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Coronavirus Stimulus Cash Likely to Miss Some Immigrant Groups

May 1, 2020, 12:48 PM

Coronavirus relief checks meant to help people hurt financially by the pandemic are unlikely to be distributed evenly across visa holders or those with work authorizations because of a provision related to who has a Social Security number.

So far, the government has sent out stimulus relief cash to over 89 million people, according to the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service. Many visa categories do qualify for the $1,200 individual checks or $2,400 joint filer checks, because the program’s work authorization comes with a corresponding Social Security number.

But anyone is out of luck if they filed a tax return that includes household members with individual taxpayer identification numbers, which the IRS issues to certain immigrants who can’t get a Social Security number.

The Social Security number requirement has excluded undocumented immigrants, lawful permanent residents, temporary guestworkers, and even U.S. citizens from receiving payment. A class action already has been filed on behalf of U.S. citizens whose spouses don’t have Social Security numbers, seeking injunctive relief so that citizens affected by the rule, and their U.S. citizen children, can receive a stimulus payment.

Mixed-Status Households Left Out

One of the more visible groups impacted by the Social Security number provision may be young, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and are now enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, called “Dreamers.”

DACA recipients are eligible for the rebates provided by the CARES Act (Public Law 116-136) as they are able to work and have legal status in the U.S. They’re also likely to live in a mixed-status household with family members who are undocumented.

If a DACA holder is living with two undocumented parents, or those parents claim the DACA holder on their taxes, then that family would be excluded from the stimulus relief, said Julia Gelatt, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. An estimated 15.6 million people could be excluded from the stimulus relief when looking at DACA recipients, temporary protected status holders, and asylum seekers in mixed status households, she said.

“Because of DACA, people were able to apply for better jobs, make more money, pursue higher education, and buy a home. Taking that context into account, in many cases DACA recipients, anecdotally, are becoming breadwinners for their families,” said Sanaa Abrar, advocacy director for the immigrant youth organization United We Dream.

“Millions of people haven’t received that cash,” Abrar said. “These exclusions have been set into law, and not just for DACA recipients but for people with ITINs who are paying taxes into the system and not getting any assistance back.”

An Unconstitutional Provision?

The lawsuit on behalf of U.S. citizens denied a stimulus payment alleges the Social Security number provision of the CARES Act violates the Constitution’s First Amendment and Fifth Amendment.

The First Amendment grants freedom of association, and through that right emanates a right to privacy, “including a right to choose who you marry,” said Lana Nassar, a civil litigation attorney in Chicago involved in the lawsuit. The provision also violates the plaintiff’s right to due process and equal protection by the federal government, Nassar said. “Our clients are U.S. citizens and similarly situated to other citizens but for the person they married.”

Though the current lawsuit is on behalf of U.S. citizens, Nassar and co-counsel Vivian Khalaf, an immigration attorney, anticipate additional sub-classes of plaintiffs who are green card holders, or visa holders who are authorized to work but may have dependents who are not authorized to work and therefore don’t have a Social Security number.

Since filing the lawsuit, Nassar and Khalaf said they have received thousands of phone calls from similarly affected individuals, including some 1,500 in one 24-hour period.

Public, Private Efforts to Fill the Gap

In the short-term, some public and private organizations are working to get immigrant populations financial support.

In mid-April, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced new initiatives that would give cash assistance to undocumented immigrants in the state. And advocacy and nonprofit groups such as Open Society Foundations and CASA are leading similar efforts to create relief funds for vulnerable immigrant populations in New York, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Families disqualified from receiving the CARES Act payments are some of the most vulnerable during an economic downturn, Gelatt said. Households headed by undocumented immigrants tend to have lower incomes, larger households, and lack access to public health insurance, she noted.

At the same time, immigrant workers are overrepresented in some of the frontline industries, whether it’s health-care workers, janitors, food supply chain workers, or agricultural workers growing and harvesting food, Gelatt added. “Immigrant workers are certainly at the frontlines of the Covid-19 response and all of the essential industries that are keeping us alive and healthy today.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at; Martha Mueller Neff at