To Ensure Collective Health and Safety, Federal Packages for COVID-19 Relief Must Include Immigrant Communities
THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Holly Straut-Eppsteiner
APRIL 21, 2020
The COVID-19 public health crisis has demonstrated how our health and well-being — everyone’s — are interconnected. Congress has passed relief packages that help many Americans access health care, paid leave, and economic support, but these measures don’t sufficiently address the widespread harm caused by the crisis. Legislation passed to date, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), has failed to address the needs of millions of our immigrant community members and their families.
Immigrants face many structural barriers to accessing health care, and they are highly represented in jobs that put them at risk during this crisis. The impacts of COVID-19 in low-income immigrant communities — places such as Langley Park, MD, and central Queens, NY — have already been catastrophic. We urgently need legislation that protects the health and well-being of all our communities, including immigrants. Outlined here are key provisions that would make the next phase of COVID-19 relief legislation more inclusive of immigrant communities.
Everyone must have access to COVID-19 testing and treatment
During this crisis, uninsured immigrant communities need coverage for COVID-19 testing, treatment, and, when they’re available, vaccines. The uninsured rate has risen in recent years, and immigrants are disproportionately represented in the uninsured population. People who are undocumented are ineligible for most Medicaid coverage and coverage through the Affordable Care Act Marketplace.
The CARES Act falls short on ensuring access to essential treatment for uninsured people who are ineligible for full-scope Medicaid. COVID-19–related coverage must be available under Medicaid for any individual who is uninsured. And Congress must ensure that information about the virus, health care, and benefits are accessible, through interpretation services, to people who don’t speak or read English fluently.
Congress must halt implementation of harmful “public charge” rules
No one should have to fear that getting the health care they need could adversely affect their immigration status, but, unfortunately, that’s already happening. In February 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began implementing its new “public charge” rule that takes into consideration a person’s use of noncash public benefits, such as Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps), in determining their eligibility for lawful permanent resident status. Several courts preliminarily enjoined the rule, but these injunctions were lifted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
DHS’s public charge rule created a widespread chilling effect on immigrants’ accessing programs and services even before the government began implementing it. Now there’s clear evidence that immigrants are fearful of accessing medical treatment for COVID-19 because of public charge, even though U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it would not consider the receipt of COVID-19 testing, treatment, or preventative care in public charge assessments.
The next COVID-19 relief package should include provisions to stop the DHS public charge rule’s implementation and also that of a similar rule being implemented by the U.S. State Department, whose consulates abroad issue visas to people seeking to immigrate. Congress should also pass legislation to halt any further action by federal agencies that are intended to make public charge policies more restrictive.
Immigrants must be able to access hospitals and health care facilities without fearing immigration enforcement
Undocumented communities must also be able to access the care and services they need without fear that visiting a health care facility will put them at risk of being separated from their families. The federal government has long designated “sensitive locations,” such as hospitals, schools and churches, as safe spaces that are off-limits to immigration enforcement.
As long as the present public health crisis lasts, DHS should cease all civil immigration enforcement, to help ensure that immigrant communities stay home and focused on remaining healthy or able to access crucial medical services without the added fear of being torn from loved ones. While U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has stated that it will not carry out enforcement operations at health care facilities during the COVID-19 crisis, states and localities should remain vigilant to hold ICE accountable. A NILC toolkit titled “Filing Immigration Enforcement Civil Rights Complaints for Violations of the ‘Sensitive Locations’ Policy At or Near Your School” can be used or adapted to help hold ICE accountable.
Immigrant taxpayers should be eligible for economic relief
The CARES Act provides some taxpayers a “recovery rebate” of up to $1,200 for individuals or $2,400 for jointly filing couples, and $500 per dependent child. However, many immigrant families have been left out of this program and subjected to additional financial hardship and also health risks, since many may be forced to continue working in unsafe conditions. Immigrant tax-filers who do not have Social Security numbers (SSNs) can file income taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). But under the CARES Act, households that include ITIN-filers are generally ineligible for this tax rebate.
Congress should remove the SSN requirement to ensure that all taxpayers have access to the recovery rebate and are able to provide shelter and food for their families.
Immigrant workers need to be able to keep their jobs and to work in safe and healthy conditions
Immigrant workers who continue working in industries designated as essential are encountering conditions that put their health and safety at risk every day, one of the many causes of significant racial and ethnic disparities seen in the impacts of COVID-19. Workers need a federal law, such as the Essential Workers Bill of Rights, that would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard requiring employers to take minimum steps to protect workers during this crisis. Any safety plan should prioritize prevention of exposure, with an emphasis on increased physical distancing and personal protective equipment at no cost to workers. Workers in essential industries also need universal paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave to allow them to stay home and self-quarantine when necessary.
Congress should do all it can to avert layoffs and keep workers in their jobs — even if that means taking on temporary responsibility for covering employers’ payroll expenses. Workers who have temporary work authorization through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), temporary protected status (TPS), or nonimmigrant visas need an automatic extension of their status or work authorization for the length of time they most recently held status or were work-authorized in order to ensure that they can keep working when able and qualify for unemployment insurance when they cannot. States and localities should follow California’s lead in setting up funds to help workers who are ineligible for unemployment insurance.
IF WE ARE SERIOUS ABOUT truly stemming the tide of the crushing health and economic consequences of this pandemic, we must include immigrants in our legislative solutions. More detailed information is available in NILC’s “Understanding the Impact of Key Provisions of COVID-19 Relief Bills on Immigrant Communities.”
Holly Straut-Eppsteiner is NILC’s Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and research program manager.