Op-Ed: A recovery that leaves out undocumented immigrants is not a recovery

Brandon McKoy | April 22, 2021 | Opinion, Immigration
‘Pandemic relief could be even more powerful if we didn't leave anyone out’
Credit: NJPP
Brandon McKoy

If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that government has an important role to play during recessions to keep the economy afloat and families out of poverty. Simply put, stimulus works, but only for those who receive it.

Unfortunately, state and federal pandemic relief largely excludes undocumented immigrants. This not only harms those families — who already were more likely to catch COVID-19 or lose their job because of it — but all of us. That is, when low- and moderate-income people receive assistance, they spend that money immediately and locally in their communities, stimulating the broader economy by helping business and, in the process, saving or creating jobs. The lesson here is that pandemic relief could be even more powerful if we didn’t leave anyone out.

Too often, there’s a “takers” mindset when people talk about immigrants, and not nearly enough appreciation for their many important contributions to their communities and states as a whole.

As a born-and-bred New Jerseyan whose mother came to this country from Panama, and as someone who lives and works in Trenton and sees up close the vibrant and thriving communities immigrants have created — often without significant support or equitable access to programs and services — forgive me for applying anecdotal evidence to debunk the “taker” notion.

But the evidence is much more than anecdotal. The organization I head, New Jersey Policy Perspective, produced a report in 2019 highlighting how immigrants — both documented and undocumented — are a cornerstone of the small-business, Main Street community. We found that while immigrants make up 22% of New Jersey’s population, they own or run 47% of Main Street businesses throughout the state. The fortunes of many New Jersey communities are tied to those of our immigrant neighbors and loved ones. And those numbers reflect the fact that immigrant populations are growing in our state: In 1990 immigrants were just 13% of the population and 24% of Main Street businesses. So, over the past 30 years, their representation has essentially doubled on both accounts.

As various levels of government provided relief for residents due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related recession, undocumented immigrants had largely been an afterthought — and often been pushed behind — which is a tremendous mistake for all the reasons I’ve highlighted.

The American Rescue Plan righted some of those wrongs. For example, children with Social Security numbers in mixed-status families are no longer excluded from receiving stimulus checks.

Efforts that have fallen short

These improvements, while welcome, still fall short of a recovery for all.

As Greisa Martinez Rosas, Executive Director of United We Dream, said: “COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate based on immigration status, yet relief policies like the American Rescue Plan continue to exclude undocumented immigrants who have been impacted by the virus at disproportionate rates. While this bill will deliver critical, life-saving aid to millions of working people and families across the country, over 9.3 million immigrants remain cruelly and unnecessarily barred from accessing this aid simply because of their status.”

Ending the injustice of barring previous COVID-19 relief benefits for family members with Social Security numbers is absolutely vital. But more still needs to be done, if for no other reason than that every person in this country, regardless of immigration status, pays taxes that fund COVID-19 relief. Now is the time for our country to be inclusive and generous — and not try to score political points by whipping up anti-immigrant emotions.

We make much more progress as a society if we focus on what people give, and not try to define them by the unfounded claim that all they do is take. The so-called takers are often on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, performing essential jobs that put them at the highest health risk of anyone. They work in grocery stores and on farms; they clean buildings. For these essential workers, there is no such thing as working from home.

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