In localities and states across the U.S., advocates and legislators have been working together to invest in the collective health and well-being of immigrants. This year’s Policy wins  have been significant as advocates, and legislators continued to fight back against federal attacks on immigrants, and COVID-19 exposed the already persistent racial disparities.  

A recent report from the National Immigration Law Center that outlines policy victories in the United States highlighted New York’s commitment to immigrants. Despite the lack of federal leadership in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the deliberate exclusion of many immigrants from federal relief and economic assistance, New York has stepped up and passed a wide range of inclusive immigrant i policies.

In direct response to the federal attack on immigrants, New York State took the right step in 2017 towards universal representation and created the Liberty Defense Fund, which is a first-in-the-nation, state-led public-private project that helps all immigrants, regardless of immigration status, who are facing deportation. This past budget season, this program was funded at $10 million.

The Trump Administration has tried to spark fear among the immigrant population and had ramped up ICE enforcement in many sensitive sites that traditionally were not used to arrest and detain undocumented immigrants, such as schools and courthouses. In response, New York State acted to ensure that immigrants can show up to court cases—as witnesses, or victims, for example—without the fear of being detained by ICE. New York also passed the “Protect our Courts Act,” which protects immigrants from civil arrests at court proceedings.

With the novel coronavirus pandemic, federal aid and relief has intentionally excluded many immigrants. However, New York State has stepped up to protect the health of all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, and clarified that COVID-19 testing is covered under emergency Medicaid, which is available to undocumented immigrants.

Unfairly, federal relief has not been available to undocumented immigrants, though they have seen the same financial hardships, food insecurity, and homelessness as other laid-off workers have. This population has been excluded from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, and undocumented immigrants and their families have been excluded from relief checks of up to $1,200 provided by the CARES Act. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 1.2 million New Yorkers are excluded from the federal assistance. Of these, nearly a third (31 percent) are U.S. citizens or have a green card.[1] New York City provided modest cash payments, $400 to undocumented individuals, $800 for a couple or single parent with children, and $1,000 to undocumented families, using a combination of local, private, and federal funds totaling $20 million.[2] Localities are playing a part to ensure that immigrants have the support that they need when the federal administration decides to leave them behind.

What is needed is both bigger and broader. The Fiscal Policy Institute has written an analysis to help legislators and others understand the need for a program to provide something equivalent to unemployment insurance to undocumented workers and formerly incarcerated individuals who have lost their jobs, to help with financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The analysis highlights that if 15 percent of workers collected unemployment benefits, it would cost $3.1 billion and help approximately 120,000 workers. In another analysis, FPI also found that undocumented immigrants have been paying into a system that they do not benefit from.  (do you want to rewrite so you don’t end with a proposition?) FPI reported that over the past ten  years, $1.4 billion was paid in Unemployment Insurance taxes in New York based on the work of undocumented immigrants.

New York has a long way to go, but it is ahead of many other states in demonstrating what it looks like to invest and protect immigrant communities. The next step: New York can and should do more to provide an unemployment program for excluded workers, which advocates for the Fund Excluded Workers Campaign have been fighting for across New York State.

By Cyierra Roldan & Shamier Settle

[1] Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of data from the 2012-16 American Community Survey (pooled) with assignments of immigration status by MPI researchers and by Jennifer Van Hook of The Pennsylvania State University and James Bachmeier of Temple University. Note that the Migration Policy Institute has somewhat higher estimates of the number of immigrants in New York State than the Center for Migration Studies or Pew Research Center.

[2] The Official Website of the City of New York: