Originally Published in The Nation
Sasha Abramsky - March 12, 2021
The nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed this week by Congress, contains many good provisions. It will, for example, dramatically increase access to child care and child benefits, pump money into cities, public transit, and public health systems, and provide much-needed relief to artists and cultural institutions that have struggled to survive this past year of shutdowns.
Up among the important provisions in the ARP is one directly aimed at helping undocumented workers survive the pandemic crisis: It allows mixed-status families, in which one spouse is undocumented, to access stimulus checksusing the Social Security number of the legal resident spouse. This is a dramatic U-turn from Trump-era Covid-relief packages, which were crafted, at Trump’s direction, to deliberately exclude mixed-status families from such assistance. There was no point to such a response apart from deliberate cruelty, and the policy hurt documented spouses and US citizen children as much as it did the undocumented themselves.
Also this week, the Biden administration withdrew the Trump administration’s appeal before the US Supreme Court against lower court injunctions that had prevented the implementation of restrictive new “public charge” rules. As a result, the court promptly dismissed the case. Thus the restrictive new public charge rules—a de facto wealth test on migrants that served as the jewel in the crown of Stephen Miller’s anti-immigrant agenda—were, just like that, eliminated. After years of organizing efforts and legal actions aimed at slowing down the noxious new rules, there was something almost anticlimactic about this welcome development. With everything else going on at the moment, the news largely got buried. But, make no mistake, rolling back public charge rules that were aimed at excluding poor migrants from health care, housing, and nutritional assistance, as well as preventing likely “public charges” from migrating to the United States in the first place, will have a huge impact on the lives of millions of immigrants and their families over the coming years.
The federal sea-change vis-à-vis how the government interacts with immigrant families is coming at the back end of years of local and state organizing efforts that have seen Western states, in particular, reimagine their social safety nets to include immigrant populations, and to make it possible for the undocumented to gain access to basic benefits. In the Trump era, a number of progressive states moved far further on the issue of immigrants and social assistance than they ever had during the Obama presidency.
In 2020, California and Colorado began allowing the undocumented who file income taxes using an individual taxpayer identification number to qualify for stated earned income tax credits, and, in California’s case, also the Young Child Tax Credit. The California Budget and Policy Center estimated this would benefit up to 46,000 families.
Also last year, as I wrote about in an earlier column, the Pacific Coast states began sending cash payments to unemployed immigrants without the legal status that would allow them to access federal benefits. And California moved to allow some of the undocumented population access to the Affordable Care Act.
Now, legislators in California are taking aim at state OSHA provisions that, historically, have excluded from workplace safety protections domestic workers, home caregivers, and others in industries disproportionately employing immigrant women of color.
SB 321, the Health and Safety for All Workers Act, is authored by state Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who represents a district in Los Angeles. It aims to extend workplace safety requirements to areas of the economy dominated by informal, and exploitative, employer-employee contracts, so that, for example, house cleaners couldn’t be fired for asking their employers to provide PPE during a pandemic or in the midst of wildfire outbreaks. Durazo notes that Latinos in Los Angeles disproportionately work in frontline occupations, and that, partly as a result of this, in California they have had a Covid-mortality rate three times that of whites. The state senator contextualizes this struggle within a history of labor exploitation in the United States going back to slavery.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance, as well as an array of labor rights and immigrant rights organizations, has championed Durazo’s act, which the legislature seems likely to pass in the coming session.
“We are essential workers, we are immigrants, we are women of color, and we have been denied the legal right to protections,” Cristina Raga of Filipino Advocates for Justice explained at a press conference on Wednesday. At that same event, Vicenta Martinez, an indigenous Oaxacan who now works as a house cleaner in wine country to the northeast of San Francisco, spoke of having to work with no masks and no gloves throughout weeks of fierce fires this past summer. Her hair pulled back from her forehead, wearing a gray-and-white floral shirt, Martinez told of being too afraid of losing her job to ask her employers to provide her with masks, and of having too little disposable income to be able to afford her own gear. She worried about the health damage from inhaling smoke, and also about her ongoing exposure to Covid. She talked of friends, fellow domestic workers, “who went through the disease, at home, totally abandoned, without benefits.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom is facing tremendous political perils at the moment. The recall campaign against him has almost certainly gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot later this year. His survival will largely depend on the success of the state’s vaccine efforts and its ability to reopen schools that have been shuttered for a year. But in a state as heavily populated by immigrants as California, and with an electorate as sympathetic to the needs of immigrant communities as California’s currently is, it will also depend on his ability in the coming months to shore up the state’s social safety net for all workers—to deliver not just words of empathy but also meaningful legislative reform. Signing SB 321 would be a good place to start.