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“Essential But Excluded”: Pandemic Aid Left Out Undocumented Immigrants & Their U.S. Citizen Kids

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Image Credit: Jodi Hilton / The Marshall Project

Pandemic relief programs have helped millions of families get through the economic shocks of COVID-19, but undocumented immigrants — many of whom are essential workers — have been largely shut out of such federal aid. Those undocumented workers who have received limited assistance are now losing the pandemic aid they had only started receiving in August through the Biden administration’s expanded child tax credit program, which expired and is being blocked from further implementation into Build Back Better legislation. “These families, in spite of the fact that they were essential workers, endured this really punishing income gap,” says journalist Julia Preston, who reported on an undocumented immigrant community in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who sustain the United States’ largest commercial fishing port. Preston and Ariel Goodman wrote the article “Essential But Excluded” for The Marshall Project and say the difference in income amounts on average to almost $35,000.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As COVID cases reach record highs in the United States, a key Biden administration program that helped keep millions of children out of poverty has just ended. Over the past six months, the Treasury Department has sent monthly payments of up to $300 per child to 30 million families as part of the expanded child tax credit program. The Biden administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress had hoped to continue the payments by including it as part of the Build Back Better package, but the plan has been blocked by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Economists fear child poverty could soar in the United States as a result. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to bring the Build Back Better Act to a vote soon in the Senate, but its passage seems unlikely without support from both Manchin and fellow Democrat Kyrsten Sinema.

We turn now to look at how this is playing out in one city in New England, New Bedford, Massachusetts, the largest commercial fishing port on the Eastern Seaboard. Immigrants, many undocumented, play key roles in the fishing industry and have worked throughout the pandemic despite the risks. However, many of these same immigrant workers have been shut out of pandemic aid, and so have their children, many of whom were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens.

The Marshall Project recently published a detailed investigation into the crisis facing families in New Bedford. The article is headlined “Essential but Excluded.” It was written by Julia Preston and Ariel Goodman, who join us now. Julia Preston is a contributing writer at The Marshall Project, former reporter at The New York Times, where she covered immigration for years and was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team in 1998. Ariel Goodman is the Tow audience engagement fellow at The Marshall Project. She’s also my niece.

Julia Preston, let’s begin with you. This is a deep piece, because it really puts a face on who suffers in this country, not only when the child tax credit ends, as it has, but for those who missed out on it completely. If you can lay out what you found in New Bedford and who these essential but excluded immigrants are?

JULIA PRESTON: Well, the community that we found in New Bedford are mostly immigrants from Guatemala, from the highlands of Guatemala. They are — it’s a community of Mayan K’iche’-speaking Indigenous people, and they work in the plants across the waterfront, where they pack seafood there — scallops, haddock — the food that was actually keeping Americans fed during the pandemic when so many people had to stay home. It was not an option for these workers to stay home, however, because many of them are undocumented, and they were not eligible for unemployment insurance of any kind. They were not eligible for some of the enhanced stimulus payments that came from — as a result of COVID, starting under President Trump and including under President Biden, and they were not eligible for certain kinds of tax credits. But, actually, because they are taxpayers, they were eligible for the enhanced tax credit, child tax credit, that President Biden made available through the Rescue Act last March.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Julia, the estimates, as I understand it, are that as many as 74% of undocumented immigrants in the United States are considered essential workers, far higher percentage than about the 65% in the native-born labor force. What has been the difference between how the Trump administration dealt with pandemic relief and the Biden administration, from what you’ve been able to tell?

JULIA PRESTON: Well, the Trump administration worked hard to make COVID relief unavailable to most undocumented workers. And there was a revision in terms of stimulus relief at the end of last year so that at least the families that had American citizen children and American citizen spouses, if there was an undocumented taxpayer in that family, those families did become eligible, finally, for some forms of COVID relief.

But, in general, what we found in New Bedford was that in spite of the fact that these undocumented immigrants were working, they were paying their taxes, and most of their kids were American citizen children. The difference over the length of the pandemic in terms of their income from federal COVID aid and the income of a family that had American citizen taxpayers, that difference was almost $35,000. To put that in perspective, a family of seafood packing workers doesn’t make that much money in an entire year under normal circumstances, and certainly not during the pandemic. So, these families, in spite of the fact that they were essential workers, endured this really punishing income gap with American families who were able to stay home and collect unemployment insurance and protect themselves during the pandemic.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And do you have any sense of how many states, if any, have been able to plug the gap somewhat by creating state-level essential workers funds or pandemic relief funds? I know there is one in New Jersey that was passed recently for excluded workers who might be undocumented. Is this a trend across the country, or is it just a few of the blue states?

