PROVINCETOWN — The coronavirus-induced collapse of the economy has people everywhere reaching for lifelines, from unemployment to SBA loans to MassHealth. At the edge of this scene is a group that is often overlooked — the Cape’s undocumented population is not eligible for most of the programs that help people.
Most of the undocumented people who live and work on the Cape entered the country on legal work visas and then stayed in the U.S. when their visas expired, according to Collin Mickle, an immigration lawyer and coordinator of the Immigrant Resource Center in Hyannis.
That means the majority of the Cape’s undocumented population pays payroll and income taxes, Mickle added. “Employment visa holders are assigned Social Security numbers when they first arrive,” Mickle explained. Even after their visas expire, they can generally work under those numbers, he said. When they do, employer and employee both pay Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, and state family and medical leave taxes.
“In addition, most of the overstay immigrants we see are paying income taxes, state and federal,” said Mickle. The IRS knows about immigrants and their wages and expects them to file tax returns, but is not allowed to refer people to immigration enforcement. “They want people to pay — not to discourage them from paying,” Mickle said.
Visa overstays may pay into the American social safety net, but that doesn’t mean they can receive its benefits.
Congress has radically expanded the unemployment system. It is the principal economic support for people who have lost work because of the pandemic. Benefits were increased, and the pool of people who are eligible for them has nearly doubled. But that expanded UI system is closed to the undocumented.
There are some classes of immigrants who can file for unemployment in Massachusetts, according to Monica Halas, an unemployment law expert at Greater Boston Legal Services. Green card holders and people with an employment authorization document (EAD) can file. Those eligible for an EAD include refugees, asylum seekers, and persons with Temporary Protected Status or deferred action agreements.
Still, the most common work visas used on the Cape, the J-1 and the H2-B, never result in this kind of categorical employment authorization. Rather, those visas are tied to specific employers and industries, and convey much more limited privileges.
Access to at least some relief could come for people in mixed-immigration-status families, if one person qualifies for unemployment. For example, the expanded UI system allows students who work part-time to apply.
MassHealth No, but a Safety Net
MassHealth provides comprehensive, nearly-free health care to about a quarter of the state’s residents. It’s part of the federal Medicaid program, it’s mostly paid for with federal funds, and federal rules bar undocumented people from the program. But undocumented residents of Massachusetts can enroll in the Health Safety Net and get at least some of the advantages of health insurance.
“For Health Safety Net, you prove that you live in the state, and you prove your identity, but you don’t prove your immigration status,” said Kelly Hewitt, program coordinator for access to health care at the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands. Health Safety Net is not insurance, and it doesn’t pay for everything that insurance does. But it pays for a lot of things, and it can also help avoid a tangled snarl of medical bills, appeals, and complex paperwork after a hospital trip. Hewitt says people should sign up for Health Safety Net before they wind up needing it.
The Community Action Committtee does not report information about people to ICE. “It’s safe for anyone to call us,” said Caronanne Procaccini, a director there.
Another form of relief could eventually find its way to the Cape’s undocumented population, after taking a circuitous route from Congress through the SBA to local lenders and then local employers. The Payroll Protection Program, which now amounts to $660 billion in forgivable loans, specifically encourages employers to bring back their entire staff. The application requires employers to certify that the employees they are including reside primarily in the U.S., but does not ask that they verify citizenship.
Rules for the program have changed often, and are still changing. But Mickle does not think this rule will. “The SBA is totally overwhelmed by the complexity and volume of these loans,” he said. “Is it likely that they’re going to put some kind of new, above-and-beyond scrutiny on everyone’s payroll, now? Particularly when the IRS doesn’t apply that scrutiny? Even if they did want to, I don’t think the bandwidth is there.”
The Payroll Protection Program was intended to keep people employed. For the visa overstays who live on the edge in our economy, being employed has always been the only reliable plan.