As a second round of pandemic stimulus checks trickles into Americans’ bank accounts, Glo Harn Choi again will be left to figure out how to stretch his wages to help his family, who were shut out of the financial relief because of their immigration status.
The Albany Park resident and his family, living in the suburbs, haven’t received either of the two stimulus checks approved by Congress. That’s because they are undocumented.
With his mother’s catering business taking a 20% hit during the coronavirus pandemic, the family members find themselves depending on each other to stay afloat financially.
“For families living paycheck to paycheck, a dollar here or there could be the breaking point,” Choi says.
Last March, undocumented immigrants were excluded from getting the stimulus checks under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. That exclusion extended to those married to undocumented immigrants, too — even if one of the spouses was a U.S. citizen. Undocumented parents of U.S. citizen children also weren’t eligible for the relief.
With the $600 payments approved by the federal government in late December, households with mixed-immigration statuses that include an adult who has legal status in this country — U.S. citizenship or permanent residency — will receive a stimulus check for the first time, though it still won’t include any money for the undocumented relative, according to Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
“That’s a significant step, but it’s not everybody,” Tsao says. “It’s important to remember who qualifies but also who does not qualify.”
Lacey Chontal’s husband is among the estimated 437,000 people living in Illinois who are undocumented immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Chontal, 38, a downstate resident who lives in Quincy, is a U.S. citizen. Her six children also are citizens.
Because of her husband’s status, the family didn’t get a stimulus check in March. She says that meant they had to dip into savings and use credit cards to get by after the restaurant where he worked cut back his hours.
“I felt like my government spit in my face,” Chontal says of not getting the first stimulus check. “I felt like I was a second-class citizen. And no American in our country should have to feel like that, especially during a global pandemic.”
Like other mixed-status households in similar situations, Chontal now is expecting to get two stimulus checks, one including the money she would have gotten in March. She plans to use the money to pay bills and pay off the credit cards.
Lana Nassar, a Chicago lawyer, says the exclusion of mixed-status households from the first relief package effectively meant the government was punishing those couples even though the undocumented partner still was paying taxes using an “Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.” She was among a group of attorneys who filed a federal lawsuit in April challenging the exclusion.
“It was a slap to the face to all the U.S. citizens,” Nassar says. “We are incredibly relieved that they are finally going to get some economic relief.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, Nassar says she and the other attorneys involved in the case fielded thousands of calls from people who also found themselves excluded from the economic relief.
M. Cho, 23, of Chicago, is a beneficiary of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and eligible to receive a stimulus check. But her parents are undocumented and again won’t be getting the stimulus money.
In March, Cho — who asked that her full name not be used because she fears revealing her immigration status and her family’s could affect her employment — gave her stimulus check to her parents. So did her sister, who also has DACA protections.
The nail salon where their mother works temporarily shut down. Though it’s once again open, her mother is making less because there are fewer customers, Cho says. Her father works as a driver for ride-sharing services.
Cho tries to give her family money every month.
And she says one of her former youth pastors who knows about the parent’s immigration status offered to give the family his stimulus check.
“Anyone who lives in this country has had some part of their life affected by the pandemic — falling ill or unable to work — and deserves a livable amount of money being sent to them, whether or not they could be quantified as undocumented,” Cho says. “There is just so much humanity at stake.”
Glo Harn Choi works as a community organizer for the HANA Center, which provides social services to the Korean American community in Chicago. He sees many immigrant families borrowing from relatives just to pay their rent. His own family won’t receive a stimulus check, he says, but previously received a state grant for families hurt by the pandemic.
“These temporary measures are not enough,” Choi says. “It’s really a shame.”
In Little Village, Elizeth Arguelles saw how the coronavirus was reaching people she used to see every day while helping her mother sell tamales on 26th Street. Arguelles, the chief of the Little Village chapter of the community group Increase the Peace, and others have spent weeks trying to raise $10,000 for 10 undocumented families in the Southwest Side neighborhood who were shut out of stimulus payments.
Across the city, Increase The Peace, which focuses on violence prevention, also has raised money for street vendors, often immigrants. Co-founder Berto Aguayo says the group will be raising more money to hand out another round of $500 checks to vendors.
The group has given checks to 80 street vendors to help them during the pandemic, Aguayo says — a fraction of the nearly 500 people who have applied. The group doesn’t ask vendors about their immigration status. But it does ask whether they’ve received the stimulus money. More than 90% of those who applied for the group’s help didn’t get a stimulus check, according to Aguayo.
“One of the things that we learned is that undocumented families are essential, period,” Aguayo says. “But they are not treated like essential workers. Our families are not treated like we are essential. Every single level of government has failed undocumented families.”
Aguayo points to the way community groups stepped up last year to help undocumented families and others crippled financially by the pandemic. The unemployment rate peaked for immigrants in April at 16.4%, while the rate was 14% for U.S.-born workers, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Chicago Desi Youth Rising, a group that focuses on training youth leaders from immigrant communities, took on raising funds to provide $500 grants to workers from West Ridge and Devon Avenue who lost their jobs or saw their work hours cut back. It raised $35,000 and helped about 71 families, according to Bindu Poroori, a member of the organization, which got hundreds of applications in four days seeking help.
“No amount of grassroots or foundation or nonprofit work is going to meet a need that arises from a complete and intentional system-wide neglect of these communities,” Poroori says.
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.