COVID-19 Doesn’t Discriminate — Neither Should Congress’s Response
Congress must fix its failure to include millions of people in testing and relief
THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Avideh Moussavian and Manar Waheed
APRIL 2, 2020
Congress’s third bill addressing the impacts of COVID-19, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, was a necessary attempt to respond to this public health crisis, but its exclusion of immigrant communities is downright racist and xenophobic. Immigrants were cut out of provisions to ensure COVID-19 testing and care as well as economic relief, undermining our collective safety and economic future. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate; Congress’s response shouldn’t either. It’s essential that another bill — one that encompasses everyone — be introduced and passed as soon as possible.
There are three major ways in which immigrants were left behind in the CARES Act: testing and care, cash rebates, and unemployment insurance. If recent weeks have highlighted anything, it is just how interdependent we are in confronting a virus that does not discriminate. Our country’s ability to contain this pandemic and the sustainability of our future depends on Congress closing the gaps created by the relief bills enacted to date. Immigrants are serving so many vital roles at the frontlines of our recovery from COVID-19, including the 1.7 million immigrant medical and health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients and the 27,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients working as doctors, nurses, and paramedics. It is both irresponsible and morally unforgivable to pass relief bills that fail to recognize that every person’s health and financial stability are critical.
In its next bill, Congress first must ensure that everyone who needs it receives testing and treatment. This should not even be up for debate. Yet the second COVID-19 relief package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Families First Act), left out tens of millions of people — including DACA recipients, people with temporary protected status (TPS), certain survivors of crimes (people with U visas), undocumented people, and many lawful permanent residents (people with “green cards”). This bill includes money to support testing for those who are uninsured and not covered by Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Affordable Care Act marketplace, or any other individual or group health plan, but it kept immigrant eligibility restrictions in place.
The Families First Act should have made COVID-19–related services available under emergency Medicaid, so that it would not include the same immigrant eligibility restrictions as nonemergency Medicaid. It should also have ensured that these services would not be counted against a person in assessments of whether they are likely to become a “public charge,” which are effectively wealth tests of people seeking admission to the U.S. as lawful permanent residents or on an immigrant visa.
Unfortunately, both the Families First Act and CARES Act fail to address these gaps, leaving out tens of millions of people from testing and treatment. Some states, such as New York, are including COVID-19 testing, evaluation, and treatment as a part of emergency Medicaid coverage. Community health centers may also help fill this gap. But they may not be able to and shouldn’t have to — the federal response must be as holistic as possible in developing a national policy.
Second, Congress must include all immigrant workers and tax filers in the tax rebate so people can receive vital cash assistance. In the CARES Act, Congress funded cash rebates for recent tax filers based on their taxpayer identification numbers, but limited this to those using Social Security numbers (SSNs). However, many people file their tax returns using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Under the bill, if ITIN users file jointly with a spouse or child with an SSN, everyone in the household will be denied access to the cash assistance. While Congress did create an exception to allow military families to be able to use an ITIN number, this narrow exception only demonstrates that members of Congress understood that they created this cruel carveout and still deliberately chose to leave out millions. As a result, many immigrant workers are put in an increasingly difficult position, cut out of cash assistance and risking their health for essential work without even having access to testing and care.
Third, the bill must provide unemployment insurance for as many people as possible during this crisis. Under federal law, individuals must be work-authorized both for the period of time for which they are claiming unemployment insurance and at the time of filing their claim. However, many immigrant workers awaiting adjudication of immigration benefits or at risk of the looming threat of a loss of immigration status may experience a lapse in their work authorization — perhaps due to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office closures during this crisis. Congress should ensure an automatic extension of work permits for people with DACA or TPS and nonimmigrant visas for the same duration of time as a regular renewal of that work permit, i.e., a two-year extension for DACA recipients. Exacerbating financial hardship will likely make it impossible for these workers and community members to survive, thus harming our short- and longterm recovery efforts.
Congress can and must take up another relief bill to address these significant gaps in order to ensure the well-being of people, families, and communities across the country — and for the future of our nation. And they need to do it now.
- There may be other options for testing and care. While many immigrants have been left out of the relief packages thus far, there are some options available for immigrants to get tested and treated for COVID-19. Community health centers provide health care to all patients regardless of immigration status typically at a reduced cost or free of charge. Find the closest health center to you at https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov/. Call the community health center prior to going in person to ensure they are providing COVID-19 testing and care.
- Testing and care will not impact immigration benefits. USCIS recently posted an alert notifying the public that it will not consider testing, treatment, or preventive care related to COVID-19 of noncitizens as a public charge, so such assistance should not impact their Lawful Permanent Residency or visa applications.
- Immigration enforcement should not take place at or near health care facilities. On its “Guidance on COVID-19” website, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has stated, “Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement.” ICE will not carry out enforcement operations “at or near health care facilities such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances,” per the agency’s previously issued sensitive locations memo and reiterated public statement on March 18, 2020. As always, it’s important to know your rights. Learn more about your rights here.
Avideh Moussavian is legislative director for advocacy at the National Immigration Law Center. Manar Waheed is senior legislative and advocacy counsel at the ACLU.