COVID-19: Maine Fund for Immigrants and Families Left out of CARES Act Relief

A fund has been launched to accept donations to provide economic relief to thousands of immigrants in Maine, along with their U.S citizen spouses and children.   As this post explains, many immigrants and their families  were excluded from the economic impact payments and  self-employment unemployment compensation created by the CARES Act.

Many Mainers are aligning with the #PledgeMyStimulus movement.   For those who received but don’t need all of their CARES Act economic impact payments for their own immediate expenses, contributing to the Estamos Aquí  (We Are Here) Mutual Aid Fund is a way to provide some small support to those ignored by the CARES Act, to help them weather the economic fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Estamos Aquí  (We Are Here) Mutual Aid Fund  will distribute all donations within two weeks of receipt to immigrants and their families who need help due to COVID-19 to pay for rent, food, and other basic needs.

Many sectors of Maine’s economy depend on an immigrant workforce, from agriculture, to construction, forestry, manufacturing, hospitality, high tech, and healthcare.  Contributing to the Estamos Aquí  (We Are Here) Mutual Aid Fund during this emergency is an important way for Maine’s business community to ensure that Maine’s immigrants will still be here as vital members of our local communities once the pandemic eases and the economy restarts.

At the national level, the new #AllOfUs campaign was recently launched by  business, civil rights and faith organizations and immigration advocates to conduct public messaging highlighting the importance of immigrants on the frontlines of essential services in the U.S during the pandemic, and how COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate based on immigration status.  Donations through #AllOfUs will go to local foodbanks nationwide trying to meet the increased need from the pandemic’s effects.

CARES Act Omission of Millions of Immigrants Harms U.S. Citizens

In late March, Congress passed the Corona Virus Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.   As this post explains, millions of immigrants without Social Security numbers or who pay taxes with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINS) were largely excluded from eligibility for the economic impact payments.

But the CARES Act goes even further, to penalize families of these immigrants.  An economically eligible person with a Social Security number who filed taxes as “married, filing jointly” with her/his ineligible spouse would also be ineligible.  The CARES Act not only deprives such couples of their $2400 maximum payment.  It also prevents the eligible spouse from receiving her/his maximum individual $1200 economic impact payment, and the $500 payment for any dependent children under 16, unless one of the spouses were in the military.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that

due to the restriction in the CARES Act, 15.6 million people will be excluded from the stimulus payments: 10 million unauthorized immigrants, along with 3.8 million children and 1.8 million spouses who are either U.S. citizens or green-card holders.

Excluding the entire family is unduly harsh and economically short-sighted.   Even if Congress decided to omit immigrants with ITINs, prohibiting their U.S. citizen spouses and children from receiving their own  respective economic impact payments pushes families closer to the brink of desperation during this pandemic.  It also prevents them from spending these funds in their local communities, on rent, food, and basic necessities.

This is harming married couples in Maine, as described in a recent Portland Press Herald article.   And the harm reaches beyond U.S. citizens and permanent residents married to ineligible immigrants.  Many of Maine’s asylum seekers are also impacted.   Due to long delays for work permits, which asylum seekers must have to get a Social Security card, it’s not uncommon for only one asylum seeking spouse to have a Social Security number during part of a couple’s immigration application process.

At least two lawsuits have been filed challenging the legality of the CARES Act provisions preventing  U.S. citizens from receiving their economic impact payment if they are married to immigrants who lack Social Security numbers.  One lawsuit points out that the IRS found in 2014 that ITIN tax filers paid over $9 billion in taxes.  Yet, as this article about the complaint described,

“Families that contain a non-U.S. citizen spouse are particularly vulnerable to the economic dislocation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” the suit read. That’s due to the clustering of such workers in hotels, food services, health care, waste services and retail trade, where the biggest job layoffs have occurred, the suit said.

The CARES Act also omits self-employed immigrants with ITINs from claiming the expanded unemployment insurance benefits created for the self-employed, a measure that once again negatively impacts their family members.

