Lately, we’ve been hearing in the news how most American households are doing much better financially today than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. From stimulus checks and unemployment insurance to the expanded Child Tax Credit, federal COVID-19 relief played a critical role in helping families survive, and even improve their financial footing.
But this picture misses another lesser-known story of recovery: the experience of immigrant families who were excluded from federal pandemic relief.
On December 2, 2021, we came together to uplift the stories and experiences of immigrant families left behind. We reflected with partners and asked ourselves, how can we help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives? Watch the recording below.
11.5 million immigrants and their families were denied federal COVID-19 relief.
“As an undocumented person who has filed my taxes for twelve years, it has been hard to have to accept that in times when we struggle, we are unable to receive anything back.”—Juan, Immigrant Families Fund recipient
Immigrants have long been excluded from this country’s social safety net. Despite paying billions in federal taxes every year, undocumented immigrants remain ineligible for nearly all federal protections, from health insurance to food and housing subsidies.
During the pandemic, three in four undocumented immigrants filled frontline essential roles, risking their own lives to help keep us fed, safe, and healthy. Yet, even as they stepped up for the country, they remained excluded from federal relief. It’s estimated that an immigrant family of four was denied upward of $11,400. Without this critical support, immigrant families’ lives took a devastating hit.
Essential, invisible, and excluded.
Drawing on our unparalleled survey of more than 11,000 immigrants excluded from federal relief, we got an honest and painful look at how immigrant families survived.
Without a social safety net to fall back on, many immigrants had no choice but to show up for work. The costs for workers on the frontlines was immense: not only did workers put their families’ health at risk, but those who did get sick faced a downward spiral of financial hardship.
Families where a member got sick with COVID-19 were not only more likely to lose income and fall behind on bills than households where no one got sick, but they were also more likely to face penalties, have their utilities shut off, and be evicted.
Many immigrant families walked into the crisis with limited access and few financial options. Families who were invisible to the formal financial system prior to COVID-19𑁋lacking a Social Security Number or Tax ID𑁋were less likely to have checking accounts or credit cards.
And with fewer financial strategies, these families had fewer options to draw on during COVID-19. Indeed, we saw that immigrants who had a Tax ID were 45% more likely to pay their monthly bills in full than immigrants without a Tax ID.
So how did families survive in a system that treated them as essential and invisible? Many went without, as 6 in 10 families reported being unable to cover their basic needs. Despite these sacrifices, many families still had to take on debt. In the depth of the pandemic, families who had fallen behind reported having $2,000 in unpaid bills, representing zombie debt that families will carry with them even into the recovery.
Our calls to action.
So, where do we go from here?
We invited advocates and practitioners to talk about how we can show up, do more, and do better. Across the board, we heard that while steps are being taken to help people rebuild, more needs to happen for a truly equitable and inclusive recovery.
SHOW UP: Make policies inclusive of all immigrants. The federal government has set a damaging precedent of excluding immigrants from critical social safety net policies. However, there are choices we can make at the state and local levels to help offer relief with the resources we have available now. Policy is a choice, and it’s in our power to advocate for more inclusive protections and services for all immigrants across all levels of government.
DO MORE: Remove structural barriers. Without legal status, immigrants continue to be left out of critical resources that could help them rebuild. But accessibility runs even deeper: from language to technology barriers, we need to ensure programs and services are delivered in-language, in-culture, and in ways that help families use resources when they need them.
DO BETTER: Change mindsets together. From COVID-19 relief packages to the growing recognition that giving people cash works, we’re encouraged by the progress that has been made to better support people at the margins. But we need more allies in this fight so that we can build systems that create more equitable pathways of opportunity. When we harness our collective power, we can create lasting change.
We know the work is far from over.
Immigrants have been excluded from our nation’s support systems for too long, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated many of these existing inequities. This is why our work is more important than ever.
When we look ahead, we’re anchored by José’s reminder: “We have to rely on one another to keep ourselves whole and keep our spirits up. We can’t let the devastation of our reality overtake our spirits.” Together, with respect and mutuality, we can help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives with dignity.