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Include immigrants in COVID-19 relief

Andrea Silbert and Eva A. Millona

As proud Bay Staters, we are bonded by shared values: We believe in working hard, paying our taxes, doing what’s right and looking out for one another, especially in difficult times.

We expect our elected officials to live up to those values, too. Yet when it comes to COVID-19 response, Congress has fallen far short, allowing nativist politics to prevail over basic fairness and equity. It started with the CARES Act in March, which provided stimulus payments of up to $1,200 per tax-paying adult and $500 per dependent child, but excluded millions of taxpayers and their families across the nation. In Massachusetts, roughly 57,000 adults and children were shut out.

Subsequent COVID-19 bills have failed to right that wrong. The House has approved more inclusive relief programs, but then let the Senate cut them out of the final packages. Now, after three months of bickering, a new round of conversations has started on coronavirus relief. This time, we must demand that Congress treat all American taxpayers equitably.

Why were so many taxpayers excluded in the first place? Why were health care employees, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, custodians and other essential workers — people who have kept our economy moving — abandoned during one of the greatest crises in our nation’s history?

It’s simple: They or the spouse with whom they file tax returns use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), not a Social Security Number (SSN).

According to the Internal Revenue Service, 4.4 million taxpayers with ITINs contributed $23.6 billion in federal taxes in 2015. Yet not only were ITIN holders denied stimulus payments, even if their spouse and children were all U.S. citizens with SSNs, the whole family was excluded.

Why would Congress do this? Well, a large share of ITIN holders are immigrants who don’t (yet) have lawful status but want to pay their taxes as required.

In Massachusetts and across the U.S., immigrants have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and its economic fallout. Many work in sectors that have struggled to reopen, such as restaurants and hotels, and many don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. Federal law also excludes a large swath of immigrants – not just the undocumented – from key safety-net programs.

And immigrants were more economically vulnerable to begin with. Half of noncitizens in Massachusetts have incomes below 250% of the federal poverty line, and more than a quarter are below 125%. Parents who’ve since lost their jobs or have gotten sick are now struggling to feed their children and falling behind on rent. A recent immigrant community survey found two in five faced housing insecurity and three in five faced food insecurity, with even deeper struggles in households with undocumented members. We cannot let these families go hungry or lose their homes. 

Philanthropic groups, state leaders and individuals across our Commonwealth have stepped up to help those in need, especially in under-resourced communities. Most recently, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a supplemental budget for fiscal year 2020 that includes $10 million for direct cash assistance and aims to raise $10 million more from private sources.

The Eos Foundation has committed $1.6 million toward that $10 million goal, and others have already pledged an additional $3 million. We are nearly halfway to matching the state funds. But an equitable federal COVID-19 relief package would provide a much larger infusion of cash for these families.

It is unfathomable that people who have regularly paid taxes would be shut out of relief when it’s most needed. This isn’t charity. It’s about doing right by our neighbors. We cannot allow Congress to keep denying ITIN holders the help they deserve. Massachusetts cannot recover from this crisis unless all its residents have the resources they need.

We need to send a strong message to Congress that immigrants must not be shut out of next round of federal stimulus. Everyone has the fundamental right to live with dignity and access to food, health care and housing. We urge you to call U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey and your member of Congress and tell them: It’s time to do right by immigrant families.

Andrea Silbert is president of the Eos Foundation, a private foundation making charitable investments in efforts to fight poverty and hunger and improve education in Massachusetts. Eva A. Millona is president and CEO of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition.

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