • Only one in four respondents were working, and nearly half of those still employed experienced a reduction in work hours. 
  • When asked about the coming month, 91 percent of respondents worried about being able to pay utilities or other bills, 83 percent worried about having enough food for their families, and 70 percent worried about being able to buy medicine for themselves or their families. 
  • Among undocumented respondents, 76 percent lost their job as a result of the crisis, and none received unemployment insurance because their status made them ineligible for unemployment benefits.

News reports throughout the nation revealed that this experience was not unique to New Jersey; other immigrants and their families across the country were experiencing this same anguish.

To alleviate financial burdens and ease the anxieties of individuals and families, the federal government provided stimulus payments through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. However, the CARES Act imposes a Social Security number requirement that excludes many tax-paying immigrant and mixed-status families from receiving the stimulus payment. The exclusion of undocumented individuals who pay taxes also meant 3.5 million children nationwide, most of whom are U.S. citizens, were excluded from essential relief. Moreover, expanded unemployment insurance programs did not include support for undocumented workers.  

More than four months have passed since the COVID-19 crisis began, and immigrant families nationwide have been excluded from critical relief. As New Jersey and the rest of the country continues to have social distancing restrictions in place, it’s clear that a response that leaves out immigrants and their families—many of whom work in roles that are considered essential—will undermine public health and the economic recovery in New Jersey and the United States. Effective COVID relief for all—or “Alivio para todos”—at the state and federal level depends on the inclusion of immigrants.

Esther Davila is the Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow working with the Income and Work Supports team. Throughout her time at CLASP, she has been working closely on the Protecting Immigrant Families campaign.