Implement Immigrant-Inclusive Policies During the COVID-19 Crisis

Key Takeaways

  • Thus far, many state and federal efforts to mitigate the health and economic effects of COVID-19 have excluded some or all immigrants. One out of every 10 Georgians is an immigrant; addressing their health and economic wellbeing is critical.
  • Georgia should extend emergency Medicaid, which immigrants can access, to include testing, treatment and, eventually, vaccines; remove the waiting period that bars lawful permanent residents from accessing Medicaid and PeachCare for five years; and suspend compliance with ICE.
  • The federal government should also explicitly include coronavirus-related services as part of emergency Medicaid, allow tax filers without a Social Security number to receive a recover rebate, ensure new unemployment programs are inclusive of immigrants and stop implementing the new public charge rule relating to the use of public benefit programs like SNAP and TANF.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the state of Georgia, the nation and the world to come to a standstill. As this deadly virus continues to spread within our communities, federal and state governments have a responsibility to ensure that all people living in the United States have access to health care and critical services, regardless of their immigration status.

Immigrants represent one in 10 Georgians and are critical to Georgia’s economy, with 31 percent of main street businesses owned by foreign-born Georgians and undocumented Georgians contributing $352 million in state and local taxes in 2017. Immigrants are key leaders in our communities and contribute to the state’s cultural and linguistic diversity. During this public health and economic crisis, immigrants, upon whom Georgia’s prosperity depends, should feel safe accessing the resources they need to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their families.

Unfortunately, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act fail to be inclusive of all immigrants, leaving behind an intrinsically important part of our economy and social fabric. Future relief and recovery actions must include support for immigrants and their families who have been systematically excluded from federal relief programs to date. To help address this, GBPI has developed a list of policy recommendations that the federal and Georgia state governments should implement to ensure that all Georgians, regardless of immigration status, are supported during this crisis.

Expand Access to Health Care

We are living through an unprecedented public health emergency that requires equally unprecedented action from government officials to help slow and stop the spread of COVID-19. Now, more than ever, access to health care is of prime importance to immigrants who are more likely to be uninsured.

Fortunately, Georgia allows state residents of all immigration statuses who would otherwise be eligible for Medicaid to access emergency Medicaid. However, this form of medical assistance will only pay for emergency care services that have a sudden onset and pose serious risk to health.

The Georgia Department of Community Health should include testing, treatment and vaccines (once available) as approved services under emergency Medicaid and issue explicit guidance on the policy to health care providers and immigrant patients of all statuses. If the coronavirus has made anything clear, it is that we are all interdependent and that our individual health impacts the health of the collective. Access to health care for all people, regardless of their immigration status, keeps all Georgians safe.

Additionally, Georgia should eliminate the 5-year waiting period that delays eligible, lawful permanent resident (LPR) women and children from accessing Medicaid and PeachCare. Doing so would help more of Georgia’s children and families access health care and decrease the rising number of uninsured children during this pandemic.

On the federal level, the recent policy change regarding the public charge rule has caused a lot of anxiety within the immigrant community. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will not consider testing, treatment or preventative care (including vaccines, once available) related to COVID-19 as a part of the public charge determination process, even if they are paid for by Medicaid. Use of emergency Medicaid will also not negatively impact them in the “public charge” determination process.

What is the public charge rule?

When deciding whether an immigrant can legally enter the United States or obtain lawful permanent resident status, federal immigration officials consider various factors including the likelihood of that immigrant becoming primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. The new rule expands the scope of public charge by including the receipt of even a modest amount of health, food or housing benefits, including SNAP, TANF and Medicaid. If deemed a public charge, an individual could be denied entry to the U.S. or the ability to adjust their legal status. Use of public assistance programs by U.S. citizens and eligible, LPR children will not negatively impact a parent’s public charge determination.

However, the FFCRA and CARES Act left out critical measures set forth in the House-introduced Take Responsibility for Worker’s and Families Act (TRWFA). TRWFA did not receive a vote, but would have included coverage of coronavirus testing, treatment and vaccines (when available) by emergency Medicaid. Federal policymakers must include this measure in future aid packages to provide health care access for immigrants in states like Georgia, who have yet to release their own guidance.

Extend Access to Economic Security Programs During the Pandemic

Recovery Rebates

Although the CARES Act will provide some families access to recovery rebates, many immigrant taxpayers are not eligible. In order to qualify for recovery rebates, the filer must have a Social Security number (SSN). Many immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, file their taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In Georgia alone, undocumented immigrants paid $352 million in state and local taxes in 2017 according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Despite making annual financial contributions that fund our schools, infrastructure and health care programs, taxpayers using an ITIN are not currently eligible for the recovery rebates. A simple change to include ITIN filers in future stimulus legislation is a necessary fix. In fact, in 2015, about 128,000 adults in Georgia filed their taxes using an ITIN, with about 151,000 children included on those ITIN tax returns.[1]

The exclusion of ITIN filers impacts both undocumented families and some mixed-status families with U.S. Citizen children. Families who file taxes with an ITIN are also ineligible to receive the additional $500 rebate provided per child, regardless of the child’s immigration status. This means that undocumented children who do not have a valid SSN and U.S. Citizen and LPR children whose parents file taxes using an ITIN will not receive the economic support they need during the pandemic. Georgia is home to approximately 40,000 non-citizen and 148,000 U.S. citizen children with undocumented parents. Consequently, the CARES Act blocks at least 188,000 Georgian children living in households with undocumented parents from receiving economic relief during this public health crisis.

