Isabelle Garcia, a pseudonym to protect her privacy, is a young student in La Plata County adjusting to life during the coronavirus pandemic. She has never told her friends that her parents are undocumented. Or how her family’s finances, made more precarious by the virus, won’t be helped by the federal stimulus package.
“(My dad) is nervous about the whole situation,” she said. His hours at a local restaurant are cut, and money is tight.
Millions of immigrants are not eligible for financial benefits from the stimulus package – some warn excluding immigrants could hinder the nation’s ability to heal from the virus.
Congress passed the $2 trillion CARES Act to provide economic relief and security after unemployment increased by some 16 million in mere weeks. It is perhaps not surprising that people living in the country without legal permission are excluded from the stimulus bill; undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for most federal public benefits.
Those who support restricting immigration say, now, more than ever, the focus should be on Americans and lawful immigrants. The aid package includes funding for health care providers who will test and treat patients regardless of immigration status, they say. And immigrants are eligible for free testing through government-funded community health centers, they say.
But advocates say the eligibility for immigrants should be different during a public health crisis. In 2017, 10.5 million undocumented immigrants lived in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center. Leaving that many people without aid could be an economic and public health mistake.
Immigrants need more access to testing and emergency medical care, particularly those in the Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, programs.
Who does and does not receive stimulus aid is complex. It changes depending on state laws, the type of aid, individual immigrant status, and possibly the status of others in a household.
“The guidance on this is changing even for us,” said Matthew Campbell, an immigration lawyer in Farmington and Durango. “New things are coming out very, very quickly – not only with the corona but with this administration.”
Legal permanent residents, or green card holders, can receive aid, but the rules might apply differently to asylum seekers, refugees, victims of domestic violence, DACA recipients and unauthorized immigrants.
Campbell said he understands both sides of the debate. But everyone needs to be able to recover, and leaving some people out might slow recovery for others, he said.
“Immigrants are woven into our society, both legal and illegal immigrants,” he said. “We don’t all want to be dragged down, so we shouldn’t let people slip through the safety net.”
‘I don’t know if I have a future’Sitting in her house, Isabelle Garcia took time from her homework to describe her family’s uncertainty. For the Garcia family, their exclusion from the relief package means navigating economic upheaval without a safety net.
“Sometimes it’s best to not watch the news because it stresses us out even more than we already are,” her mother said, speaking in Spanish with Garcia translating. “It makes us afraid to turn on our devices to see if things are getting worse or better.”
The family survives on one income from the restaurant industry, a common employer for immigrants in La Plata County. Other families work in oil fields, informal arrangements, agriculture, hospitality and service industries, such as cleaning.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs right now,” said Matt Karkut, executive director of Compañeros, a nonprofit immigrant resource center in Durango. “They’re unsure about when their jobs are coming back and they’re unsure how long their savings will last.”
Isabelle’s mother is cutting expenses and is concerned for her family’s health, including her husband.
“What are we going to do if we can’t get health care for him?” Garcia’s mother said. “He’s the main provider for our family.”
Some immigrants worry that applying for federal relief will bring unwanted attention to their immigration status. Many are afraid to seek help, Campbell and Karkut said.
“To some people, the distinction between immigration agents and any other part ... is not clear,” Karkut said.
Garcia is a DACA recipient. Like about 700,000 others, she is working through the crisis while waiting to see if the U.S. Supreme Court rescinds the program in June – meaning she could be eligible for deportation.
“If we hear anything this summer, then my future ... I don’t know if I have a future,” Garcia said.
Some face language barriers. Garcia’s parents, who struggle with English, are trying to navigate through the crisis by depending on Spanish news and bilingual updates from San Juan Basin Public Health, she said. The teenager helps translate and does daily tasks for her family, so her parents “don’t have to stress,” she said.
The Garcias are a multi-status family. The parents are undocumented, Isabelle has DACA status, and her sibling is a U.S. citizen. Some reports indicate that if any member of the household uses an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to pay taxes, a common practice among undocumented immigrants, the whole household is not eligible for relief aid. (Campbell second-guessed this, saying it sounded illegal.)
For Garcia, it’s difficult to accept her family’s inability to get aid. They’ve lived in the United States for years. They follow the laws. They pay taxes, but they can’t receive tax aid.
“It’s just super difficult to know that you’ve been doing everything right, and you still can’t ask for help,” she said.