A crowdfunding initiative to raise money for Maine’s immigrants and their families who have been left out of the CARES Act economic relief provisions is accepting donations through May 30, 2020 here.

In addition to their exclusion from  CARES Act economic relief, millions of immigrants are left out of Medicaid-funded COVID-19 medical coverage provided by the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) because most immigrants, including lawful permanent residents during their first five years of residency, are ineligible for Medicaid.   The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 3.7 million uninsured immigrants will be excluded from COVID-19 testing and treatment as a result.   Fortunately, in some geographic areas, community health centers that serve the public regardless of immigration status, can step into the breach.

H.R. 6437, the  Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act would rectify many of these omissions, allowing immigrants who have worked and paid taxes with ITINs to receive economic impact payments on the same footing as those with Social Security numbers, and would ensure that immigrants, regardless of status, can get COVID-19 testing, preventative care, and treatment.  Maine’s Representative Chellie Pingree is a cosponsor of that bill.

While efforts were unsuccessful to include several of H.R. 6437’s  provisions in the most recent coronavirus relief bill, the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, advocacy on this front will continue.

COVID-19  knows no immigration status boundaries.  For the nation’s public and economic health, governmental action should treat all in the U.S. equally.





New Presidential Proclamation is about Politics, not Public Health

The White House issued a Presidential Proclamation on April 22, 2020 imposing limits on who can enter the U.S. due to COVID-19.   The Proclamation was widely anticipated after the President tweeted on April 20, 2020 that “I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!”  The new limits are effective for 60 days, and may be extended.

The actual Presidential Proclamation falls far short of the President’s sweeping statement, particularly since it does not apply to nonimmigrants, hundreds of million of whom enter the U.S. each year.  Moreover, its immediate impact is limited, since due to COVID-19, U.S. consulates abroad had already suspended virtually all visa interviews required for immigrant visa issuance.

However, the Proclamation reveals the administration’s continued embrace of controversial immigration reforms that it has sought, but failed to achieve, since it first championed the RAISE Act in 2017.  The administration has long wanted to dramatically reduce immediate family immigration and eliminate the diversity lottery, and by targeting those categories in the Presidential Proclamation, it is setting up its ability to do so while bypassing Congress.

Additionally, the Proclamation perpetuates the myth that immigrants take jobs from U.S. citizens, when numerous studies have shown that immigrants fill complementary jobs and start businesses (that create jobs) at higher rates than native born U.S. citizens.

As this Wall Street Journal editorial (paywall) summarized:

All of which suggests that Mr. Trump’s real calculation here is political. White House adviser Stephen Miller has long wanted to shut down most immigration, legal and illegal. In the coronavirus he may have found his opening….. If they succeed, we will wake up in 2021 having defeated Covid-19 but at the high cost of a diminished economic future.

The Wall Street Journal editorial also asked “how ‘temporary’ will Mr. Trump’s immigration ban be”?   Should it continue, it would reduce annual immigration by about a third, preventing hundreds of thousands of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents from immigrating, and stopping the arrival of talented individuals who can help drive the U.S. economy forward.

This detailed analysis explains the potential impact.

As of 11:59 p.m. on April 23, 2020, the Presidential Proclamation suspends the following from entering the U.S. through June 23, 2020, or longer if  extended:

  • Spouses and children of permanent residents who were outside the U.S. and had not already been issued immigrant visas (94% of these family members immigrate from abroad).
  • Parents, married or over-21 year old children, and siblings of U.S. citizens who were outside the U.S. and had not already been issued immigrant visas  (the vast majority of whom immigrate from abroad).
  • Diversity lottery immigrants who were outside the U.S. and had not already been issued immigrant visas  (98% of these immigrants arrive from abroad).
  • Employment-based immigrants who were outside the U.S. and had not already been issued immigrant visas (only 15% of these immigrants arrive from abroad), with the exception of certain immigrant investors.
  • Others not in possession of valid travel documents other than immigrant visas.

