Yessenia Moreno has worried every day for nearly a year about how she will pay for her rent, the groceries and other bills while her savings diminished and her debts grew.
Moreno, a single mother of five, contracted COVID-19 last year and then lost her job at a Margate restaurant after it closed temporarily due to statewide shutdowns.
The Mexican immigrant does not qualify for unemployment benefits or other safety net programs because she is living in the country illegally.
But Moreno and her children could soon get a lifeline in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by congressional Democrats and signed into law by President Joe Biden on Thursday. Stimulus checks are expected to be mailed in the coming weeks.
As part of the package, millions of Americans will receive $1,400 payments if they meet certain income thresholds. Moreno, 38, won’t qualify for a check as an immigrant without legal status and no Social Security number.
But for the first time since the pandemic started, the law will make her five U.S.-born children eligible to receive the funds.
“It’s a light of hope in this dark path that we are living,” said Moreno, whose children, all citizens, range from 3 years old to 17. “It will help me pay my debts.”
The Democrats’ plan will also temporarily raise the Child Tax Credit from a maximum of $2,000 to as much as $3,600 per child. That could cut U.S. child poverty nearly in half, according to some estimates.
“These are families that have been really scraping by through food pantries, or maybe help from families, churches, and friends,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “This bill offers them for the first time federal relief, and really a substantial amount depending on how many U.S. citizen children are in the family.”
Critics of the plan balk at its price tag and say that it will usher in a permanent expansion of the country’s welfare state. The law also includes increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid coverage, both aimed at lower-income Americans.
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Robert Rector, a senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, who helped write welfare reform legislation in the 1990s, said the bill is the second largest expansion of welfare in U.S. history. Currently, the country spends about half a trillion dollars annually to provide housing, medical care, and food to low-income families with children, he said.
“This would add another $80 billion dollars on top of that,” he said. “Technically, it’s only for one year, but everyone who is involved in this makes it very clear that they intend this to be a foot in the door for a permanent expansion of welfare.”
The American Rescue Plan includes stimulus checks for immigrants with green cards or H-1B and H-2A work visas, as well as those with temporary protections from deportation who have been issued Social Security numbers. Nonresidents, temporary workers and immigrants in the country illegally will not be eligible.
But mixed-status families – those with members of varying citizenship and immigration categories – will be able to collect the $1,400, so long as one member of their household has a Social Security number.
That’s a reversal from last spring’s coronavirus relief effort, the CARES Act. The $2 trillion package included one-time payments of up to $1,200 for individuals and $500 per child, but it required immigrants to meet certain eligibility criteria and also have a valid Social Security number, leaving the undocumented out.
The Migration Policy Institute estimated that 14.4 million people had incomes low enough to qualify for the CARES Act but were disqualified for lacking Social Security numbers.
That figure included 9.3 million unauthorized immigrants, of whom 940,000 were children.It also included 3.7 million children who were U.S. citizens or legal immigrants but living with unauthorized parents, as well as 1.4 million spouses in the same situation.
In Atlantic City, Moreno was among the millions of immigrants who did not receive a check from the CARES Act or a follow-up stimulus passed in December, even though she met the income limits. The single mother doesn’t have a Social Security number, though she has a government-issued Individual Tax Identification Number to file income taxes.
“We need economic relief just like everyone else,” said Moreno. “You hear in the news that they approved relief and that they approved other types of help, but we have not received anything.”
In New Jersey, advocates have been lobbying state lawmakers and Gov. Phil Murphy to help undocumented immigrants who lost jobs during the pandemic.
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A bill introduced last year in the state Legislature would set aside $35 million for one-time payments to some undocumented immigrants who file income taxes. But despite support from some Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the legislation has not advanced.
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The hang-up is finding the money, said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Bergen Democrat.
“I’m hoping as we approach budget season, we can try and get this done and resolve the financial price tag,” she said during a recent Zoom meeting with activists and immigrants.
Some immigrants-rights groups are also urging the state to create a fund to provide $600 weekly payments to undocumented immigrant workers, who are also ineligible for unemployment benefits. On Sunday, more than 100 people gathered in Passaic for a march of “excluded women” to press for more help.
For months, such relief has been held up amid dire predictions of state revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic. The projections have since brightened, especially with Biden’s stimulus plan expected to pump $10.2 billion into state and local coffers.
Last month, Murphy proposed a budget that raises spending by 9%. It included money to help undocumented attend college and attain driver’s licenses – but no direct relief payments.
Assemblyman Harold Wirths, a Sussex County Republican, said he’s opposed to the use of state taxpayer dollars to fund programs for undocumented immigrants and said he wouldn’t support the new bills.
People who came to the U.S. illegally shouldn’t be rewarded with more benefits, especially with so much need among citizens and legal immigrants, he said.
Carla Cortes of Passaic had worked in quality control for a local warehouse for four years until the business closed temporarily during the pandemic. She later had to quit to care for her children, whose schools switched to remote lessons.
Now, she said, her family depends solely on her husband’s $12-an-hour job for a vitamin manufacturer.
“I have to leave all the expenses to him and that is not always easy,” Cortes said at last week’s rally in Passaic. “There are many other women who don’t have money to pay rent or pay other bills, and like me are unable to go to work because their children are home.”
Maria Sandoval, a mother of two, had already seen her hours as a domestic worker drop due to the pandemic. Then in December, she was displaced from her Paterson apartment by to a fire. She’s since relocated to the city of Passaic after spending time in a hotel and living with her sister for a few weeks.
Sandoval, who emigrated from Mexico 21 years ago, said she used to work 40 hours a week cleaning homes prior to the pandemic, making about $480. She’s now making a little over $200 a week and relying on food stamps and donated food from a nonprofit in Paterson to feed her children, ages 9 and 17. She’s already fallen behind on rent.
“The government is not seeing that we are mothers who have children who don’t ask if we can afford something, they just ask for food and other things,” said Sandoval, who also spoke at the Passaic march.
“We are paying taxes,” she said. “So they should include us without us even asking.”
Moved to tears
Back in Atlantic City, Moreno said she has looked for work with no luck. The demands of having schools shut and children learning from home haven’t made it easy to work full time. She’s used up her savings and borrowed money from relatives. Her 17-year-old daughter, Jamilli, has been helping with wages from a part-time retail job.
Even so, Moreno said she’s fallen two months behind on her $1,550 rent. For the past year, she has depended largely on the generosity of teachers, local churches, and others to put food on the table.
One of the most difficult days came when her 7-year old son Daniel won prizes for his good grades at school. When the teacher asked him during a virtual class session to pick his rewards from a treasure bin, his answer moved Moreno to tears.
“He told the teacher ‘I don’t want you to give me toys, I want you to give me tortillas and beans,’ so the teacher brought us two boxes of food,” she said. “I told him that he shouldn’t have asked, and he said it’s better for the teacher to not spend her money on toys, but on the tortillas and beans.”
Moreno was 18 when she left Mexico and moved to New Jersey seeking more opportunity. The first few years, she worked at restaurants and a bakery, among other jobs. Her children’s father returned to Mexico a few years back after his own father died, and was unable to return. After a while, he decided to make a new life for himself in Mexico, leaving Moreno to raise her kids alone.
She said she’s hopeful that when her children return to in-person learning in a few weeks, she’ll be able to find work and provide for her family.
“I’m applying to so many jobs. I will work doing anything,” she said. “All I want is to work and to move my family forward.”
Monsy Alvarado is the immigration reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about one of the hottest issues in our state and country, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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