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Opinion: The Cruelties of the COVID-19 Stimulus Bill

Opinion: The Cruelties of the COVID-19 Stimulus Bill

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo
CityLimits

The $2 trillion stimulus bill that was just passed was supposed to protect public health and the economy from financial ruin. Yet, it penalizes everyday Americans who dare to marry the person they love, and is a dangerous continuation of this administration’s assault on undocumented immigrants and their families.

Under the stimulus bill, mixed-immigration status families, known as “mixed-status families,” are not eligible to receive the stimulus rebate if a U.S. citizen files his or her taxes jointly with an undocumented family member. The stimulus bill already excludes undocumented immigrants, even those who pay taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, from cash assistance, food stamps, and unemployment benefits.

However, purposefully excluding mixed-status families from the stimulus rebate is particularly cruel, given that undocumented immigrants, and their families (including U.S. citizens), are the most vulnerable population in times of crisis, as they have no access to the “safety net” available to many Americans.

This is how the stimulus bill will play out in real life. As an immigration attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), I work with Juan and his wife Julia, who are a mixed-status family (their names have been changed to protect their identity). Juan is an undocumented immigrant. He has lived in the United States for almost 20 years. He pays his taxes through his ITIN, and sends money to his home country every month to support his family. He met his wife Julia—a U.S. citizen—more than a decade ago. Julia and Juan have two U.S. citizen children. Julia survived a life-threatening illness as a teen and still suffers from chronic pain as a result.

Before the pandemic, Juan and Julia worked full time. When Julia’s pain was too severe, she had to stay home from work, leaving Juan to work full time and care for Julia and the children. While Juan and Julia’s lives are not easy, they have each other, and have given their children a loving and safe home. Like many other families around America, Covid-19 (or the coronavirus) has placed them in a precarious financial situation.

Unlike many other families around America, however, and although both Juan and Julia pay taxes, only Julia will receive a stimulus rebate. By leaving immigrants like Juan out of the stimulus bill, his family will lose out on $1,200, which could mean the difference between paying rent, and facing homelessness.

Juan and Julia are still a “lucky” mixed-status family. Because they file their taxes separately, Julia is still entitled to her stimulus rebate. Mixed-status couples that file their taxes jointly will receive nothing under the stimulus bill.

There is an additional twist for mixed-status couples filing a marriage-based petition so the undocumented spouse can become a lawful permanent resident (a green-card holder). As part of the immigration process, mixed-status couples have to prove to immigration that they did not marry for immigration benefits. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the branch of the Department of Homeland Security that adjudicates family-based immigration petitions, reviews a petitioning couple’s application to see if their lives are intertwined. Typically, joint tax returns help demonstrate that the petitioning couple has a real marriage.

This stimulus bill unjustly and unfairly deprives mixed status-couples of the stimulus rebate for filing joint tax returns, the same joint tax returns that USCIS views as indicia of a real marriage. In fact, couples in this situation are doubly penalized. Not only are they precluded from receiving a stimulus rebate, but USCIS is currently closed, meaning mixed-status couples who have a marriage-based petition pending with USCIS are stuck in administrative limbo, as the undocumented spouse cannot complete the process to become a lawful permanent resident.

Simply for falling in love and getting married, Juan and Julia and their two U.S. citizen children will only receive a partial stimulus rebate despite both paying taxes, albeit filing separately. For mixed status couples that file joint tax returns, they will receive nothing.

This stimulus bills turns Julia and her U.S. citizen children, and other Americans, into second-class citizens for marrying undocumented immigrants. There are likely thousands of families like my clients who are excluded from the stimulus bill. The message from the government is loud and clear: We do not care about you.

Undocumented immigrants are our frontline defenders right now against the coronavirus. They deliver our food, stock our grocery stores, and care for our children, so the rest of us may have the luxury of practicing social distancing and working from home. Why are we not protecting and supporting them?

If Congress truly wants to fight the disastrous health and economic consequences of this pandemic, it must treat all people in the United States as equal under the law. All of our lives depend on it.

Originally published in CityLimits on April 3, 2020.

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