As the coronavirus pandemic has progressed, it has shone a harsh spotlight on some of the United States’ most flagrant inequities. For example, African Americans make up only 13 percent of the United States population, yet a disproportionate 33 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients are African American, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At a White House briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), stated that the pandemic “is shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is, because yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, [African Americans] are suffering disproportionately.” One likely cause of this disturbing trend is that African Americans are more likely to hold low-wage jobs, which, perhaps surprisingly to some, are some of the most essential jobs during this time. While celebrities sing to us from their luxurious mansions, working-class Americans that have been deemed “essential,” many of whom are immigrants and people of color, continue to stock the grocery store shelves. Especially in the agricultural and food production industries, where more than 50 percent of the workforce is made up of of undocumented immigrants, it is clear that undocumented immigrants make up a substantial amount of the essential workforce in the United States. Despite the crucial role that undocumented immigrants have played in keeping basic necessities available, the federal government has completely failed to help them and only one state so far has stepped up to help those living within its borders.
On April 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California will be providing a small, one-time stimulus check to some of the undocumented immigrants living in the state. In a press release, Newsom said, “We feel a deep sense of gratitude for people that are in fear of deportations that are still addressing essential needs of tens of millions of Californians.” He continued, “California is the most diverse state in the nation. Our diversity makes us stronger and more resilient. Every Californian, including our undocumented neighbors and friends, should know that California is here to support them during this crisis. We are all in this together.” Finally, he added, “I’m not here to suggest that $125 million is enough. But I am here to suggest it’s a good start, and I’m very proud it’s starting here in the state of California.” The money for this assistance will come from a mix of state funds and private philanthropic donations. Officials estimate that about 150,000 immigrants will receive assistance, with $500 being given to individuals, and a $1,000 cap on each household. No personal information will be required to get the support and the state government will not be distributing the funds. Instead, community-based nonprofits who have already established themselves in the immigrant community, will be dispersing the money.
While some Americans feel that undocumented immigrants may be undeserving of financial assistance, Newsom noted that 10 percent of the state’s workforce are undocumented immigrants, who paid more than $2.5 billion in state and local taxes last year. Furthermore, immigration advocates argue that, in a public health crisis, it is unsafe for everyone if essential workers can’t afford medical care or can’t afford to miss work when sick. In this way, it is crucial for the public health of the United States that all states take practical steps to ensure the health and safety of all workers.
Despite these arguments in favor of helping undocumented immigrants, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stated that New York will likely not provide emergency relief to undocumented immigrants living in New York. Cuomo stated, “When you are broke, it would be irresponsible to do these things. I do hope and believe the federal government should have a more inclusive policy.” While Cuomo hopes the federal government will do more, it is very unlikely the current administration will provide the much needed funds. Therefore, Cuomo has an ethical responsibility to provide the needed economic relief to all New Yorkers, regardless of citizenship status. Not only are many essential workers undocumented, but according to a 2017 study done by the Fiscal Policy Institute, “The work done by unauthorized immigrants adds $40 billion, or 3 percent, to New York’s GDP, with unauthorized immigrants making up 5 percent of the state’s labor force,” and that “unauthorized immigrants currently pay $1.1 billion in state and local taxes in New York.” Nationally, it is estimated that undocumented immigrants collectively pay about $11.6 billion in taxes every year, according to a study done by the Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP). In fact, undocumented immigrants pay a higher tax rate than the top 1 percent income bracket. Considering that undocumented immigrants have been an important part of our economy for a long, long time and continue to be on the front lines during this pandemic, it is time for them to receive the assistance they are due.
While California’s relief efforts are important and needed, they are just a small step in the right direction. With the federal government failing to step up, it is becoming increasingly obvious that individual states need to do something themselves. If Cuomo truly wants to help minimize the impact of COVID-19 on New York, he should join California in providing direct financial help to undocumented immigrants, while also pushing for measures like universal health care, paid sick leave, hazard pay for essential workers and ensuring that all workers have protective gear. Without these steps, New York state is failing to support and protect some of its truest heroes.
Kate Turrell is a senior double-majoring in sociology and women, gender and sexuality studies.