States and Localities Step Up to Support Immigrant Families When Congress Fails 

By Madison Allen

Coronavirus legislation enacted to date—including the Families First and the CARES Act—doesn’t go far enough to address the vast inequities in how immigrant communities are affected by the public health and economic crisis. While Congress has shamefully excluded millions of immigrants and their families, states have stepped up to fill the gap by providing relief to immigrant families. 

Long-standing policies have failed immigrant communities for decades. Before Coronavirus became a threat, non-citizens were already significantly more likely to be uninsured, and most immigrants are ineligible for federal means-tested public benefits during the first five years in their status. Increased immigration enforcement, the discriminatory new “public charge” regulation, and a relentless drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Trump Administration have intensified fears of accessing health care and other programs. Recent Congressional actions exacerbate existing inequities—for example, by failing to ensure that everybody has access to COVID-19 testing and treatment. The CARES Act also prevents taxpayers who use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) from receiving stimulus checks. This reckless approach to policymaking will harm over 5 million children whose parents will be ineligible for assistance that could help their families weather these challenging times.

The need for increased access by immigrant families to programs that meet basic needs is more acute now than ever. Many immigrants with low incomes working in housekeeping, caregiving, restaurants, and other service sectors, have already lost their jobs. Six million immigrant workers (including DACA recipients) in industries like agriculture, construction, and health care, are at the frontlines of keeping U.S. residents healthy and fed during the pandemic. These workers are often required to be in close quarters or interact with the public, putting them at higher risk of getting sick.

In the face of federal inaction, states and localities have stepped in to provide greater and more equitable access to programs that help people survive this crisis. The following list provides a few examples of the many ways that state and local governments are supporting immigrant families. 

  • Health Care Access: Several states have long used state-only funds to provide health insurance to immigrants who are disqualified by federal restrictions. In New York and Washington, state health officials have announced that their Emergency Medicaid programs, which serve people regardless of immigration status, will cover COVID-19 testing and treatment. Where states have not expanded eligibility, it’s important to spread the word that immigrant families still have the right to seek care, even without insurance. 
  • Financial Assistance: In Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey is using his emergency powers to create a $5 million forgivable loan program to help renters and small businesses affected by the economic fallout. Unlike federal and state programs, the relief fund is also available to undocumented residents. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors has introduced legislation to create an Emergency Relief Fund to provide financial assistance to families, including immigrant families, who are ineligible for federal programs.
  • Nutrition Assistance: This week, Michigan became the first state in the country to gain federal approval of a Pandemic EBT – a program that will provide nutritious food to children, regardless of immigration status, who were affected by school closings. The governors of North Carolina and Florida have requested flexibility in the activation of a Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) that’s available regardless of immigration status; however, they can’t receive this until the president declares a federal disaster. In Seattle, the city is providing  supermarket vouchers to families during the coronavirus pandemic. The ordinance states that if additional funding becomes available, immigrants and refugees should be prioritized.
  • Unemployment Assistance: The New Jersey legislature has passed the Temporary Lost Wage Unemployment Program that will provide benefits to workers, including undocumented immigrants, for certain time missed due to COVID-19 related reasons. It is not yet clear if Governor Phil Murphy will sign the bill. 

In the face of the current public health and economic crisis, we must prioritize the millions of immigrants on the frontline of COVID-19 response efforts in relief efforts. Policies that fail to address the systemic and historic exclusion of immigrants from assistance programs will only deepen existing inequities. Moving forward, CLASP is committed to working with our partners to advocate for bills—like the Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act—that address crucial gaps left in the relief legislation enacted thus far. In the meantime, we applaud state and local efforts to provide access to health care, nutrition, and economic supports for all individuals and families impacted by this crisis.