Immigrants raise alarm over 'cruel' exclusion from coronavirus medical aid

Activists and immigrant advocates are sounding the alarm that tens of millions of immigrants are at risk of being left out of COVID-19 testing and treatment in the government's response to the health crisis.

The trillions in stimulus passed by Congress so far in response to the coronavirus crisis provide testing and treatment to anyone who's eligible for federal Medicaid, but that does not include more than 10 million undocumented immigrants, nor up to four million legal permanent residents who've been in the country less than five years. 

They also do not include about a million immigrants who are in the country under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary protected status (TPS) programs.

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Immigrants were also left out of stimulus checks being sent out to households, leading to an outcry among activists who call it unfair for immigrants who pay taxes and who often work on the frontlines in the parts of the economy still functioning.

They also say it raises health risks when parts of the population are excluded from testing and treatment

"I don't know what happened in the second bill," said Manar Waheed, senior legislative and advocacy counsel for the ACLU, referring to the lack of inclusion of provisions for immigrants in the latest stimulus bill passed by Congress this week.

"For weeks and weeks now advocates have been putting pressure on Congress to write in a couple of lines to extend [coverage] to  emergency Medicaid," she added. 

California Democratic Reps. Tony Cárdenas and Linda Sánchez introduced a bill Friday that would make eligible for testing and treatment all COVID-19 patients, regardless of immigration status.

"This simple bill basically changes one section of the Social Security Act and makes it permissible for people who've contracted COVID to get they care they need so they can go back to work, be with their families," said Cárdenas.

"It expands who's eligible in the sense that if somebody contracts COVID and seeks care, that caregiver can be reimbursed by Medicaid," he added.

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Meanwhile, Sanchez said it was a "cruel turn" to leave out immigrants who pay taxes and who often work in jobs considered essential during the crisis.

“Leaving the most vulnerable, including the undocumented, out of coronavirus relief bills is a cruel turn for workers who pay taxes, yet are being hung out to dry during this pandemic. They, like everyone, need and deserve access to free testing and treatment. Many of them are working on the frontlines of this crisis in essential jobs – cleaning buildings and working in our food supply chain," said Sánchez.

"We don't want these workers to be scared of getting treatment for the good of our communities. More access to testing will give us a better idea of who has the virus and could potentially pass it onto others if they continue to show up to work,” she added.

Although technically up to 15 million immigrants are currently not eligible for coronavirus treatment under the legislation passed to respond to the pandemic, many can be covered either through loopholes in those laws, or through private insurance.

A senior Democratic aide noted that the $484 billion relief package passed by the House Thursday included $1 billion in testing and treatment for the uninsured, while $600 million already exists in special funding for community health centers.

Undocumented immigrants are generally more likely to go to community health centers than major hospitals, partly because of lack of coverage, and partly because of fear of interacting with immigration authorities.

The aide said Democrats were unable to get language in the bills specifying coverage for undocumented immigrants, but in practical terms, the access for testing is funded.

That means many immigrants who are technically ineligible can access testing and treatment either through the federal programs for the uninsured or through local programs in certain states.

But accessing those programs implies knowledge and understanding of the various levels of interaction between government and health care providers, a stretch for a community that's used to limited access to public services.

"If you have testing and treatment at the federal level for everyone, then everyone knows they can get it," said Waheed.

A further $10 billion was announced by the administration Wednesday for coverage for the uninsured, with no language either making immigrants eligible or ineligible.

But immigrant advocates say they don't trust the Trump administration to grant equal treatment to immigrants, especially the undocumented, after Education Secretary Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosTrump vetoes measure aimed at blocking DeVos student loan rule On The Money: Senate Dems pump brakes on new stimulus checks | Trump officials sued over tax refunds | Fed to soon open small-business lending program Lawsuit accuses Trump administration of illegally seizing tax refunds from student loan borrowers MORE blocked undocumented college students from accessing emergency aid.

"The danger in that is exactly what Betsy DeVos chose to do when it came to the fund to help college and university students," said Cárdenas.

"DeVos chose to interpret that point and say, 'we're denying those individuals the right to eat,'" he added.

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Still, Democrats have voted for the bills, in line with leadership, fearful that a deadlock could freeze aid entirely.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said he's concerned that with members away from Washington, fewer voices are present to sway negotiations.

"One of the difficulties is the distance. Not [being] physically there to impact these discussions," said Grijalva on a call with reporters Friday.

"That necessary tension is missing," added Grijalva, who credited Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) Chairman Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) with "doing a great job" representing the group's interests in negotiations.

Castro vowed to continue fighting for immigrants to be considered in future stimulus bills.

“I will keep fighting for the inclusion of immigrants, even though Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFor city parks: Pass the Great American Outdoors Act now US ill-prepared for coronavirus-fueled mental health crisis Schumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe MORE are hellbent on excluding these essential workers and vulnerable families from any protection,” said Castro.

“Congress’ work is far from complete because millions of families in America have been left out of relief – mixed-status families with American citizen children and spouses, immigrant workers with ITIN numbers, essential farmworkers and meatpackers who are often undocumented, yet our food supply depends on their labor,” added Castro.

Cárdenas praised Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death 5 things to know about US-China tensions over Hong Kong Pelosi calls Trump's decision to withdraw US from WHO 'an act of extraordinary senselessness' MORE (D-Calif.), but said she is outnumbered in negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and McConnell, at a time when reaching a consensus is paramount.

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"I don't see it as drawing a red line, I see it as constantly reminding our colleagues that it is bad for American citizens for us to make laws that exclude non-citizens in America," said Cárdenas.

"Unfortunately, the Republicans in the House and Senate and the president have remained unified in choosing to treat non-citizens as less than human beings," added Cárdenas.

But some Democrats are growing weary of accumulating legislative losses, which they say disproportionately affect the most in-need communities.

Grijalva noted that undocumented workers who pay taxes are not only technically ineligible for the health provisions of coronavirus relief, but they won't receive economic stimulus checks that provide for up to $1,200 for most individuals and up to $2,400 for married couples.

And he said communities along the border are concerned that border wall construction workers, who work in areas typically with high concentrations of immigrants, are not following proper social distancing and personal protective measures, all circumstances the Democratic House majority has been unable to fully address.

"I think you get to a point where if you want to make it an issue that's not totally internal but external, you have to get to a point where you say, 'I'm sorry but I just can't support this,'" said Grijalva.