By mid-April, Anna, whose name has been changed for purposes of anonymity, was checking her bank account daily, hoping to find that the stimulus check from the $2 trillion federal aid package had been deposited into her account. Friends and neighbors had begun receiving theirs, after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), but her daily log-ins revealed nothing.
Both she and her husband, who works in the restaurant industry, had found themselves without jobs by the second week of March as the global shutdown intensified, and by mid-April as May rent loomed, were feeling squeezed for cash. The aid money, which allocated $1,200 to each adult and an additional $500 per child for household incomes of $75,000 or less, was intended largely to help the millions who were suddenly jobless due to the COVID-19 pandemic meet needs such as rent, food and bills.
Yet after two weeks of daily checking turned up nothing, Anna began digging into the matter. What she found appalled her. She is an American citizen; her husband, a Mexican national, is not. The CARES Act, it turned out, included a provision denying relief payments for the entire family if one member lacks a Social Security number, indicating legal residency.
Though the couple has spent the past two-and-a-half years and thousands of dollars on his immigration case, he was only granted a Social Security number with his work permit in early 2020. In 2018, the couple filed their taxes jointly with his Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), a tax processing number with which over four million people paid approximately $13 billion in net taxes in 2015, according to IRS data. The ITIN is a tool used by the IRS to ensure that those without a Social Security number — such as unauthorized immigrants — are paying taxes. For married couples, filing taxes jointly is a method commonly suggested by immigration lawyers to help a couple establish the authenticity of their relationship, as well as their willingness to be law-abiding, contributing members of society.
“The statute’s exclusion of families where someone is using an ITIN can only be read as a deliberate and purposeful attempt to punish and disadvantage citizens who marry undocumented residents,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, noting that since marriage is considered a fundamental right, denying citizens the stimulus money based on their choice of spouse “may very well be violating the Constitution.”
At least two nationwide class-action lawsuits had been filed over the statute as of last week, he added.
When Anna realized that the government was denying her the stimulus money based on her marriage and 2018 tax filings, she was in disbelief.
“I was like, ‘This has got to be a joke,’” she recalled, describing their situation as “crazy nerve-wracking,” given that she is eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child. The couple had planned to use the offseason to prepare for the baby, but no longer have the means to do so as they are now relying on her unemployment benefits alone to cover the family’s expenses. “The stimulus was going to be a huge deal for us,” she said.
Though it’s unclear exactly how many people nationwide or in San Miguel County are affected by the exclusion statute, Anna said she had recently joined a Facebook group called Mixed-Status Families United that now includes over 14,000 members. In Anna’s case, one member of the marriage is a U.S. citizen and the other is not, however, many immigrant families consist of two undocumented parents and children who are U.S. citizens. Those children, under the CARES Act provision, are also ineligible to receive the $500 per child from the stimulus package.
Marisa Marshalka, health equity coordinator at Tri-County Health Network, explained that while the exclusion may catapult immigrants and their families into dire circumstances sooner than others, such a provision may have unintended consequences for surrounding communities as well. She’d heard reports of people going to work in essential jobs, even while feeling sick, because they had children to feed and no other way to count on receiving money with which to meet their families’ basic needs.
“How could they say no to a shift? They have young kids at home they need to feed,” Marshalka recalled one concerned community member telling her.
Marshalka explained that while local resources such as the Good Neighbor Fund are currently distributing cash grants to those in need, it’s a short-term solution to a situation with no clear end in sight.
“Without being matched by other social programs and the government stimulus check, some families will fall into precarious financial situations a lot sooner than others, if they have not already,” she said. “If we can’t give people the financial stability to stay home and know they can cover their basic needs — food, water, heat, shelter — then we are not going to meet our public health goals.”
When Anna initially met her husband, he had been working for 10 years as a cook at a local upscale restaurant, and she had just begun her new job as a server. He caught her eye right away, though she didn’t let on that she spoke Spanish, “because I wanted to see if I could catch them talking about me in Spanish,” she said with a grin. Despite their mutual shyness, the pair began dating soon after, and the rest, she said, was history. In 2018, they married at the courthouse.
Her exclusion from the stimulus money, despite her American citizenship, has felt like a “hateful betrayal” that is “targeted to hurt,” she said, adding that after leaving voicemails with state representatives, she received a message back suggesting that she may be eligible to receive the $1,200 as a tax credit in the future since she and her husband now both have Social Security numbers.
“I was like, ‘Buddy, I don’t need a tax credit in the future. I need to pay the rent and buy food now,’” she said. “It’s stressful and scary.”