Alaina Silva met her husband in a crowded sushi restaurant in downtown Denver in 2011. He was the sushi chef behind the bar, wearing a black chef’s coat and apron that crisscrossed behind his back.
“I had just moved for work and I didn’t know anyone, so I decided to dine alone for the first time in my life,” she said.
Now married, the couple lives on a quiet cul de sac in Westminster with their sons, age 1 and 3. They own a sushi restaurant in downtown Denver, and Silva works as a finance director for a real estate development company. Unlike many Coloradans, they won’t be getting federal coronavirus-related aid because Silva’s husband is living in the U.S. unlawfully.
A clause in the $2 trillion federal stimulus package signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, called the CARES Act, prevents an estimated 11.3 million people living in the country unlawfully – including families of mixed-citizenship status, like Silva’s – from receiving payments meant to help families weather the economic storm spurred by the coronavirus crisis.
“My husband has paid taxes the entire time that he’s been here,” Silva said. “So on one level, it’s unjust that he would be left out of the public funds. But it’s a whole other ballpark that me and my two sons, who are all citizens, aren’t included in the stimulus.”
Congress is drafting another stimulus package, and Democratic lawmakers and advocacy organizations are pushing for people living in the U.S. illegally, as well as their families, to be included in future coronavirus-related financial assistance. That’s likely an uphill battle with Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the U.S. Senate.
Colorado lawmakers are weighing whether to step in and provide state assistance like California, which announced a $125 million public-private state fund in mid April to provide cash assistance to people who are ineligible for unemployment insurance and other public benefits. But given Colorado’s tight budget and a long list of legislative agenda items that require attention when the session reconvenes on May 18, it’s unclear if it will be prioritized.
House Speaker KC Becker on Thursday said legislators are evaluating a variety of ways to provide support to people living in the U.S. illegally and their families who have been impacted by the coronavirus crisis, including California’s route of creating a state fund.
“That’s definitely a proposal folks have been looking into,” said Becker, a Boulder Democrat. “And I think we’re asking members to really vet these ideas and, sorta, work through all the processes before any late bills are starting to get drafted. But it’s definitely something under consideration.”
In Colorado, there are about 162,000 people who live and work in the state who are living illegally in the U.S. While nearly one in 10 Coloradans are immigrants, or approximately 549,181 people, foreign-born Coloradans make up approximately 12% of the state’s total labor force, according to an analysis conducted by the Colorado Fiscal Institute.
“I think across communities, we’ve seen that COVID-19 and the current economic crisis is just exacerbating the racial and economic injustices that have already existed,” said Raquel Lane-Arellano, policy manager for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, an advocacy organization. “And you see that with how our federal government is responding punitively to people and immigrants who are supporting our economy and our families right now.”
“It just feels like such a slap in the face”
Silva’s husband came to Colorado from Mexico nearly 20 years ago on a humanitarian visa to care for his brother who was hit by a drunken driver while riding his bicycle. When he was offered a chef position in Puerto Vallarta, he returned to Mexico for a few months before coming back to Denver.
“Since he left and came back, our immigration lawyers say he’s now not eligible for citizenship, even though we are married,” Silva said. “…I know we are not the only people in this position, there are a myriad of reasons of why someone who’s undocumented, even if they’re married to an American, can’t get a green card,” Silva said.
If it wasn’t for the provision in the CARES Act, Silva and her husband would have received $2,400 as a couple, and $500 for each of their kids. But since Silva’s husband uses an Individual Tax Identification Number instead of a Social Security number when the couple files their taxes jointly, the whole family was left out of the stimulus package. Approximately 1.2 million people living in the U.S. illegally are married to an American citizen, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, there are 4.35 million ITIN filers in the country, 89,500 of whom live in Colorado. Additionally, there are about 70,000 children with ITINs in the state, according to the nonprofit Colorado Fiscal Institute.
For Silva, it’s less about the money as it is the principle. She said her family has been fortunate to not feel the financial pinch as much as others.
“It just feels like such a slap in the face,” she said, adding that she’s spent many hours researching how to apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program so that her husband’s restaurant employees would have support during the coronavirus crisis.
“And in the meantime, there’s no support coming for us,” Silva said. “And when everyone else in America is receiving a check, regardless of whether or not they need it, it just really, really hurts that our federal government would penalize our family because of who we love.”
Last week, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights advocacy group, announced it’s suing the Trump administration on behalf of the U.S. citizens denied stimulus money because they are married to immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally.
On April 15, California announced an unprecedented $125 million disaster relief fund for people living illegally in the state that are ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits and were left out of the federal relief funds due to their citizenship status. The fund includes $75 million in state contributions and $50 million from private donors.
To avoid a federal law that requires state governments to verify the lawful status of applicants before they receive public benefits such as unemployment or food assistance, California is distributing the funds through local nonprofit organizations that don’t have the same reporting requirements. The nonprofit Center for American Liberty, a conservative group, is suing California Gov. Gavin Newsom over the legality of the fund.
“So, California is under the same requirements as Colorado,” said Allison Neswood, an attorney who specializes in health care issues and public benefits for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. “But in California, there’s a lot more political will when it comes to making sure everybody’s needs are met, regardless of their immigration status.”
A push from Congress
On April 20, more than 100 Democratic members of Congress –– including Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Jason Crow and Sen. Michael Bennet –– sent a letter urging party leaders to extend cash assistance under the CARES Act to people living illegally in the U.S., and their families, and to include them in future coronavirus-related assistance.
“A response that leaves out immigrants –– many of whom are on the front lines in our fight against COVID-19 –– will be ineffective and detrimental to our efforts to stop this pandemic,” the letter said. “As the COVID-19 outbreak is challenging our already strained medical system, we must keep in mind that immigrants make up a disproportionate share of nurses, home health aides, and health care facility workers.”
The letter estimated that 5.1 million children who are American citizens have been left out of the stimulus package because a parent used an ITIN number to file taxes. It also said nearly 1.7 million immigrants work in the health care industry, as well as an additional 41,700 people who were brought to the U.S. as children and are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Immigrants –– who typically face additional obstacles such as low incomes and lack of health insurance –– also fill essential roles as farm and grocery store workers, the letter said.
Lane-Arellano, with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, said that since the federal government hasn’t provided assistance to many immigrants impacted by the coronavirus crisis, nonprofits have stepped up to fill the void. She said a handful of relief funds have sprouted across Colorado, including the Undocumented Workers Fund organized by the nonprofit Impact Charitable. But she said ultimately, the government should step in and provide additional financial support.
Lane-Arellano said that even before the coronavirus crisis, there was fear among immigrant communities when it came to accessing public benefits.
“It all boils down to immigration and their status,” she said. “People are afraid because they worry that if they access public benefits right now, it will come back as a public charge later if they try to go through the naturalization process.”
Lane-Arellano said there’s also a fear that information gathered by nonprofits or by agencies trying to offer financial support will make its way back to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In the meantime, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition has focused on pressuring Congress, especially senators. “We’ve seen so far that the House on the federal side is supportive more broadly for the inclusion of immigrants,” Lane-Arellano said. “And that support has yet to be seen in the Senate.”
Correction: This story was updated on May 10, 2020, at 10:15 a.m. to correct a reporting error related to the percentage of immigrants that make up the state’s labor force.