At least 188,000 children in Georgia live in immigrant households that won’t receive recovery rebates provided by the CARES Act.

Regardless of whether an individual files with a SSN or an ITIN, they pay taxes, contribute to our communities and deserve access to economic support during this difficult time. We must ensure that all taxpayers who meet the eligibility criteria for future rebates get access by eliminating the requirement that taxes be filed solely with a SSN.

Unemployment Insurance (UI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)

Through Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), the CARES Act extends eligibility for UI by an additional 13 weeks on top of the 26 weeks the state of Georgia is now providing. PEUC covers workers left out of state UI programs like independent contractors, freelancers and workers who do not have a long enough work history to meet state UI criteria. PEUC also adds a $600 boost, through July 31, to the weekly payment that individuals will receive under both programs.

In order for immigrants to be eligible for UI they must be authorized to work lawfully in the U.S. and be “permanently residing under the color of law” (PURCOL). An individual is generally considered to be PURCOL if they are work-authorized during the base period used to calculate eligibility for UI. In Georgia, DACA recipients are eligible to apply for state-level UI if they meet all other criteria.

The U.S. Department of Labor has not clarified the eligibility criteria for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC), the new UI programs created by the CARES Act, and it is possible that the eligibility criteria will exclude certain immigrants. USCIS does not consider UI a public benefit and receipt of UI will not factor into the public charge determination process.

Safety net programs like SNAP and TANF, however, may continue to factor against immigrants when the public charge analysis is conducted, but higher unemployment rates will result in a greater need for these programs. Immigrants who are eligible for public benefit programs should not be penalized for keeping their families healthy and fed. Although USCIS guidance suggests that immigrants can provide documentation explaining that their reliance on public benefits is due to coronavirus-related consequences, there is no guarantee that the use of certain safety net programs will not count against an immigrant’s case. The federal government should temporarily stop implementing the new public charge rule that went into effect on February 24, 2020 and revert to the previous policy.

Suspend Enforcement of Federal Immigration Laws by Local Government

Undocumented Georgians living in counties with 287(g) agreements could delay seeking the medical care and services they need for fear of possibly violating the Governor’s shelter-in-place order and interacting with local law enforcement agencies that comply with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Undocumented immigrants in Gwinnett County may be especially at risk as it is home to the largest undocumented population in the state of Georgia and is one of five counties in the state with agreements to assist ICE.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Gwinnett County Solicitor General announced an intent to prosecute individuals who violate stay at home orders by imposing a $1,000 fine and up to a 60-day stint in jail. While compliance with stay-at-home orders is essential, imposing economic and criminal sanctions within a community that is already over-surveilled by local law enforcement is not the solution. Everyone is put at risk when undocumented communities do not feel safe to seek medical attention, shop for groceries or travel to worksites deemed essential during this pandemic.

The Governor, who recently announced the extension of a 287(g) agreement by the Georgia Department of Corrections, and all participating counties should end compliance with ICE immediately. Prisons, jails and detention centers are crowded with people in confined spaces; making them particularly susceptible to the transmission of COVID-19. Our state and local government officials should focus their efforts on keeping families safe, not separating them and exposing them to a highly infectious virus.

Overview of Policy Recommendations

State & Local Recommendations:

  • The Georgia Department of Community Health should include testing, treatment and vaccines (once available) as approved services under emergency Medicaid and issue explicit guidance on the policy to health care providers and immigrant patients of all statuses;
  • Eliminate the five-year waiting period that acts as a barrier keeping eligible, LPR women and children from accessing Medicaid and PeachCare; and
  • Suspend local and state compliance with ICE through 287(g) agreements.

Federal Recommendations:

  • Include the explicit coverage of coronavirus testing, treatment and vaccines (when available) by emergency Medicaid in future federal relief packages;
  • Allow taxpayers filing with ITINs to receive Recovery Rebates by eliminating the requirement that taxes be filed solely with an SSN;
  • Ensure the eligibility criteria for new, federal PUA and PUC programs are inclusive of all working immigrants; and
  • Stop implementing the new public charge rule relating to the use of public benefit programs like SNAP and TANF.

[1] Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). Estimated number of adults and children in ITIN households based on IRS 2015 ITIN market segment SPEC returns database. ITEP analysis, March 2020 using SPEC Returns Database for the ITIN market segment for tax year 2015 and ITEP’s Microsimulation Tax Model. The 2015 data was provided upon special request and represents the most recent year of data available at the time of the analysis. While most ITIN filers are undocumented, not all of them are. As a result, these figures include both undocumented immigrants and documented foreign nationals (such as temporary visa holders making an income in the US) who might file with an ITIN due to lack of a social security number.

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