The US is facing unprecedented times as the coronavirus pandemic has yet to settle. The growing number of confirmed cases in the US, totaling over 160,000, has made the nation the new epicenter of the pandemic, surpassing both Italy and China.
Many steps have been taken at both the state and national level in order to attempt to contain the spread of disease. All but essential institutions have suspended operation, more than 15 states have mandated stay-at-home orders in place, and now, after days of congressional deliberation, the Senate has passed a $2 trillion economic rescue plan in hopes to keep the country afloat during the global health crisis. However, among the collective Americans and people affected by the outbreak and its domino effect, US immigrants face a new level of uncertainty during these times.
As mentioned before, most immigration courts are still maintaining regular operation. Aside from a handful of courts closing or temporary postponing of non-detained hearings, most of the 68 US immigration courts are still holding hearings. Courts have hundreds of contact points, leaving judges, immigrants, and counsel at increased risk of exposure to potential disease. While the rest of the world is on pause and practicing social distancing, immigrants must still present and defend themselves in court, along with attorneys who are enforced to appear with masks and gloves–essential accessories many hospitals can’t even acquire during a supply shortage.
USCIS has also temporarily suspended routine in-person services to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Although USCIS plans to reopen offices on April 7, extension of suspension is plausible. During these times, USCIS is limiting its operation to only emergency services for limited situations. This raises concerns for legal immigrants who may inadvertently violate immigration laws should their work permits or other form of legal status expire. AILA advocates are demanding that USCIS freeze all deadlines or ensure there are measures for individuals whose status is expiring to remain lawfully.
In addition, a few nights ago, the Senate unaminously passed the $2 trillion stimulus plan that will offer financial assistance to Americans across the country during the global pandemic. A provision that has gained large-scale attention among the national community is the stimulus check of $1200 to be sent to qualifying Americans from the federal government. However, immigration legal experts say that millions of immigrant households will not be receiving any relief money. Under the bill, only those with valid Social Security numbers and resident aliens will qualify for relief checks. For example, many immigrant households are of “mixed-status,” meaning if anyone in the family uses an individual taxpayer identification number (“ITIN”) rather than a SSN, they will not receive a check. ITINs are issued by the IRS to ensure that people, regardless of their immigration status, file their taxes and comply with US tax law despite being ineligible or not obtaining a SSN. According to the Migration Policy Institute, over 16 million people live in mixed-status households in the US since early 2019. Immigrants are arguably a substantial body of the front lines amidst this virus, such as our health care sector, agriculture and farming, hospitality, and waste management. While these members of our national community continue to work to serve others during these unordinary times, it is lamentable that they are not guaranteed a dime from the relief package.
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