JULIA PRESTON: Well, I think New York was also one of the states that did that, but that did not happen in Massachusetts, where we were reporting. What did happen in Massachusetts and across the country was — in terms of federal aid, was the availability to undocumented workers who were paying their taxes, and who were being paid in paychecks, of the child tax credit. This child tax credit, that is the center of the debate right now in Washington, did become available because of some changes that the Biden administration made last March to the terms of the child tax credit. And so, these long-suffering families, who had basically endured the entire pandemic without any form of federal assistance, or very limited federal assistance, in August, they started to receive direct payments into their bank accounts of $300 or $360 per child, if the child was an American citizen.

And we really got a view of how significant these payments are. For many of these families, this was the difference between having food on the table for their children and not. It was the difference between being able to pay the rent and continue to be housed and not be able to do that. It was the difference between being able to pay a mobile phone bill and a Wi-Fi bill. And these are not luxuries anymore. These were fundamental, life-saving tools, and during the pandemic, these were necessary tools for their kids to go to school.

And again, we’re talking about kids who are American citizens. They were born in this country. They go to school in our communities. They’re just like our kids, our American citizen kids. And so, what you had an opportunity to see in New Bedford at the end of the process last year was the enormous positive impact that these child tax credit payments can have on the lowest-income families, and especially on these families that have worked so hard — despite their immigration status, despite the struggles that they face in the immigration system, they worked so hard to put food on our tables during the pandemic.

AMY GOODMAN: And despite the fact that many of them pay taxes.

JULIA PRESTON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, I think the power of your piece is some of the people the two of you interviewed for this piece. Let’s turn to Lucia Mateo Pérez.

LUCIA MATEO PÉREZ: [translated] I am a dreamer. I don’t just want a car. My dreams reach further than that. I never had a childhood playing with toys. I never had that because we live in extreme poverty. We are deeply discriminated against in our country for the fact that we are women and for the fact that we have brown skin, but, more than anything, for the fact that we are Indigenous.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lucia Mateo Pérez. Her photograph is the top photograph on the piece. Ariel, if you can talk about who some of these people are? This is the flesh, the stories, the beauty of this piece.

ARIEL GOODMAN: Yeah. So, to give a sense of who people are and the kind of work that they were doing, these are people who are waking up long before the sunrise, who are going and working in cold packing plants for nine hours a day. I talked to a woman who stands on a packing line every day, you know, jackets on under her robes, picking out the imperfections of the day’s catch with tweezers. These are people who, as Julia mentioned, endured extreme hardship through the pandemic and, you know, through the continuation of the pandemic that we’re all living right now. We spoke to mothers who were forced to eat cereal for days, when their hours were cut, in order to give better food to their children.

These were stories of survival, of people who, left out of almost all federal aid, had to lean on one another, people who converted cramped apartment kitchens into food businesses that they sold to their neighbors. I spoke to someone who is a subsistence farmer in his country. And when he lost his work, he did what he knew how to do, which was grow vegetables and sell them in town. So, these are stories of survival. These are stories of deep inequality, as Julie mentioned.

But I think that the larger point here is that these are American stories. This is the story not only of how this one immigrant community survived, like so many immigrant communities are surviving by relying on one another throughout the country, but it’s the story of how food arrived on all of our tables. It’s the story of the people whose hands the cod, the flounder, the scallops passed through and were packaged by before it arrived on your table. So, yeah, I think that that’s kind of what it represents, is sort of this larger question that’s being addressed in Build Back Better, which is: How is our country going to treat the workers that their labor is essential to its function?

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, New Bedford is the scallop capital of the world. In the case of Lucia, Lucia Mateo Pérez, we know her name in your story because she is now documented. Ariel, if you can talk about that?

ARIEL GOODMAN: Yes. So, Lucia is a person who was granted asylum. She came here in 2015. She was a seafood worker for the first year of her time in the United States. But Lucia is also a person that we spoke to because she was a survivor of a fire that happened last year, a fire that displaced 40 families, the majority of whom were seafood workers. And we chose to focus on this fire because we were trying to understand, you know, going into two years of the pandemic, what are the effects of not having received aid on people. How are we seeing that not only at the beginning of the pandemic, when we heard so many stories of what it was to live for so many of these communities in the epicenter of the pandemic, but what does it mean now two years in?

And what we found were stories like the one that Lucia’s family went through, stories of deep housing insecurity, of families who had to begin living together. The place where they lived that went up in flames, two people died in this fire. According to residents, fire alarms did not go off. And now, after that, they’ve now been displaced and are — you know, the few belongings that they did have, that they were able to accumulate over years of hard work, things like couches, something to sort of create a space for their family, are all gone, and they’re forced to live in a place that is even smaller. And, you know, we’re all learning about what that means and what they’re reckoning with now with Omicron on the horizon.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Diego, the son of an out-of-work seafood worker in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

DIEGO: It’s pretty hard for me. He can’t, like, buy us some school supplies, something like that, shoes, clothes. How is he going to work? How is he going to get money for our food and stuff like that?

