Humanizing Immigration: The Role of COVID-19

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Humanizing Immigration: The Role of COVID-19
By: Muzaffar Chishti, Senior Fellow, Migration Policy Institute (MPI) and Director of MPI's office at NYU School of Law 

Muzaffar Chishti was a panelist in Part 1 of Philanthropy New York's Humanizing Immigration Series. To listen to him and our other panelists, visit the Humanizing Immigration Recap page.

I had the good fortune of speaking at the Philanthropy New York conference on May 8, 2020, entitled “Humanizing Immigration.” The topic, picked long before COVID-19 changed the world, was spot on for the moment in which we live.

Nothing has “humanized” migration as the coronavirus crisis has.

Immigrants are among those on the frontlines of the pandemic response. They are also disproportionately suffering from the resulting economic hardship. And significant numbers have been excluded from the direct relief Congress authorized to soften the economic blow.

Immigrants make up outsize shares both of essential, frontline workers and those in the hardest-hit industries. Six million immigrants are working in frontline occupations such as health care, food production, and transportation. Another 6 million work in industries such as food services and hospitality that have been devastated. Job loss in these industries affects not only these individuals and their U.S.-based families but also those in their home countries who rely on regular remittances. 

Beyond the economic hardship, immigrants—along with Black Americans—also are disproportionately falling victim to the virus, with many lacking access to health care. Meatpacking plants, which often employ large numbers of immigrants and refugees, have become outbreak hotspots. Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis reveals that 14 of the 20 U.S. counties with the most cases per capita as of early May have higher concentrations of noncitizens than the national average. Six of these counties are in the New York City area, the U.S. epicenter of the virus.

Noncitizens undoubtedly have a harder time accessing and paying for medical treatment. An MPI analysis shows that 7.7 million noncitizens lacked health insurance in 2018, making up 27 percent of the total U.S. uninsured population. Noncitizens are disproportionately uninsured both because of lack of coverage from employers when they work in the informal sector, and ineligibility for public coverage because of their immigration status. This substantial uninsured population will grow as immigrants continue to lose jobs that had employer coverage.

Congress has passed four bipartisan pandemic-relief packages. However, many immigrants, particularly the unauthorized and their U.S.-citizen and legal permanent resident relatives, have been excluded from benefits. Recipients must be currently work authorized and have been work authorized when employed, leaving the unauthorized out of luck. Many immigrants also are excluded from the $1,200 one-time cash payments to individuals earning less than $75,000 and who filed taxes using a valid Social Security Number (SSN). Most unauthorized immigrants are thus ineligible, including those who file taxes using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The law also denies cash payments to anyone filing jointly with an ITIN filer, even if that person is a U.S. citizen or green-card holder with an SSN. Thus, in families where even one member files using an ITIN, the entire family is ineligible.

MPI estimates that 15.4 million people are excluded from the payments under the relief package: 9.9 million unauthorized immigrants, along with 3.7 million children and 1.7 million spouses who are U.S. citizens or green-card holders. A recent House-passed bill addresses some of these exclusions, but Senate passage is unlikely.

On the health-care front, the relief measures provided funds for Medicaid coverage of coronavirus testing for the uninsured, but not all immigrants are eligible for Medicaid. Only “qualified” immigrants (such as lawful permanent residents with more than five years in that status, asylees, and refugees) are eligible. With unchanged eligibility criteria, 3.7 million low-income, uninsured noncitizens will not have coverage for testing and treatment under Medicaid. 

State and local governments and philanthropic organizations are slowly emerging to partly fill the gap left by the federal government. California has allotted $75 million to provide state residents who are unauthorized one-time $500 cash transfers per adult. Oregon and at least eight localities—Austin, Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle (with King County, WA), St. Paul, and Washington, DC, along with Montgomery County, MD and Harris County, TX—have created funds to help low-income families economically impacted by COVID-19 pay rent or other expenses. Unauthorized immigrants are eligible. 

Those in philanthropy also have established funds. The Open Society Foundations, for example, is distributing $130 million, about half of which is going toward the U.S. response.  Funding prioritizes the most vulnerable, such as informal-sector and low-wage workers, those experiencing homelessness, and migrants. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is providing $50 million to organizations engaged in pandemic relief work, including at least three whose populations of focus include unauthorized immigrants. 

A number of community foundations are spearheading similar efforts locally to prioritize organizations serving immigrants, specifically unauthorized immigrants, left out of federal relief. These include the New York Community Trust, the California Community Foundation, the East Bay Community Foundation, the Greater Washington Community Foundation, and the Seattle Foundation The city of San Francisco raised more than $10 million from private donors and philanthropic organizations for its relief efforts. In California, philanthropists are expected to contribute $50 million more, in addition to the $75 million in state funds for relief for unauthorized immigrants. 

Finally, to help the nonprofit organizations they support stay afloat in the economic aftermath of the pandemic, five major foundations have announced a novel model to increase their giving by borrowing money against bonds they will issue. Many of these nonprofits serve vulnerable populations, including immigrants, and advocate for immigrants’ rights.  

The cost to fill the gap the relief package left for millions of immigrants and their families is difficult to estimate. But it is clear that while non-federal government and private initiatives are providing urgently needed help, these efforts are no match for the scale of need.


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