Immigrant workers left behind by government aid efforts

m o o n that spells moon
The super pink moon, the biggest supermoon of the year, rising on April 7 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Donis Hernandez, works in construction, an industry Gov. Steve Sisolak deemed essential during the coronavirus-related shutdown in Nevada. While Hernandez is grateful to still have a job, he is concerned about carrying the virus home from his work site to his family and elderly parents with whom he lives.

At least five construction industry workers in Southern Nevada have tested positive for COVID-19.

“It would be better if I could stay at home with pay. They check our temperatures every morning but you don’t know who could show up infected with the virus,” said Hernandez, who said he is a member of Laborers Union Local 872 but did not want to share his work site. “It’s a big risk going home. My dad is 76 and my mom is 67.”

Since arriving from El Salvador more than a decade ago, Hernandez has lived and worked in the U.S. under Temporary Protection Status, or TPS.

Immigrants account for over 30 percent of construction workers and nearly 40 percent of all workers in the hotel and food services industry in Nevada, according to the American Immigration Council, jobs that either can’t be done in isolation at home or are at higher risk of job loss.

And as Nevadans are struggling to cope with job loss and government-issued restrictions, immigrants are being hit especially hard by additional barriers.

This week the federal government has begun the process of issuing $1,200 direct payments under the $2 trillion CARES act passed last month, but thousands of Nevadans in “mixed status” households may not qualify for the payment, meaning families with at least one undocumented member.

For example, if a TPS holder with a valid Social Security number files taxes as a family with someone who uses ITIN — an individual taxpayer identification number used largely by undocumented workers— the family will not qualify for any relief payments, according to information from the Office of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. 

“It’s a concern that’s lingering in the community and the questions are coming up,” said Assemblyman Edgar Flores, chair of the Hispanic Legislative Caucus, which has set up a Covid-19 task force. “Our response through the legislature is that it shouldn’t be a factor and it shouldn’t be a barrier.”

“The fact that my wife or my husband has an ITIN is outside of my control,” Flores said. “Someone who has an ITIN is someone who wants to do things right to the best of their ability under their circumstances.”

Nearly one in five Nevada residents is an immigrant, while almost one in six residents is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent, according to the American Immigration Council.

Hernandez is one of those residents. Due to to the fact that he files taxes with an ITIN user he would not receive the much needed stimulus check, money he could use after he lost income due to getting hours cut at the beginning of the pandemic.

Hispanics are more likely than Americans overall to say they or someone in their household has experienced a pay cut or lost their job because of the coronavirus outbreak, according to a Pew Research Center survey

And the temporary, cash-based jobs that undocumented immigrants generally perform are drying up as the coronavirus ravages the economy.

‘Not eligible for that’

For years, Eva, who asked that her last name not be used because of her legal status, cleaned homes in Las Vegas for a living. But as the coronavirus pandemic ramped up and shocked the Nevada economy, she — like many others in the state — lost her income.

The massive federal aid package signed by President Donald Trump will expand unemployment insurance to cover more people, but undocumented workers who collectively pay billions of dollars in taxes won’t benefit from those provisions.

Before the pandemic hit Eva could rely on income from cleaning about four houses a day.

“They say that after all this is over they’ll call us back because what they don’t want is us going to their houses right now. But how are all of us going to survive in that time?” Eva said.

Eva’s husband is still employed as a landscaper and is authorized to work in the United States, but because of his age, 70, she fears for his health, especially since he does not have company-sponsored health insurance to rely on.

“He has to go out daily to work,” Eva said. “It mortifies me, and if he gets sick how are we going to survive that?”

“Our biggest worry is that he has to go out day after day,” Eva said.

They are getting by for now, but the family has thought about the possibility of seeking public assistance in the future. Their biggest pause is that it might thwart any chance at gaining U.S citizenship.

The Trump administration instituted a “public charge” rule last month that makes immigrants ineligible for residency or citizenship if they rely on government benefits or are deemed likely to use them in the future. 

“There are folks in the process of adjusting their status who are not going to apply when they need it most because they fear there’s going to be repercussions in the future,” Flores said.

Flores, the chair of the Hispanic Legislative Caucus, said the rule change has left a wide variety of immigrants – undocumented immigrants who are trying to legalize their status, legal immigrants who are applying for green cards and citizenship – hesitant to seek out medical assistance during the outbreak.

“As a community we are only as safe as the most vulnerable members of our community,” Flores said. “By ensuring that everyone has access we are protecting not only that family but also protecting the rest of Nevada.”

Another issue immigrant communities are facing, said Flores, is navigating unemployment. Unemployment insurance uses a system that links to the Department of Homeland Security to track foreign-born residents who are eligible for unemployment. 

But sometimes that system is wrong. So although an applicant may have proper documentation, the system does not have the correct information leaving applicants to navigate a time consuming review process just to verify their eligibility with additional documentation.

“It would be unrealistic for us to expect a family that needs money now, that needs the help now to wait several months,” Flores said.

Legal permanent residence cards must be reviewed every ten years and in some cases— like those classified under Conditional Permanent Residence— every two years. While failing to renew documents as a permanent resident does not remove legal status or their right to remain in the U.S., many benefits, including unemployment insurance, require a permanent residence card if they are screened for further verification.

“In a regular time outside this pandemic you could say ‘look go apply for your permanent residence card and come back’ but during this pandemic where nobody is working it’s almost impossible for them to get it done,” Flores said.

Cost is a barrier. The application process to renew a permanent residence card is $540 plus the cost of using an attorney for the complicated process. Flores said he has spoken with those who have said they do not have money to apply for a renewal during the pandemic and don’t know what to do.

The Hispanic Legislative Caucus Covid-19 task force is made up of members of the caucus and community organizations — including the Nevada Immigrant Coalition — which translates important information like where to find resources available regardless of legal status on a specially created website. Community members can ask questions, which members of the task force will help direct to the appropriate agency to try to get a response.

“We are working diligently to try and help folks to the best of our ability but sometimes the answer is simply that we can’t,” Flores said. “We have to tell people ‘you can’t apply for that, that benefit is not for you, you are not eligible for that.’”

“In a situation like this where none of us were ready for it you realize that it’s always marginalized communities who are most impacted,” Flores said.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.