Undocumented workers fall through the cracks

Despite paying taxes, those not here legally ineligible for benefits

THE US DEPARTMENT OF LABOR reported 3.23 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week, up from 282,000 during the previous week. In Massachusetts, about 148,000 filed an initial claim for unemployment insurance in that same period.

But in the rush for help, one group — undocumented workers — is largely left out. Hidden in plain sight as dishwashers, sous chefs, construction workers, and custodians, they are being laid off in droves as sit-down restaurants shutter, development projects halt, and businesses and universities close.

The Bay State is home to at least 250,000 undocumented immigrants, according to 2017 Pew Research data. Advocacy groups in the state estimate that number is currently closer to 400,000.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced last week that the state would expedite state unemployment insurance claims for workers losing their jobs in the aftermath of the pandemic hitting the state. But undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for unemployment insurance despite often paying taxes.

On a federal level, the Senate proposal being considered by the House today would dole out a one-time payment of $1,200 to individuals, but only to people who file their taxes using a Social Security number, not the individual taxpayer identification number many undocumented immigrants use to file their taxes.

The Internal Revenue Service has been asking unauthorized immigrants for tax money long before coronavirus, and in 2017, that equaled about $184.5 million in state and local taxes. Despite those payments, they can’t be included in the federal bailout.

Safety net programs that many unemployed people turn to, like food stamps and subsidized housing, are also off the table. Undocumented workers also do not qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.

“Undocumented workers are going to be the ones left out of any sort of social safety net we have set up,” said Lily Huang, co-director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, to Eater Magazine.

A patchwork group of efforts are coming together, from labor, legal, and community groups, to provide help.

In Boston, a COVID-19 resource guide for immigrants, “regardless of immigration status,” has been compiled. The city is directing people to the nonprofit Project Bread, which is offering a multilingual hotline to help families. There’s also information on where children can get food while schools are closed. More info on food pantries and senior dining sites is also included.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The Mass UndocuFund, backed by Jobs with Justice, MataHari Women’s Worker Centers, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and One Fair Wage, is trying to raise at least $1 million for undocumented families. The effort launched March 23, and has $22,000 in its coffers so far, or enough to provide help to 70 recently unemployed workers and families. Funds are meant to help with expenses, including rent, groceries, medicine, transportation, and even funerals.

In Northampton, a similar effort started Thursday through Pioneer Valley Workers Center, with the goal of reaching $50,000.

For others, small amounts of relief have been even more hyperlocal. In Revere, an undocumented woman who lost two jobs in one day, one at a local baker and the other as a washroom attendant, has been getting her food from a local church. “I don’t know how I will pay the rent, pay for food,” she told WGBH.