Why Undocumented Workers Deserve to Be Included in the Social Safety Net

Friday, July 31, 2020

By Arjun Kaushal, Associate, Financial Health Network

As Congress discusses the extension of stimulus programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the outstanding issues has been whether the next round of benefits will extend to the millions of undocumented immigrants and their families who have, so far, been left out. But this debate is part of a much larger systemic problem: Lack of access to the social safety net has consistently hindered pathways to financial health for undocumented immigrants.

A key requirement for access to relief payments provided in the CARES ACT — both the stimulus checks and unemployment insurance — is having a Social Security number (SSN). While an SSN may seem like a documentation formality, this requirement is particularly onerous for undocumented immigrants because they face substantial barriers to achieving “lawful” permanent residence (the primary means of obtaining an SSN), especially low- to moderate-income (LMI) individuals. In general, the lack of “lawful” residence is used to exclude undocumented workers from major public benefits such as unemployment insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), even though undocumented immigrants paid $31.9 billion in taxes in 2018 and support the public benefits infrastructure.

High fees and restrictive quotas make the path to “lawful” permanent residence quite difficult. Consider that:

  • The filing fee for a green card application is $1,225 for an adult. In other words, the fee required to apply for “lawful” permanent residence is more than the stimulus checks the CARES Act provides, amid increasing denial rates.
  • The EB-3 visa, the only permanent working visa for low-skilled workers, is capped at 5,000 workers per year. Other visas, such as the H-2A (agricultural work) and H-2B (non-agricultural work) for low-skilled workers, are temporary, and individuals are not allowed to apply for permanent residence while using those visas.

Additionally, many immigrants are deterred from using or interacting with the social safety net (e.g., disability insurance or paid leave). The public charge ground of admissibility rule allows the U.S. government to deny a visa or green card to an applicant who is at any time “likely to become a public charge,” essentially penalizing individuals for using public benefits. Prior to the issuance of the final rule in February, an Urban Institute study in 2019 showed that one in seven adults in immigrant families avoided noncash public benefits for fear that it would disqualify them or a family member from getting a green card.

In the current pandemic, the deterrence from and absence of public benefits for undocumented immigrants is highly concerning:

Expanding eligibility for benefits to undocumented immigrants, during the pandemic and beyond, would increase financial stability for their families and most likely bolster the economy as a whole. Undocumented workers, already contributing to this system through essential labor and taxes, deserve to be a part of the social safety net now and in the future.

Explore additional research on financial health developments related to COVID-19 here.

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