The Presidential Proclamation does not apply to:

  • Any applicant for permanent residency  applying from within the U.S. rather than coming from abroad.   This includes the vast majority of employment-based immigrants (80% in FY 2018).
  • Spouses and unmarried children under age 21, or prospective adoptive children, of U.S. citizens.
  • Individuals returning from abroad who are already U.S. citizens or permanent residents .
  • Individuals immigrating through the EB-5 investor visa program.
  • Individuals immigrating as a “physician, nurse, or other healthcare professional; to perform medical research or other research intended to combat the spread of COVID-19; or to perform work essential to combating, recovering from, or otherwise alleviating the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak, as determined by the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or their respective designees” and their spouses and minor, unmarried children.
  • Members of the U.S. military and their spouses and minor, unmarried children.
  • Certain Iraqis and Afghanis who worked as interpreters or employees of the U.S. government and their spouses and minor, unmarried children.
  • Individuals whose entry would further law enforcement objectives or national security interests, as determined by the U.S. government.
  • Nonimmigrants, including essential temporary workers such as farm workers and those working in professional and medical/healthcare fields.  The Proclamation did note that the administration may take action in the future to limit nonimmigrant entries.

By targeting hundreds of thousands of mostly immediate family and diversity lottery immigrants, but not the hundreds of millions of nonimmigrants who come to the U.S. each year, and with the already existing COVID-19 pause of most visa interviews abroad, any public health premise of this Presidential Proclamation is disingenuous.  And by pitting immigrants against U.S. workers,  the Proclamation promotes an “us” versus “them” message that is divisive and has no place in this country which has thrived from the contributions of immigrants for centuries, even through prior economic downturns.

The Presidential Proclamation should be seen for what it is: pure politics.



COVID-19: DACA Supreme Court Case Takes on New Dimension

The Supreme Court is currently considering the legality of the administration’s rationale for terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

On April 20, 2020, the Supreme Court agreed to allow supplemental briefing by advocates for DACA holders.  The advocates pointed out that an estimated 27,000 DACA holders work in healthcare fields and are on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, with another 200 DACA holders currently attending medical schools across the U.S.

There had been speculation that the Supreme Court would rule on the DACA case in April, but the Supreme Court’s consideration of additional factors rules that out.   Regardless, the Court will decide  before its term ends in June.

For the good of the U.S.’s health care infrastructure in this unprecedented time, let’s hope that the Supreme Court strikes down the rescission, otherwise, DACA holders will lose their ability to work, stay and serve in this country.

If it does not, Congress must act swiftly to pass H.R. 6, the  American Dream and Promise Act of 2019.   There is broad public and business support for a path to permanent status for DACA holders and the so-called Dreamers, and the coronovirus pandemic has only underscored their importance as fully contributing members of our society.


COVID-19: Canada-U.S.-Mexico Non-Essential Land and Ferry Travel Restrictions Extended

The administration announced extensions of “non-essential” travel  restrictions by persons arriving from Mexico and Canada at U.S. land border ports of entry or by ferry, until May 20, 2020, due to COVID-19.

The restrictions apply primarily to those traveling to the U.S. for visits and tourism.  They do not apply to air, freight rail, or sea travel, nor to the following persons:

    • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States;
    • Individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States);
    • Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions;
    • Individuals traveling to work in the United States (e.g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Mexico in furtherance of such work);
    • Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support Federal, State, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies);
    • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Mexico);
    • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel;
    • Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, returning to the United States; and
    • Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.

The original restrictions were imposed on March 24th and were to expire on April 20th absent this extension to May 20th.

COVID-19: Suspension of Normal Operation of Law at U.S. and Canada and Mexico Borders Extended to May 20, 2020

The U.S. government is extending until May 20, 2020 restrictions first put in place on March 20th suspending normal operation of law and procedures at the borders between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico due to COVID-19.  The original restrictions were to expire on April 20th.   The most recent announcement extends the restrictions for another 30 days.

The policy exempts and allows entry of U.S. citizens, permanent residents, U.S. military personnel and their families, and valid visa holders or those who otherwise are legally authorized to enter and not otherwise subject to other COVID-19 “non-essential travel” restrictions.

