April 29, 2020.

In response to the economic and health hardships that the COVID-19 pandemic has created for individuals and families, state and federal governments have created relief programs to provide financial, safety and medical assistance. However, these relief programs do not apply to everyone. Many programs exclude undocumented immigrants who have also been laid off from jobs due to nonessential business closures. Undocumented immigrants are also experiencing the same financial and health hardships that the rest of us experience, which warrants the need for the same type of economic and medical support.

A recent report from the National Immigration Law center highlights the ways that states and localities have been stepping up to ensure that undocumented immigrants, who are excluded from federal relief programs, are supported and get the financial and health supports they need. New York City has been a local leader in New York State by enacting multiple programs to provide COVID-19 related assistance to those who are excluded from federal programs.

New York City has enacted local level policies and programs to provide economic, safety and medical assistance to undocumented immigrants who were excluded from federal relief programs. With help from the Open Society Foundations, New York City created The COVID-19 Immigrant Emergency Fund, a $20 million fund, which will assist up to 20,000 undocumented workers and their families who are facing financial crises related to COVID-19. A network of community-based organizations and worker centers in New York City will distribute the funds to undocumented families and individuals in the form of one-time emergency relief payments.[i]

New York City has also recognized the need for childcare for essential workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. The city created Regional Enrichment Centers, which are staffed by the Department of Education workers, and they provide childcare services for essential workers such as first responders, health care providers, and transit workers.[ii]

And, in response to the death of 41 transit workers[iii] concerns, the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has agreed to provide a $500,000 “line-of-duty death” benefit to the families of the transit workers who have died from COVID-19.[iv] It is great that New York City has acknowledged that essential workers are putting their lives on the line and have helped transit workers’ families. However, this should be extended to all essential workers who are continuing to provide for communities despite the possibility of contracting COVID-19.

Although New York City has enacted local policies and programs to support those excluded from federal relief programs, New York State has also taken state-level action. Just like the MTA, New York State has also acknowledged the risk that essential workers have to take. New York State has stepped up to help ensure the safety and health of these workers. An executive order issued by the governor requires employers supply masks to workers.[v]

New York State has helped relieve some of the stress for medical coverage for COVID-19 testing making the testing, evaluation, and treatment included under state emergency Medicaid for those whose income is 138 percent or less of the federal poverty level.

New York is also attempting to ensure the safety of essential workers. An executive order issued by the governor requires employers supply masks to workers.[vi]

New York State as a whole, needs to do more. The most striking exclusion is that undocumented immigrants are excluded from both state and federal unemployment insurance. These immigrant families are experiencing the same lay-offs and hardships that the rest of us are and should have access to financial support. As proposed in a Fiscal Policy Institute brief and being advocated for by Make the Road NY and their partners, a state parallel program, similar to what is in place now, should be created to care for these individuals and families just like everyone else.

It is great that New York City has taken the lead to ensure that relief programs are available for those who are excluded, however undocumented immigrants do not only live in New York City but also in the farmland of upstate New York. Programs such as the COVID-19 Immigrant Emergency Fund, “line-of-duty-death” benefits, and Regional Enrichment Centers should be statewide initiatives to help all people who need the support in the state.

The NILC report also outlines policy recommendations that states should take into consideration and that some states already have implemented to provide relief services to all, regardless of immigration status. These policy recommendations are designed to provide services related to financial assistance, treatment and testing for COVID-19 and worker safety for those who are currently excluded from federal relief programs.

NILC’s policy recommendations related to financial relief that New York State should take into consideration include:

  • Provide alternatives to unemployment insurance for people currently excluded, specifically undocumented immigrants.
  • Initiate a Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) program for emergency distribution of food.
  • Request Pandemic EBT for students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to address food insecurity.
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to include people who pay taxes using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs).

NILC’s policy recommendations to improve treatment and testing for all that New York State should take into consideration include:

  • Use presumptive eligibility to provide COVID-19 testing and treatment through Medicaid.
  • Remind immigrant families that ICE has declared health care facilities safe spaces and they can obtain treatment.

NILC’s policy recommendations to improve working conditions for all that New York State should take into consideration include:

  • Issue an executive order that prevents discrimination against workers who voice concerns related to COVID-19 to their employer, protects workers who refuse to perform hazardous work, designates a state agency for enforcement, and it should cover all workers regardless of immigration status.
  • Expand health and safety protections for workers through the state’s Illness and Injury Prevention Program.
  • Ensure enforcement of orders requiring nonessential businesses to close.
  • Expand the state’s worker compensation program to create emergency rules to create COVID-19 as an occupational disease.
  • Enact a pandemic occupational health and safety law to mandate that employed follow OSHA and CDC standards to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

New York City and New York State have taken important steps to ensure that those who are excluded from federal relief programs receive the financial and health supports that they need. They both have also taken important steps to ensure the safety and health of essential workers during this time. However, New York State can and needs to do more to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to the supports they need. NILC outlines a great framework for states to ensure that all individuals, regardless of immigration status, has access to relief programs.

By: Cyierra Roldan


[i] https://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/262-20/mayor-de-blasio-new-york-city-covid-19-immigrant-emergency-relief-program-open

[ii] https://www.schools.nyc.gov/enrollment/enrollment-help/regional-enrichment-centers

[iii] https://www.nydailynews.com/coronavirus/ny-coronavirus-mta-nyc-transit-workers-deaths-20200408-f37damz5tjdmnc4pahurf3cjay-story.html

[iv] https://twitter.com/NYCSpeakerCoJo/status/1250162295398940679?s=20

[v] https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2020/04/12/cuomo-orders-employers-to-provide-essential-workers-with-masks-1274925

[vi] https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2020/04/12/cuomo-orders-employers-to-provide-essential-workers-with-masks-1274925