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State governments key in supporting undocumented immigrants during COVID-19 pandemic

By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,

Undocumented immigrants faced heightened challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of their immigration status, they could not qualify for federal relief, but state governments stepped in to create programs for excluded workers.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to hinder employment in the U.S., the federal government worked quickly to roll out financial relief programs and expand unemployment benefits for Americans under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. 

But, families who live in the U.S. illegally were omitted from these efforts and left to fend for themselves. 

“Immigrants who are undocumented were both more likely to be in jobs that exposed them to being sick and also more likely to lose their work during a time of incredibly high unemployment. They really were not placed in jobs where they could work at home,” said David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative (IRI). 

“At the height of the pandemic, the federal government did a lot to try to help people who were laid off or who couldn’t work because of the pandemic, expanding unemployment insurance both in the amount that it gave and the range of people who were covered, but immigrants who were undocumented were very explicitly excluded in that federal expansion.”


In response, certain state governments, including New York and D.C., took it upon themselves to address the gap in relief for people who live in the U.S. illegally, as well as for freelance workers and returning citizens. 

New York created the Excluded Workers Fund, a $2.1 billion program that provided 130,000 undocumented immigrants with one-time $15,600 payments, while D.C. deployed nearly $13 million dollars through the DC Cares program, which provided undocumented workers with $1,000 prepaid debit cards. 

“It was literally life-saving for many people, being able to keep their homes and allow them to feed their families,” said Kallick. “It was also incredibly important as a sense of recognizing them as workers and members of our communities and having a sense of dignity.” 

In New York’s case, 66 percent of recipients used the dollars to pay for overdue rent and 38 percent used them for food, according to data from a 2023 report by the Urban Institute and IRI. 

Excluded workers who didn’t receive money from the fund encountered increased hardships with 84 percent of non-recipients facing food insecurity, 54 percent not having enough money to pay for bills and gas and 58 percent not being able to pay rent or their mortgage, according to the Urban Institute and IRI. 


However, some viewed these state government programs as absurd and believed that they encourage immigrants to cross the border illegally. 

“It creates a magnet. Every time you offer a benefit or a reward for breaking the law that sends an incentive for other people to do the same. If you want to stop illegal immigration, as the politicians at least claim they want to do, then you have to stop incentivizing it,” said Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).  

“People respond to the messages we send. If they believe that violating our laws is not going to be rewarded then a lot fewer people will do it. We simply don’t have the money. We’re struggling to make do with what we have to provide for the needs of the people who are in this country legally.” 

The state governments, like D.C., that did implement supplementary relief programs for undocumented immigrants believed it to be a matter of inclusion. 

“Mayor Muriel Bowser, through her special constituency agencies, has been working diligently to center inclusion in the District by ensuring that every single member of the immigrant community has access to opportunities to improve their quality of life,” said Eduardo Perdomo, director of  the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs (OLA). 


“The main goal has been to bring resources closer to the people while connecting immigrant communities to additional solutions provided by community partners.”

One of these community partners is the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) led by Abel Nuñez. CARECEN provides immigrant families with services, including rental education, financial literacy education, tutoring and interview preparation for the citizenship exam and legal consultation.  

According to Nuñez, although the pandemic heightened financial challenges for undocumented immigrants, they have long faced obstacles to employment, credit access and housing, particularly because their immigration status makes them ineligible for government services. 

Aside from the D.C. Cares program, he said he’s seen the District support undocumented families through the DC Healthcare Alliance, which provides medical coverage to people who are not eligible for Medicaid, and the DC DMV Limited Purpose driver license, which provides licenses to people who do not have Social Security numbers. 

“The best solution is for the U.S. Congress to create a path for people to become legalized rather than continuing to maintain them in this unauthorized status,” said Nuñez. 


Megan Sayles is a Report for America Corps member.

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