No work, no stimulus check add anxiety for undocumented immigrant laborers
Lorena Duarte of Palisades Park, New Jersey, hasn’t cleaned houses in more than two weeks. She’s afraid to go to work and bring the COVID-19 virus home to a daughter who had a lung operation a few years ago.
Javier Martinez of Kearny, New Jersey, said all his landscaping jobs have dried up. He’s searched for other work but hasn’t been successful.
“The clients that give us work, they have closed their businesses and stopped their projects, and they left us up in the air,” Martinez said. “There is no work, and we have rent coming up.”
The $2 trillion stimulus package passed last month was intended to help displaced workers stay afloat as the coronavirus shuts down the economy. For immigrant laborers such as Duarte and Martinez, there’ll be little financial relief coming from the government.
They’re among the estimated 10.7 million undocumented immigrants in the USA who are ineligible for emergency federal benefits or state unemployment insurance because they don’t have valid work authorization.
That’s left an extra layer of anxiety for immigrants without legal status who have lost their jobs or seen work hours reduced amid the statewide shutdown of “nonessential” businesses. Many turned to local organizations for help to put food on the table and pay other expenses.
“Right now, we have more than 200 people who have submitted a form that said they need support with food, with medication and wondering if they can be tested for the coronavirus,” said Haydi Torres, a community organizer for Movimiento Cosecha, which connects immigrants with relief groups. “Right now, we are just calling people to see who is doing what and what gap we see in the community and try to fill those.”
The rescue package approved by Congress and the White House provides payments of up to $1,200 per person and $600 a week in additional unemployment benefits beyond what states pay. The emergency checks will go only to those with valid Social Security numbers and unemployment to people with valid work status – either U.S. citizens or those with green cards or work visas.
The legislation does make free coronavirus testing available to immigrants, either through federally funded community health clinics or Medicaid programs open to green-card holders.
Some immigrant advocates lobby for the undocumented to be included by allowing payments to those who file taxes using individual tax identification numbers, which are often used by workers without legal immigration status.
“They should include at least the individual taxpayers,” said Diana Mejia, founder of the Wind of the Spirit, an organization that helps immigrants in New Jersey’s Morris County. “They are paying taxes.”
Filers who use ITINs contribute about $11.74 billion in state and local taxes each year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a Washington think tank.
Critics said those who work illegally get benefits and services for those taxes, including free public education for their children as well as garbage pickup and police and fire protection.
“You have an obligation to pay your taxes, and that doesn’t buy you into American society as a full-fledged member,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors restricting immigration. “Everybody empathizes with people losing their jobs, but these are jobs that they knew they were holding illegally in the first place, so we don’t need to feel obligated to compensate people for losing jobs that they illegally held in the first place.”
Almost 8 million unauthorized workers were employed in the USA in 2016, about 4.8% of the nation’s labor force, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
The pandemic has hit hard at many industries where undocumented Hispanics work, including restaurants, food delivery, construction and cleaning, said Ana Flores, director of education for the nonprofit Qualitas of Life Foundation, based in New York.
“Besides being worried for their health, they are also very concerned about their economic situation,” said Flores, whose organization compiled guides in Spanish on where immigrants can access food and other help in the region.
At home, worrying
Duarte, 38, who was born in Guatemala, said she stopped cleaning houses the day she found out her five children, ranging from 4 to 14 years old, would have to stay at home from school.
“How could I expose them if I go to work?” she said. “I don’t know where the homeowners I work for have been, and if they get it, then I could easily catch it being in their homes.”
The first week, it was her choice to stay home, she said, but the following week, the homeowners she worked for canceled after shutdowns went into effect. Duarte said she would normally make $300 to $400 a week cleaning houses.
Duarte’s partner, Walfre Corado, works as a painter at construction sites. He stopped working around the same time, also afraid of bringing the virus home. One of the couple’s daughters had lung surgery three years ago and is susceptible to bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses, Duarte said.
The couple have not left their home, but as each day passes, they worry more about how they will pay the $1,200 rent for the house they share with her sister’s family. Her sister’s husband lost his job, Duarte said.
“We still need to pay electricity, food, and this is not going to end,” she said. “The work may stop, but the bills don’t stop.”
Martinez, 50, said he has worked in landscaping for years and would get paid about $120 a day, some weeks working six days. Normally, when there’s no landscaping jobs, he can paint and do other handy work. Even though construction has been deemed an essential work that can continue in New Jersey, Martinez said he’s had no luck.
“The work has gotten difficult,” he lamented.
Martinez’s partner and mother of his children, Geisel Gebara, would get paid about $300 a week taking care of a few of her friends’ children at home. The friends have also stopped working, so that income has evaporated, Martinez said.
Martinez came to the USA from El Salvador in 2005 and said he hasn’t been able to adjust his immigration status. He said he talked to attorneys, but the cost is prohibitive.
This week, he and Gebara ventured out to Newark to see if they could get food donations at a church, but the site was closed. Martinez said he planned to try again.
“I have two boys, and you know children indoors, you spend more, too, because they are eating more,” he said. “We never expected this to happen.”
Follow reporter Monsy Alvarado on Twitter: @monsyalvarado
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