As a practical matter, the announced extension applies to people trying to enter the U.S. without visas.  While purportedly grounded in public health concerns due to COVID-19’s presence in both Canada and Mexico, those who are exempt from the policy are as likely to have been exposed to and be carrying COVID-19 into the U.S. as any others trying to enter.   And those who don’t have visas to whom the restrictions apply typically arrive at the southern border,  and in recent years, overwhelmingly have been asylum seekers.

The policy means that the U.S. can reject these individuals who have fled persecution, and turn them back into Mexico without any due process at all, such as a chance to ask for asylum as allowed under U.S. law, and to be scheduled for an interview with an asylum officer to determine whether they have a  “credible fear” of persecution that merits a hearing before an immigration judge.  Even unaccompanied children are being rejected.

The administration has taken multiple steps in the past three years to curtail asylum seekers’ rights to ask for protection in the U.S., spawning multiple ongoing lawsuits.  The pandemic appears to have provided the basis for removing any last vestiges of due process for asylum seekers arriving at our southern border.

For a view into the voyage that many make to reach the U.S., border with Mexico in hopes of requesting asylum, including many of the African asylum seekers who arrived in Maine via the southern border in 2019, see this article in California Sunday Magazine.

COVID-19: Temporary Rule Change Provides More Flexibility for H-2A Agricultural Workers

The Department of Homeland Security has published a rule effective April 20, 2020 through August 18, 2020 that temporarily relaxes certain regulations governing H-2A temporary agricultural workers.

Because of the importance of farm workers for the nation’s food production and security, the rule will allow H-2A workers to start work earlier in limited circumstances, and to remain in the U.S. for longer than the ordinary maximum limit of three years.

With U.S. consulates and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices having limited operations due to COVID-19, the rule will create more flexibility for agricultural employers to employ H-2A workers who are already working in the U.S.

The rule change is slated to last for 120 days, but may be extended if needed due to the COVID-19 crisis.  For more details, read the rule here.

COVID-19: Immigrants are Essential Workers: Food Supply Chain

Immigrants, who make up about 14% of the U.S. population, are disproportionately vital to the U.S. food supply chain.

Immigrants make up 22% of overall workers in the food supply chain, according to the Migration Policy Institute, ranging from 73% of hand packers and packagers, 62% of agricultural graders and sorters, 30% of agricultural workers, 27% of food production workers to 17% of grocery and food and beverage retail workers.   In some states, their share is even greater, such as in California, where immigrants represent 69% of agricultural workers, and in New York, where 32% of grocery and other food and beverage workers are immigrants.

In Maine, just as in the rest of the country, immigrants are on the front lines working on farms and orchards, in seafood, chicken and egg processing facilities, in grocery stores, and in food service, including in health  and elder care facilities.

While the majority of immigrants in these essential jobs are U.S. citizens and legal residents, the nation depends on millions of undocumented immigrants who are also a critical part of the food supply chain.  For example, in California estimates are that 60 to 75% of farm workers are undocumented.

And while food supply chain jobs have been deemed essential, that does not translate into legal protections.  As this article notes,

(t)he pandemic carries particular risks for agricultural workers. Most do not receive sick pay if they fall ill, and they lack health insurance. The $2 trillion pandemic aid package that passed Congress last week does not offer any assistance to undocumented immigrants.

They are also still subject to deportation, despite administration statements that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will modify its enforcement priorities during the pandemic.  Undocumented immigrants, and even immigrants in the process of applying for residency, fear seeking medical help if they feel ill, regardless of government assurances that they should not be afraid to seek COVID-19 testing, preventative medical care, or treatment.

The dichotomy between immigrants’ role in supplying the nation with the food needed to survive and thrive and their lack of economic, health, and immigration protections is appropriately leading to calls for their inclusion in future federal relief efforts.

Some states with large immigrant populations are taking steps to assist immigrant workers in essential services, such as in California, where a private-public partnership launched an aid fund.  But similar efforts are likely impossible in cash-strapped small states like Maine, and immigrant workers who provide essential services benefiting the whole country should not be treated differently depending upon the state where they live.

