More than 50,000 people in Lancaster County have filed for unemployment benefits since March. Stimulus checks are on their way – if they haven’t already arrived – to county residents.
But there are no public safety nets for potentially thousands of people in the state, who are ineligible for state benefits as well as federal coronavirus relief due to their immigration status. They are left vulnerable, say advocates who are trying to fill the gap.
Troy Mattes, a Lancaster immigration attorney, said many of his clients have contacted him to find out if they are eligible for stimulus aid.
Who is eligible for government aid?
Since immigration statuses can vary significantly within a single-family unit, eligibility for assistance depends on how that family files taxes, Mattes said.
To access COVID-19 related stimulus or unemployment benefits, recipients must have a Social Security number to show they are authorized to work in the U.S. and are legally employed, said Mattes. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients have Social Security numbers and work authorization.
About 24,000 citizens or legal permanent residents in Pennsylvania have spouses who are in the country without legal permission, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan organization focused on North America and Europe.
According to the MPI study, about 141,000 “unauthorized immigrants” were living in Pennsylvania in 2018. The Department of Homeland Security defines unauthorized immigrants as “all foreign-born non-citizens who are not legal residents.”
Last week, an Illinois citizen sued President Donald Trump claiming he was denied the $1,200 federal coronavirus stimulus payment because his wife, whom he filed jointly with, does not have a Social Security number. His wife filed taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) with the IRS.
According to a 2014 IRS report, ITIN filers pay over $9 billion in annual payroll taxes.
Claudia Llewellyn, 31, of Lancaster, is an advocate for the immigrant community and a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – or DACA --that allows young immigrants in the country illegally who were brought here as children to remain in the country if they meet certain criteria.
“There is a big need in our community,” said Llewellyn, who is from Honduras. “The virus is affecting all of us.”
Llewellyn is a member of the steering committee of Lancaster Neighbor Fund, an initiative created by Lancaster Stands Up, a grassroots advocacy organization formed in 2016, to assist families at risk of deportation.
As of Tuesday, the fund has assisted 35 Lancaster families with grants of $25 per person for assistance with groceries and other necessities, Llewellyn said.
One Lancastrian said the grant her family of four is waiting to receive will be a “huge help.” Two members of the family are DACA recipients, one child is a citizen and an adult family member is undocumented, she said.
The woman, who requested anonymity due to the immigration status of her family members, said her sibling is also a DACA beneficiary. Although she works two jobs, the woman is now down to only one position, and her sibling has lost his employment due to COVID-19.
The grant will go towards an emergency house repair, groceries and bills, she said.
“(These families) are in need like everyone else,” Llewellyn said. “These children still need to eat” regardless of a worker’s legal status.
Who is taking action to fill the gap?
Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizen Coalition, said the lack of government support means undocumented families are completely reliant on friends, family and direct assistance organizations during this time. “Congress is helping to create a public health crisis by further marginalizing people,” Carter said.
Although statistics are not readily available for how many unauthorized immigrants work in Lancaster County, the Migration Policy Institute study said 83,000 such individuals are employed statewide. People who do not have a social security number still may pay federal taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) — but having paid taxes through an ITIN number does not mean an individual can get government assistance, Mattes said.
PICC already has dispersed $500,000 to organizations throughout the state to directly assist vulnerable undocumented immigrant families, Carter said. The Dowdy Foundation in Philadelphia donated the money to the organization.
Church World Service Lancaster received $15,200 through the PICC fund. It assisted 19 families in the county with grants of $800 each, said Carranza.