As jobless claims soar, federal officials have taken steps to expand unemployment insurance and secure one-time, $1,200 checks for millions of Americans impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. But those initiatives are leaving out some of the area’s most vulnerable residents: those whose immigration status is in limbo.
Only people with valid Social Security numbers and those who qualify as “resident aliens” will receive the federal aid checks. Immigrants who are in the process of obtaining political asylum or otherwise lack the ability to legally work in the U.S. are not eligible.
Many undocumented workers who have been laid off from their jobs won’t qualify for unemployment benefits either.
“Without a work authorization, undocumented workers won’t be able to collect unemployment insurance benefits,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director for Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigrant Advocacy Program.
In Prince William County, undocumented individuals are estimated to make up about 8% of the population, or 37,000 people, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Advocates say the lack of assistance for undocumented families is extremely concerning.
“It’s a really dire situation,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said. “One paycheck could make the difference between paying rent or not.”
Prince William Times spoke Monday with two undocumented women living in the county who were laid off from their jobs last week. Both asked to remain anonymous so they could safely share their stories.
The first, a 33-year-old single mother who lives in Dumfries, said she lost her job at a local thrift store last week. She said she lives in a mobile home with her 8-month-old son and her mother, who is on dialysis and is unable to work.
She said she lost her job Friday, March 20, after the store began laying off employees.
“There were no customers coming in because of the coronavirus,” she said.
The loss of income, about $350 a week, is her biggest concern because she pays for rent, utilities and food for her family, as well as her mother’s dialysis medication, which costs about $800 a month, she said.
“My son, he’s little but he still needs food and diapers. And my mom needs her medication, which is a big concern,” she said.
She said she doesn’t know how she’s going to pay rent this month. “I don’t know if the owner is going to let us stay here,” she said.
She said she’s lived in the United States since she was 6 when her mother came to the U.S. from Mexico, but she’s not a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program.
The other, a 28-year-old undocumented resident of Manassas, said she lost her job at a restaurant last week. She said the owners closed the restaurant because of the pandemic, leaving her and her co-workers without jobs, and she doesn’t know when it will open again.
“I’ve been at home. I’m not getting paid right now,” she said.
She said she makes about $320 a week after taxes and pays about $500 a month in rent living with a roommate. But she doesn’t know if she’ll be able to pay it next month if she doesn’t find a new job.
She said she’s been looking for work in local grocery stores and as a landscaper, but nobody is hiring.
“Even though we’re in a pandemic, I still need to find work,” Lopez said.
Luis Aguilar, executive director at CASA de Virginia, said the organization has heard from countless undocumented people in recent weeks who’ve been laid off from their jobs and are facing an uncertain future.
"Undocumented workers and their families are being directly hit by the pandemic,” Aguilar said.
The main industries that employ the region’s undocumented workers – construction, retail and restaurants – have been hit hard by the crisis, with many businesses cutting hours and laying off workers to comply with the Virginia’s 10-person limit on social gatherings, he said.
“They don’t know how they’re going to pay for basic expenses like housing, utilities and food,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar said CASA de Virginia is asking Prince William and Fairfax counties for the creation of a relief fund to aid families impacted by the crisis.
Last Thursday, March 26, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 46,885 unemployment claims had been filed in Virginia between Saturday, March 14 and Saturday, March 21 – an unprecedented spike in unemployment in a state where weekly claims, under normal circumstances, typically number fewer than 4,000.
The report said the increase in unemployment claims is concentrated in the service industries, particularly accommodation and food services. But for undocumented people, filing for unemployment benefits isn’t an option.
Evictions temporarily on hold
One silver lining is that Virginia tenants won’t have to worry about being evicted this month. The Virginia Supreme Court announced March 26 it would extend a ban on eviction proceedings until Monday, April 26. But advocates say it’s only a short-term fix.
Sandoval-Moshenberg said he expects a wave of evictions when the crisis is over unless additional steps are taken to protect Virginia tenants.
“Folks are thinking that the eviction crisis is solved. It’s really just deferred,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said.
Jorge Figueredo, executive director of the nonprofit Edu-Futuro, said the organization is working to set up an emergency fund to assist people who can’t pay their rent during the crisis. He said the pause on evictions is only a temporary solution.
“When this passes, three months from now, the landlord is going to say, ‘Where is my rent?’” Figueredo said.
Based in Arlington, Edu-Futuro primarily works to empower immigrant families to navigate Virginia’s public school system and mentors high school students through the college application process. But the nonprofit’s mission has expanded during the ongoing pandemic.
Edu-Futuro staff made more than 300 calls to their families this past week. Out of about 100 contacts, 62% reported jobs lost amid the crisis. Many of the families they help work in hospitality, restaurants and construction, Figueredo said.
“This is about our neighbors. This is our community. It is our responsibility to take care of each other,” Figueredo said.
Prince William County Supervisor Margaret Angela Franklin, D-Woodbridge, said she will be fighting to guarantee that those living in vulnerable communities come out stronger than before as county budget discussions move forward.
“Unfortunately, one of the most vulnerable populations is our undocumented community, as they are unable to access federal aid and live in fear of asking for help or getting tested,” Franklin said Monday in an email.
The Woodbridge district has the highest non-citizen population of any Prince William County district, with an estimated non-citizen population of about 13,000, or about 19% of the district’s total population, according to U.S. Census data.
“During this time of hardship, we are working to guarantee that all residents, including those who are undocumented, have access to resources they need most,” Franklin said.
“This includes working on a local level to provide school meals to children; providing food and care items for individuals and families; guaranteeing that those who are homeless and low income have access to safe dwelling units and providing relief for small businesses, many of whom are minority-owned.”
Jill Palermo contributed to this report. Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org