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Opinion | Federal action is essential to aid Michigan's immigrant communities

Simon Marshall-Shah

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that we are interconnected: the health and prosperity of each of us depends on the health and prosperity of all of us. And our legislators’ solutions must reflect this reality. 

Michigan’s front-line workers are risking their own health and that of their families to continue providing services to all of us, including those who are able to stay home during quarantine. Plus, Michigan immigrants are disproportionately represented in a number of front-line occupations in health care, agriculture and production. 

The federal COVID-related legislation passed so far has done much to sustain families, businesses and local economies over the past few months. But there is no doubt that additional relief is needed to further support workers and families, including immigrants, here in Michigan and across the country. 

Comparing and contrasting the U.S. House of Representatives’ Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES Act) passed nearly three months ago with the U.S. Senate Republicans’ own plan, the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protections & Schools Act (the HEALS Act), Congress still has a ways to go with these needs in mind.

The COVID-19 relief packages passed by Congress so far deny economic supports to thousands of immigrant families here in Michigan and millions more nationwide. Tens of thousands of Michiganders, including essential workers, were left out of the $1,200 economic stimulus payments because they filed their taxes using an Individual Taxation Identification Number (ITIN) as opposed to a Social Security Number. Many ITIN filers are undocumented immigrants, and the restriction also extends to ITIN filers’ citizen spouses and children, meaning some immigrant families are losing out on thousands of dollars of relief during this crisis. 

The HEROES Act would right this wrong by providing economic relief (including what would be owed retroactively) to approximately 69,000 children and adults in Michigan households that filed taxes with an ITIN. The direct economic impact of this inclusion of ITIN households would be approximately $140 million. This means recipients of these funds can use this money to pay rent, buy groceries, and support their local businesses, all of which strengthen the Michigan economy.

Plus, while the HEROES Act is full of strong and necessary proposals, the U.S. Senate now has the ability to strengthen it even further. One such proposal would create a $10 billion emergency fund—modeled on a similar fund during the Great Recession—to establish Coronavirus Emergency Assistance Grants. These grants would allow states to provide basic income assistance, emergency aid and subsidized employment to families and individuals facing extreme hardship due to today’s health and economic crises. These funds would be available for immigrants regardless of their documentation status, in addition to other groups that have been made particularly vulnerable due to COVID-19. 

The Senate has the opportunity to remove barriers to adequate health care and nutrition while bolstering economic support for the hardest hit, including communities of color and immigrant families. Unfortunately, the HEALS Act barely puts a Band-Aid on the issues that families are facing, and comes nowhere near healing the wound. 

First, the HEALS Act does not include payments for ITIN filers, deliberately leaving those 69,000 Michigan families out of relief for a fourth straight time and cutting millions of dollars out of circulation in our economy. Second, HEALS provides no guarantees for free coronavirus testing and treatment, regardless of immigration status, leaving the door open for potential price gouging for lifesaving healthcare services that U.S.-born residents and immigrants alike will continue to seek. In addition, instead of securing immigrants’ safety and futures in this country (through the HEROES Act’s automatic extensions of temporary immigration status or work authorization), the HEALS Act includes over $1.5 billion in funding for Customs and Border Protection. 

Without a federal relief bill that includes the necessary health and economic stimulus funding to support U.S.-born and immigrant families alike, their struggles will only worsen, harming our communities and economy. In Michigan, Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters know how necessary the HEROES Act’s inclusive policies are to protecting the health and well-being of all Michigan families, and we must continue to call on them to ensure key provisions in the HEROES Act remain on the negotiating table in the Senate.

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