Congress should provide assistance to all who keep food arriving on our tables in any future aid bills.  The funds would be spent in workers’ local communities, and is both morally right and economically smart.



COVID-19: Immigrants are Essential Workers: Health Care

Immigrants punch far above their weight when it comes to serving at every level of health care delivery.   Their importance in healthcare is only being underscored as the nation confronts COVID-19.

While immigrants were only 13.7% of the U.S. population in 2017, the same as in 1900,  immigrants make up 29% of U.S. doctors, over 23% of dentists, over 20% of U.S. pharmacists, over 16% of registered nurses, and 15% of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses,  among other health professionals, according to a 2018 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

More recent data from MeBIC partner New American Economy finds that immigrants also make up over 36% of home health care aides, over 25% of personal assistants, over 22% of nursing assistants, nearly 20% of surgeons, and nearly 20% of clinical laboratory technicians.

Even undocumented immigrants play a large role in U.S. healthcare delivery.  New American Economy 2018 data reveals that nearly 280,000 undocumented immigrants are employed nationwide as “healthcare support workers, working as nursing assistants, as health aides, as well as the cleaners and building maintenance workers that keep medical and care facilities running. ”

Immigrants are no less vital to health care delivery in Maine.   They include Ben Okafor, who launched Eastport Family Pharmacy to serve residents in Downeast Maine.  In Portland, immigrants are among the many students at Portland Adult Education who train as CNAs and to perform other essential services in hospitals and rehabilitation and elder care facilities.

Maine’s immigrants are also making the masks and other personal protection equipment (PPE) essential to reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission, such as those working at American Roots in Westbrook and Antoine’s Formal Wear and Tailor Shop in PortlandNew American Economy has found that immigrants make up about 24% of workers making medical equipment and supplies, and manufacturing medicines and pharmaceuticals.

The need for more healthcare workers was acute even before the COVID-19 pandemic.  More than 40% of physicians will reach retirment age in the next decade, according to this statement from the President of the American Medical Association (AMA).  The situation is even more dire in rural areas.  “Doctors in rural counties were also far likelier to be older and closer to retirement, meaning the number of counties with no doctors in the future may rise significantly” according to New American Economy.  MeBIC partners Maine Health and Penobscot Community Health Care confirm that this holds true in Maine, where over 60% of doctors will reach retirement age in the next decade.

U.S. immigration policy, and licensing requirements that are out of date for the times, are impeding the nation’s ability to put talented foreign-born medical professionals to work when and where they are critically needed, as the Cato Institute highlights, including the estimated 29,000 healthcare workers with  DACA status and foreign trained doctors.

A bad situation was made even worse when the State Department suspended all visa interviews at U.S. consulates as of March 20, 2020 due to COVID-19.  Following  pleas from the AMA and others, on April 8, 2020, the State Department agreed to resume visa processing for medical professionals, while the suspension for all other types of visas continues.

While many states are easing licensing requirements for medical professionals licensed in other states, there is still much to be done at the federal and state levels to enable foreign medical professionals to  do their urgently needed work wherever they are needed in the U.S.

To learn more, see:

Forbes:  Immigration Can Save Lives During America’s COVID-19 Crisis

The Hill:  Immigrant doctors face challenges to work, even in coronavirus pandemic

L.A. Times:   Opinion: Our lives depend on immigrants to get us through the coronavirus crisis

New York Times:  Foreign Doctors Could Help Fight Coronavirus. But U.S. Blocks Many

Washington Post:   ‘Dreamers’ risk lives on pandemic’s front lines while they await a decision on their own futures

Migration Policy Institute:   Immigrant Health-Care Workers in the United States



COVID-19: MeBIC Partners and Immigrants Get the Job Done to Support Public Health

MeBIC Board Member Adele Ngoy, clothing designer and owner of Antoine’s Formal Wear and Tailor Shop in Portland, has switched gears from fashion design, wedding dresses, and alterations, to making cloth masks.  While her normal business had to close during the COVID-19 crisis, as this report highlights, she and her immigrant staff responded by making masks to donate for free to people and facilities, such as nursing homes, where they’re needed.

