by Bismarck D. Andino
Rosibel, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, has a kidney condition she can no longer afford to have treated since she lost her job as hotel maid due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’m in debt with the hospital right now because I was admitted in January,” Rosibel said in her native Spanish. “My lowest medical bill is for about $1,000. How am I supposed to pay for that if I don’t have an income?”
Rosibel, who asked her surname not to be used, is one of an estimated 1.6 million undocumented workers in Texas who pay their taxes but did not qualify for a stimulus check or unemployment benefits.
Prior to the pandemic, Rosibel worked as a housekeeper at a hotel in San Antonio, a job she said helped her pay for rent, food, and her medicine. Today, Rosibel said she has to rely on discounts at hospitals for uninsured patients and charities to survive.
Rosibel also faces challenges putting food on the table, like many in San Antonio. The founder of The Najim Charitable Foundation confirmed a local television station that San Antonio is in a food crisis intensified by the pandemic. The San Antonio Food Bank went from feeding 58,000 to 120,000 people per week, said Harvey Najim.
Eric Cooper, President & CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, also told the station that the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on their community’s economic stability and food needs continue at all-time high levels. “For those that are healthy and can join us, we need you more than ever,” Cooper said. “With some staying home for health reasons, we need all the heroes our city can provide to join us at our mobile/mega distributions and meet the emergency food needs of our community.”
Rosibel said the food crisis has also affected her co-workers and now she and her colleagues are taking turns eating at each other’s homes. “We are all in the same boat and we still need to find a way to come up with rent money,” Rosibel said. “I live in a house and my landlord wants me to pay, at least some money.”
Many people who have lost jobs in Texas can file for unemployment benefits — although that process is daunting. Undocumented workers, however, don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. For instance, Samuel, who worked at an Austin restaurant, lost his job and no longer can afford his $1,163 apartment.
“I received a notice from the leasing office saying they were charging me for late fees,” Samuel said in his native Spanish. “I told them I was going to break the contract because I can’t let this accumulate, and it’s not like I don’t have other bills.”
Even though an order from Austin Mayor Steve Adler stopped evictions until after July 25, renters are still responsible for missed payments, including late fees. Apartment complexes are considered essential businesses; therefore, they can continue to operate as normal, a representative of City of Austin said.
“I don’t qualify for the financial assistance programs because they require a Social Security number,” said Samuel, who did not want to give his full name due to his immigration status. “I reached out to organizations helping Hispanic people but did not receive a call back.”
Samuel also brought in additional income through operating a food truck, but closed it due to a decrease in sales and had to work in construction because he couldn’t live off $35 a day.
“Right now, I’ve been sharing the provisions from my food truck with my friends,” Samuel said. “I’m outraged by the government’s decision to exclude people like me because we work very hard, and we pay so much in taxes and don’t get any benefits.”
According to a 2017 report from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy (ITEP), undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.74 billion a year in state and local taxes, from which Texas benefits about $1.6 billion every year.
Samuel also said he has been helping a friend who has three children and can’t survive off selling beauty products from catalogs.
“Imagine the pressure she has right now, having three kids to feed,” Samuel said. “She can’t sell her products due to social distancing.”
The CARES Act and the legal battle
Meanwhile, on June 19 a federal judge in Maryland denied a government’s motion from the Trump Administration to dismiss a lawsuit over denying coronavirus checks to undocumented parents.
The class action complaint was filed May 5 at the District Court of Maryland by Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection on behalf of seven U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents.
According to the complaint, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act promised aid to Americans in need, but punished U.S citizen children based on their parents’ status.
The court found the families had standing to sue and rejected arguments from the Justice Department that the Administration was immune against constitutional claims.
Nicholas Katz, a senior manager of legal services at CASA, a non-profit organization that helps low-wage immigrants in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, said his organization joined the lawsuit because they believe the CARES Act violated the Due Process Clause of the U.S Constitution.
“We have a strong case and we want to move it as quickly as possible,” Katz said in a phone interview. “We are hopeful that the court will agree with our argument …, we need to do better to support the immigrant population.”
Even though their complaint focuses on the discrimination against U.S citizen children, Katz said there are other lawsuits dealing with discrimination against mixed families or couples filing joint taxes with the IRS.
Katz talks about a complaint filed April 24 by an Illinois man married to an undocumented immigrant who claims the relief package discriminated against him “based solely on whom he chose to marry.”
And the lawsuit list goes on as five states filed another complaint June 7 accusing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of steering CARES fund to private schools. Plaintiffs include the states of Michigan, California, Maine, New Mexico and Wisconsin.
The HEROES Act and the Republican Senate majority
Nevertheless, the fate of undocumented low-income families really depends on the course the divided U.S Congress decides to take.
On one hand, the House of Representatives passed May 15 the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which promises a second wave of stimulus checks to address the coronavirus pandemic and its economic effect.
However, the $3 trillion legislation, which includes undocumented immigrants, is on hold in the Senate where some Republicans have called it “dead on arrival.”
On the other hand, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he’d be putting a bill for a second round of stimulus payments after the Senate returns July 20.
In an interview with NBC News July 6, McConnell said people making $40,000 a year or less have been hit the hardest, so part of his legislation would address them. However, it is unclear whether his proposal would include undocumented families — although that is unlikely.
In addition, President Trump said that a second wave of stimulus checks could be announced over the next few weeks.
“We will be doing another stimulus package,” Trump said during an interview with Joe St. George for Scripps local TV. “It’ll be very good. It’ll be very generous.”
Rosibel also said the Senate should consider extending aid to undocumented immigrants, so that they can provide for their families.
“I don’t have children of my own, but my sister does, and they are having it worse,” Rosibel said. “For God’s sake these are children, U.S citizens, who are also being discriminated against.”
Meanwhile, Katz said CASA is pushing for Congress to extend protections for DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers, working on the front line during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We got 30,000 DACA folks working in healthcare right on the front line,” Katz said. “We need to make sure that everyone receives the support that is necessary to survive, thrive and recover.”
But, despite the U.S Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow DACA beneficiaries relief from deportation, at least for two more years, they are also being denied access to CARES Act emergency grants from public universities, adding to the financial burden of their low-income parents with U.S citizen children.
“A disproportionate [number] of front-line workers, or essential workers, are immigrants, and yet the government have decided to exclude them from the benefits,” Katz said. “Governments have a social responsibility to the people who contribute to our society.”
Photo at the top is from Mitch McConnell’s Twitter account.
This is the second in a series of Austin Independent articles about the struggles of workers during the coronavirus pandemic. For the first, Hispanics Most Likely To Report Life Disruption During COVID-19 Outbreak, click here.
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