AMY GOODMAN: And this is T.S., an undocumented seafood worker, speaking to The Marshall Project.

T.S.: [translated] We are not free in this country. They can come and take me at any time, and my children would stay here suffering. If I had a social, it might be different, but since I don’t, I am in the hands of God.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Julia Preston, as we hear these voices, we’re hearing the voices of immigrants from the highlands of Guatemala, well known for the persecution that whole population faced for decades, after the U.S. intervened and supported the military dictatorships there. If you can relate that to current immigration reform today and what’s not happening in this country, as they face depression there and then come to the United States and face this hardship here?

JULIA PRESTON: Well, I mean, especially for this community that we saw in New Bedford, the lack of immigration status has just become, during the pandemic, incredibly punishing. And you really see how the failure of Congress to advance some kind of broader immigration reform to just bring these people into a basic legal status is really not only at this point affecting workers who were so essential to keeping us fed and keeping — you know, providing home care — they did so much work for us during the pandemic for the rest, the larger community — the failure of Congress to pass immigration reform has really — it’s not only just punishing those people, but now we have generations of American citizen kids who are growing up, and because of the failure of Congress to correct this legal status for these folks, now their American citizen kids, who were born in this country — they’re not going anywhere, they’re going to grow up here — are being punished, as well.

And so, I think that one of the points that we should see is that even while the immigration — the explicit immigration provisions in the Build Back Better bill that President Biden has put forward and that is under debate in the Senate, those have run into tremendous procedural hurdles, and it’s really not clear what’s going to happen with those provisions, the child tax credit provisions are also very important for undocumented people, to give them some kind of basic support going forward as we struggle again with another chapter of the pandemic. So, I think it’s great to focus also on the child tax credit provisions as another aspect of immigration reform that potentially could happen in this bill.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask Ariel — in terms of the children of these workers, there’s been a lot of emphasis in recent months on the mental health crisis among young people in the United States. In terms of the children of these workers, what kind of services are or may not be available to them? And how did you see, in your reporting, the mental health impact on them of the situation during the pandemic?

ARIEL GOODMAN: Yeah. So, while we were in New Bedford, we surveyed 39 middle school-aged children just about what their experiences were like in the pandemic. We heard a range of responses. We heard from children who talked about enduring mental health issues. You know, we’re talking people who are around 13 years old. We heard from people who simply said that all they did was have faith and try to survive. We also heard about children who had to look for work. For whatever reason, their parents in the pandemic weren’t able to provide for their families, and so many of them got part-time jobs. We spoke to teachers who had children signing into their Zoom classes from production lines in packing plants and in lots of the other sort of industrial places in New Bedford.

So, in terms of what kind of support was available to children, I mean, this is tied to this larger issue of because — when children’s parents are denied many forms of federal aid because of their status, how does this trickle down to the children? So that was some of the things that we heard.

AMY GOODMAN: What most shocked you, Julia Preston, about this? And if you could also explain the difference between the Social Security number, the social, and the ITIN?

JULIA PRESTON: Yeah. You heard the seafood worker refer to that. She said, you know, “If only I had a Social Security number, things might be different. But as it is, I’m in the hands of God.” So, undocumented workers cannot obtain Social Security numbers, valid Social Security numbers. But an undocumented worker who is working in a factory setting or any kind of institutional setting is paid with a paycheck. They are having their standard deductions, and they are paying taxes, just like everybody else who works in that kind of a context. And so the IRS has created a special number — it’s called an ITIN — so that those workers can file their taxes and pay their taxes and, if they are eligible, receive certain kinds of refunds.

In most cases, until recently, they weren’t eligible for many kinds of refunds or tax credits. And this is another form of tax — of discrimination. This is tax discrimination that these workers are facing. And it really seems particularly unfair in this context, because they are working hard, they are paying their taxes, they are doing exactly what other people do who do have legal status and valid Social Security numbers, and yet they — excuse me — and yet they are not eligible for so many of the benefits that come from being a taxpayer for other people.

And so, that was, I think, what I would say was shocking for me, was to see the level of poverty that these families were plunged into, were forced into during the pandemic, even though they were continuing to work. The kind of hardship that these families were facing, and particularly that these kids were having to endure, was really shocking. That shocked me. I’ve seen a lot, covering immigration over the years, but the level of hardship that these families endured really did — it was something I had not seen before.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, and we’re going to link to your piece, Julia Preston, contributing writer at The Marshall Project, Ariel Goodman, Tow fellow at The Marshall Project. We’ll link to “Essential but Excluded: Immigrants put seafood on America’s tables. But many have been shut out of pandemic aid — and so have their U.S. citizen children.”

Next up, we go inside the sprawling network of private immigration jails for an update on conditions amidst the latest surge in COVID infections. Stay with us.

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