MeBIC partner, apparel manufacturer American Roots of Westbrook, has felt the full brunt of COVID-19, at one point laying off most of its staff as the economic impact of the pandemic caused a swift and sharp drop in product demand.

But a factory that produces hoodies and vests can pivot to create PPE – personal protective equipment – for health care workers.   And  stitchers can learn to sew new patterns, and get used to a workplace with strict social distancing and cleaning standards.

And that’s just what American Roots did, as this op-ed in the Washington Post explains.   It took creativity and effort, but it also took a workforce to make the pivot happen.   Most of American Roots’ stitchers are first-generation immigrants.  While staying home and collecting unemployment would have been a rational option, these employees chose instead to get back to work, to help ensure that health care workers who are on the front lines trying to keep all of us safe and well have the PPE they need.   Recently, Governor Mills announced that American Roots will be making masks for all state employees as well.

MeBIC is grateful to American Roots’ and Antoine’s Formal Wear and Tailor Shop’s owners’ and employees’ for their commitment to the greater community, while also keeping their businesses, with their positive economic impact, engaged.


GAO Points Out Flaws in H-2B Program; Recommends Changes

An April 2020 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that as unemployment rates fell, usage of the H-2B visa program to fill non-agricultural seasonal jobs increased, but that flaws in the program created uncertainty for employers about the program’s ability to meet their workforce needs, and constrains  employers’ growth.

Those findings won’t surprise any Maine employers who have tried to use the program and been shut out by the 33,000 H-2B visa cap for each half of each fiscal year.  While Congress has authorized the release of additional visas several years in a row, the additional numbers consistently have fallen far short of the demand.

In a summary of the report’s highlights, the GAO noted that the H-2B employers they surveyed stated that

business planning was affected by uncertainty about whether they would be able to hire the number of H-2B visa workers they requested given the statutory cap. Employers who did not receive all H-2B visas requested under the statutory cap in 2018 were somewhat more likely than those who did to report declines in revenue …. and purchases of goods and services. However, GAO found no clear pattern in changes to the number of U.S. workers hired by these employers. Employers interviewed by GAO varied in how they adjusted to having fewer H-2B workers. For example, two seafood employers reported shutting down operations in the absence of H-2B workers, and employers said that barriers to finding U.S. workers included remote location and seasonality of the work.

The report also found that counties with H-2B employers tended to have higher wages and lower unemployment rates than counties without.

The GAO’s recommendations are disappointing in that they do not include suggested improvements, such as a permanent increase in the number of annually available H-2B visas despite the clear evidence, not requiring further study, of demand for H-2B visas far exceeding supply year after year.  Instead, the GAO report charges the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor to come up with improvements to propose to Congress, which does not bode well for prospects for swift change.

You can find the report here.

COVID-19: MeBIC Resources for Employers with Immigrant Employees

Immigrants are vital members of Maine’s workforce, but language and other barriers may prevent them from accessing information they need about how their employers are managing staffing, sick leave or PTO, lay-offs or furloughs, and access to federal and state financial and public health supports in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

MeBIC has heard from immigrant associations that members of their communities may be uncertain about their employers’ policies, and also may be afraid to ask questions, or to request leave to stay at home for health reasons or to care for children not in school, or sick family members, in fear of losing their jobs.

MeBIC has a handout with suggestions for employers about communicating effectively with immigrant employees who might have language or other barriers to accessing important workplace or governmental COVID-19 information, with links to resources in other languages, and information on interpretation and translation services.

MeBIC also has a flyer explaining immigrant eligibility for the “recovery rebate” economic impact payments created by the CARES Act.  Employers can help inform their immigrant employees about this benefit, by sharing the flyer currently available in English, Arabic, French, Portuguese, Somali, and Spanish.  Additional translations are in the works.