Immigrants throughout Rio Arriba County are grappling with a combination of fear and anger as they try to weather the COVID-19 storm without protection or financial assistance from the government.
Despite the fact that they pay federal, state and local taxes, undocumented immigrants are not currently eligible for government assistance or benefits, including the $1,200 stimulus checks that the U.S. government mailed out as part of a massive bipartisan aid package called the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
They are forced to choose between continuing to report to jobs that put their health and their families’ health at risk, without any access to health insurance, or staying home without any financial assistance.
“What kind of fear is worse?” said Elsa Lopez, a community organizer with Somos un Pueblo Unido, an immigrant-led community organization dedicated to racial and worker justice. “The fear of not having enough financial resources to keep your family going? Or the fear of going to work and being infected and then, ‘How am I going to take care of myself, and who’s going to take care of my children if I become infected, and how am I going to pay the bills?’”
When undocumented immigrants pay federal income taxes, they file them with individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITIN), which the IRS issues to people who do not have social security numbers but who are still expected to pay.
The Internal Revenue Service reported in 2014 that ITIN filers across the country–many of whom are undocumented immigrants–paid $23.6 billion in federal taxes.
In New Mexico in 2014, immigrant-led households paid $756.9 million in federal taxes and $394.3 million in state and local taxes, according to the American Immigration Council. Undocumented immigrants in the state paid $67.7 million of the $394.3 million.
“We pay for the house, for the land, for the phone, for the car, for food, for everything we pay,” said Yuri, a member of Somos and a mother of a mixed status family. Yuri’s full name is not published because of the potential for discrimination. “We have the same rights.”
But excluded from the relief provided by the federal CARES Act are people who pay taxes with an ITIN, as well as their family members, regardless of the family members’ immigration status, if the family filed a joint tax return.
So not only are undocumented immigrants being left out of federal aid–millions of U.S. citizens whose parents or spouses are undocumented are excluded as well.
“They knew how to work it out to make sure that immigrants were not gonna get helped by this,” said Mayra, also a member of Somos and the mother of a mixed status family. Mayra’s full name will not be published, either. “I just feel like that was the smartest way for them to tell us that we’re not part of this country.”
Even though Mayra’s three children are U.S. citizens, and even though she pays federal and state taxes, no one in her household is eligible for federal help.
“We’re like, ‘Hello, we pay taxes, that’s part of our money, too,’” she said. “You’ve taken out of our paychecks a certain amount of money that we can’t get back in a time of need just because we’re considered a mixed family. So yeah, it’s tough.”
She said she and her husband are both serving in essential positions, so it is all the more frustrating that they cannot receive any aid.
“We’re putting our health at risk coming to work because of the Coronavirus, and we don’t qualify for the help?” Mayra said. “So that’s tough, too, to understand. It’s tough because then what hope can we have in trying to be part of this country, and trying to better ourselves, and trying to help others if we’re being left out?”
The fear people are experiencing reaches beyond financial worry.
Lopez said people are scared that if they are tested for the virus or seek regular medical care, they will be turned into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported.
One woman who is undocumented visited the emergency room because of serious problems with her pancreas. When she saw hundreds of people lined up there, however, she drove home instead of receiving care, afraid that she would be found out.
ICE stated on its website that it will not arrest people at health care facilities except in “extraordinary circumstances”–a promise that does not diminish people’s fear, given the organization’s history of deceit and the Trump administration’s increasingly restrictive and discriminatory immigration policies.
On Monday evening, through a tweet, President Donald Trump announced a plan to suspend immigration to the U.S.
ICE stated that currently officers will arrest and deport only people who pose a “public-safety risk” for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, but the organization includes within that category immigrants who have crossed the border again after being deported once, Lopez said.
So members of mixed status families who were deported and made the choice to return to their families are still at risk of incarceration and deportation.
Yuri’s family has been separated by a combination of Coronavirus-related factors and deportation: her father was deported to Mexico before the outbreak of the virus, and her mother went to visit him. He then tried to return and was apprehended and is now incarcerated in Texas, while her mother is stuck in Mexico because of COVID-19.
Yuri is worried about her parents and is unsure how to help them.
She is also trying to ensure that her children continue with their schoolwork in the midst of the pandemic. But they are supposed to turn in their assignments online, and they do not have access to a computer, a problem faced by many families throughout the County.
For immigrant families who do not speak English and do not have computer literacy skills, the sudden shift to online learning at home is particularly challenging.
Yuri, a native Spanish speaker, has had trouble communicating with her daughters’ teachers because of the language barrier.
And she does not have good access to email. She asked Española Valley High School Principal Victoria Gonzales whether it would be possible to turn in physical copies of assignments instead, but the principal said no one could receive physical copies.
Gonzales did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.
Española School Board Vice President Ruben Archuleta said all schools in the District should be accepting physical copies, and that the District has set up robocalls in both Spanish and English to help communicate with Spanish-speaking parents.
Like Yuri, Mayra does not have a computer at home, and she too is struggling to figure out the best way to teach her kids.
“I’ll read (my daughter) the instructions on how to do it, but I didn’t go to school to become a teacher so I don’t feel like I teach her the proper way,” she said.
She said the teachers from Alcalde Elementary have been calling and checking in and that she is grateful for these calls.
Somos has been checking on all of its members, too. Lopez said Somos staff called over 400 members throughout Rio Arriba County to find out what they needed during the crisis.
The organization held a Facebook livestream presentation about workers’ rights in Spanish and has been trying to spread information about the virus in Spanish, as Spanish speakers in the community are struggling to access that information.
Thanks in part to a push from Somos, the New Mexico’s Governor’s Office has been releasing Spanish versions of all official documents and messaging.
The state has also ensured that free COVID-19 testing is available to all New Mexicans, regardless of immigration status.
When asked whether the state government is offering undocumented immigrants any financial support at this time, Governor Press Secretary Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in a Monday email, “The governor is considering any number of economic options for the state and ensuring that they reach the greatest number of affected New Mexicans possible will be a top priority.”
But she did not specify any concrete options.
At the federal level, both Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall are involved in a bicameral effort by Democrats to extend the relief of the CARES Act to immigrant families who file taxes with an ITIN.
The effort, described in a letter dated April 16, also aims to ensure that immigrant workers can maintain their work authorization; to prevent immigration enforcement actions around sensitive locations, including hospitals, COVID-19 testing sites, domestic violence shelters and food banks; and to ensure access to Medicaid-funded COVID-19-related medical care for low-income communities, including immigrant communities.
“Legal or illegal, we all have rights and needs,” Yuri said. “Legal or illegal, we all pay. We all have the same right, no one more than anyone.”
Lopez said members of the immigrant community will continue to advocate for their rights until they are treated fairly.
“Every time that I talk to somebody, there is fear but there is also hope, and there’s also the willingness to keep fighting to ensure our civil rights are not violated,” she said. “It might take a while, but what I say is we crossed the border, so we’re pretty tenacious.”