Esperanza’s job isn't glamorous, and it's not going to make her rich. But cleaning condominiums and office parks is at least honest work that helps her support her teenage son and her partner, who has diabetes and was laid off from his electrician job. And at least right now, it’s considered essential.
Like millions of other Texans, she’s been forced to take days off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike most others, she won’t get any financial relief from the $2.2 trillion bipartisan aid package passed to help the working class endure the massive economic hit that has already left millions of people unemployed.
Esperanza is an undocumented immigrant whose Austin-based employer deducts taxes from her checks every pay period. Those taxes add up to thousands of dollars annually, but because of her immigration status, she won’t receive one of the payments of up to $1,200 that the federal government began sending out earlier this week. A Social Security number is required to receive the benefit, so only citizens, legal permanent residents and some immigrants with work authorization can expect payments.
“They take a part of your check," said Esperanza, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym because of her status. "It’s our obligation [to pay the taxes], but then we don’t receive any benefits afterward."
About 1.6 million undocumented immigrants live in Texas, according to the most recent estimates by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute and the Pew Research Center. About 8.2% of the state’s workforce is undocumented, compared with the national average of 4.8%.
In Texas, many of the businesses that are considered essential and allowed to stay open with some limitations during the pandemic — including construction, restaurants and cleaning services — rely heavily on undocumented labor. That means that people like Esperanza have to consider picking up more shifts and possibly being exposed to the virus, or staying home and fretting over how to pay the bills.
She waits to hear from her employers about whether they need her to work each day. “Some days they have [work], some days they don’t,” she said. “But that much exposure is a big risk.”
Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, said his office has been flooded with calls about what aid, if any, is available for undocumented workers since the pandemic has sparked mass layoffs around the state.
“It’s all very confusing,” he said. “They are being very hard hit. Not only are they scared about catching the virus, but they are scared about the financial situation they’re finding themselves in.”
It's even more complicated for mixed-status families. About 2.7 million Texans are U.S. citizens and have at least one undocumented family member, according to the Center for American Progress.
If a mixed-status family previously filed a joint tax return, it won't be eligible for the stimulus payment, said Melissa Jacobs, an employment attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. Thousands of undocumented immigrants file taxes using an IRS-issued Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which doesn't indicate legal status or authorization to work and is only issued for tax purposes, according to the IRS.
But thousands of immigrants also use them to show residency, open bank accounts, or apply for IDs or driver's licenses in some states.
“I think it’s very problematic,” Jacobs said. “I certainly don’t think there is any good reason to punish people because they have a Social Security number and because they happen to do the responsible thing with their [undocumented] spouse and do their taxes. But that’s how that is.”
Democratic lawmakers and immigrant rights groups are calling for an expanded aid package that includes immigrants in the next congressional stimulus package.
Proposals like the Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act would expand health care and financial relief options for undocumented immigrants. And in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the creation of a $125 million disaster relief fund to benefit undocumented immigrants. Something similar would be a tough sell in Texas, where the Republican-controlled state government has pushed measures to crack down on undocumented immigrants and sent state troopers to help reinforce the border in recent years.
On Thursday, the Service Employees International Union, a labor group with 2 million members, kicked off its Protect All Immigrants campaign “to ensure immigrant workers' health, safety, and financial security amid the Coronavirus pandemic.” The campaign also calls for accessible health care, paid leave, paid COVID-19 testing, and job and wage security, the SEIU said in a statement.
In El Paso, local organizations are also ramping up pressure on lawmakers. The Border Network for Human Rights joined with the Catholic Diocese of El Paso and several other organizations to ask local leaders to work with public and private partners to establish a fund to aid people left out of the federal stimulus package.
If successful, that project could help people like Martha, an undocumented woman from Chihuahua who cleans houses in El Paso.
Martha — who also asked to be identified by a pseudonym — said she’s living off her savings after her work schedule was reduced to one day a week. She said she was able to make the most recent payment on her 72-year-old mother’s health insurance, and thankfully, the house she lives in is paid off. She said her mother is diabetic and has high blood pressure, so working during the pandemic means placing them both at risk of infection.
But in the coming weeks, she’ll be looking for other options.
“I understand that every country is going to look after its citizens … and I know I am undocumented and working,” she said. “But maybe they could help us right now with a small percentage. We also pay taxes.”