The $900 billion coronavirus relief package, announced earlier this week by Congress, has one clear winner: immigrant families.
More specifically, mixed-status families—households including at least one citizen and one noncitizen—are clear beneficiaries. After being barred from financial stimulus in the CARES Act earlier this year, many citizens in mixed-status families will receive pandemic relief aid for the first time. Those who meet certain criteria are also expected to receive a retroactive payment of $1200, the amount of the March stimulus checks.
For mixed-status families in the U.S., this clarification in the stimulus package is a welcome relief. Nonetheless, it’s a concrete admission of something social scientists have argued for some time: legal status is as much a family issue as it is an individual one.
While the distinction between citizen and noncitizen is clear in theory, it is much more ambiguous in practice, in most circumstances. “Noncitizen” does not always equate to “unauthorized” or “undocumented,” as several temporary statuses preclude citizenship yet permit legal presence. But as some experts argue, citizenship is better defined as a family-level status, not an individual one. “Although both immigration and citizenship laws are directed toward the individual—despite often explicit links to family members—the repercussions of those laws have family-level effects,” wrote Dr. Jane Lopez, an assistant professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.
For example, consider deportation. The repercussions of a parent being deported affect citizen children as much as they do the unauthorized parent. Or, consider the “public charge” rule—since certain groups of noncitizens can be penalized for accessing Medicaid, SNAP or other public health programs, fully eligible family members of noncitizens may avoid those programs out of confusion or fear.
The first round of coronavirus stimulus checks are a case in point. Millions of American citizens who form part of mixed-status families were barred from receiving stimulus checks, although they were eligible by every other measure. Including these citizens in the next relief package fixes an “oversight that needed correction,” as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said.
In comparison with the rest of the country, noncitizens and their families have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, of the seven million unauthorized immigrant workers in the U.S., nearly three in four are considered essential workers to our nation’s infrastructure during the pandemic, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
In a testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship in September, Tom Jawetz of the Center for American Progress detailed the essentiality of many noncitizen workers in our economy—both during the coronavirus pandemic and before. “While the country has become increasingly aware of the essential work that immigrants—including undocumented immigrants—are doing during the pandemic, it is important to recognize that this work didn’t suddenly become essential during the pandemic, these people didn’t suddenly start doing this work during the pandemic, and many of these jobs didn’t suddenly become hazardous to the health and safety of workers during the pandemic.”
Certainly, our collective awareness of what we consider to be “essential”—and who we deem essential—has evolved during recent months, the extent of that appreciation has become harrowingly clear to many noncitizens. And while stimulus checks are a welcome nod from leaders in Washington to mixed-status families, many still feel ignored.
Earlier this fall, changes to the naturalization test highlighted this discrepancy. While adjustments to the test’s length and question style make it needlessly more difficult, one glaring change is the answer to the question, “Who does a U.S. senator represent?”
Previously, the answer was “all people of the state.” The adjusted test only accepts “citizens of their state” as the correct answer. In a clear representation of how much weight these labels are given, noncitizens are still ineligible to receive stimulus checks—while their naturalized spouse or children are eligible.
Progress is shown in Congress’ latest coronavirus relief bill. To mixed-status families, it represents a marked deviance from the exclusionary outcomes of the first bill. But it remains to be seen whether mixed-status families will continue to receive representation, or if that novelty will be reserved for “citizens” alone.
Samuel Benson is a Salt Lake City-based opinion writer for the Deseret News and a Young Voices contributor. Find him on Twitter @sambbenson.