For one Latino family, the American Dream turns into COVID-19 nightmare

May 14, 2020
Posted in Translation
May 14, 2020 Joe Amditis

By Kleibeel Marcano, Reporte Hispano

Editor’s note: This is the English translation of the original story, which was first published in Spanish by Reporte Hispano. This version has been updated and edited, with permission from the author(s) and publication(s), for length and clarity.

NEW JERSEY — It all started on Valentine’s Day.

After Rigoberto Mejia’s teenage daughter, Valeri, spent time with her friend who had just arrived from Italy, she began to have flu-like symptoms. With body aches, dry cough and shortness of breath, Valeri was immediately taken to Morristown Medical Center.

But the hospital’s medical staff refused to test her for COVID-19, saying that children mostly do not contract the coronavirus. Within a few hours, Valeri was sent back home, untested.

Then a few days later, Mejía, his wife and their five-year-old son all developed the same symptoms. The whole family rushed to the hospital.

This time, all of them got tested and confirmed that they contracted the new coronavirus.

Mejía, whose blood oxygen level dramatically went down, was asked to stay in the hospital. But seeing many patients who were seriously ill, and some were dying alone from the virus at the hospital, he insisted going home.

“If I were going to die, I would prefer to die at home, surrounded by my family,” he said.

The entire family was in quarantine at home for three weeks.

With no savings and income, Mejía said his family has been living off donations from friends, members of a nonprofit group and a local church.

“They have helped us a lot,” he told Reporte Hispano. “We have been very grateful.”

A father’s American Dream

Early this year, Mejía bought a house for his family. After living in the United States for more than 30 years, he thought, owning a house was the culmination of the American Dream.

Mejía, who immigrated from Honduras, spent all his family’s savings on purchasing the house in Rockaway, NJ. Yet, life was good: he had a steady job in construction, his wife worked in a cafeteria, and their children were all in school.

Then COVID-19 unfolded.

The customers of the construction company that Mejía had worked for began to dwindle. It didn’t take long for the company to layoff employees, including him.

At the cafeteria on Route 10, in Morris Plains, NJ, where his wife had worked, the number of customers also started to decrease. His wife’s hours were dramatically reduced and, after a few days later, she was laid off.

A family’s nightmare

In late March, the Trump administration approved a $2 billion stimulus package during the pandemic. Mejía heard that the federal stimulus fund includes a one-time cash payment of $1,200 for each taxpayer and $500 for each child, [as well as an unemployment insurance with additional $600 a week].

It was a ray of hope.

The downpayment to buy the house earlier this year had left his family with no emergency cash fund. So, he thought the federal stimulus relief fund—the one-time cash payment and unemployment insurance—would allow his family to have sufficient food and pay some of the debts that were accumulating since the public health crisis started.

But the Mejías, a family with mixed immigration status, were not eligible for the federal coronavirus one-time cash payment. And although he is qualified for unemployment insurance, he has not been successfully completed the application due to a backlog in the New Jersey employment online system.

The family was devastated.

“For me, this is discrimination—a punishment for immigrants, for the children of immigrants who were born in the United States. It is unjust that they tax us, only to exclude us,” said Mejía.

For 29 years, Mejía has been religiously paying his taxes. As a beneficiary of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), he holds a work permit and a valid Social Security number.

Their two children are U.S. born-citizens, and his wife uses an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). They file a joint tax return each year.

Hopeful, the couple called leaders of the Wind of the Spirit, an immigrant rights organization in New Jersey, to ask for more information about the program. After a few minutes, disappointment washed over him: They will not receive anything as they are not eligible for the aid because his wife does not have a Social Security number.

“I feel discriminated against, defeated, invisible to a country that depends on the work of immigrants to maintain its economy,” he said.

Like millions of other families with mixed immigration status or undocumented immigrants in the country, Mejía’s family was left out of the federal stimulus relief fund.

Many undocumented immigrants are essential workers: they work in supermarkets, restaurants, farms, food-processing plants, warehouses, and truck and bus drivers.

Financial aid for undocumented families

In New Jersey, a coalition of some 70 community, religious and immigrant rights organizations have called on Gov. Phil Murphy and state lawmakers to provide financial assistance to undocumented immigrants, who have been carved out of the CARES Act during the coronavirus pandemic.

Brian Lozano, lead organizer and advocacy coordinator for the Wind of the Spirit, explained that this fund would provide an income replacement for undocumented immigrant workers who lost their jobs and have been excluded from unemployment benefits and a one-time cash payment from the federal government.

The coalition proposed to provide $600 weekly to undocumented families excluded from federal aid. This amount represents the weekly average that most of these workers earn during normal working conditions.

Undocumented immigrants contribute approximately $604 million in the state and pay local and federal $1.1 billion taxes, according to a study by the New American Economy Project.

On May 12, the U.S. Congress proposed a new stimulus package of additional $3 billion that would provide aid to states and local governments, including a relief grant for undocumented immigrants who have paid taxes using an Individual Tax Indentification Number (ITIN).

If approved, reports say, the aid would provide undocumented immigrants up to $6000 per family.

Similarly, in New Jersey, Senators Teresa M. Ruiz and Nicholas Scutari introduced a bill (S-2480) that would provide cash assistance to undocumented immigrants who use an ITIN when filing their income tax.

The bill would require the Treasury Department to issue a one-time payment to ITIN taxpayers, prioritizing families with children first. The bill would also allocate $35 million that may benefit more than 35,000 New Jersey residents.

“If we are going to discuss reopening New Jersey, we must have an honest conversation about how this crisis has impacted our immigrant community. They work in every industry and in every region of our state,” said Sen. Ruiz in a statement. “While it would only assist 25 percent of our ITIN filers, this relief legislation provides New Jersey the opportunity to step in and begin to help where the federal government has failed.”

Some 139,751 people in New Jersey use an ITIN to file their taxes, according to the statement, adding that if this law gets passed, only a maximum of 35,000 people would benefit from the aid.

Nadia Marin Molina, co-executive director of the National Network of Day Laborer, said the bill is a good step.

“But the reality is that undocumented workers make a very large contribution in the state, so the fund should be something fair that helps the whole community and not just a small percentage of people,” Molinda added.

One of the few government grants would be awarded to families with children in schools that receive free or reduced-price meals. These families will receive a $416 Pandemic-EBT card in the coming weeks, which can be used to buy food for students during the current school closure.

The state Department of Human Services confirmed that families of undocumented immigrants or with mixed immigration status, with children who are in schools, are eligible for the Pandemic-EBT card.

“Anything would help my family and those who are in similar situations,” Mejía said.

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Joe Amditis

Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. He graduated from Rutgers University in 2013 and earned his B.A. with a double-major in political science and criminal justice before going on to earn his M.A. from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. He is the co-founder and former director of operations of Muckgers, an hyperlocal, student-focused, investigative publication serving the Rutgers-New Brunswick community. Joe is also a seven-year veteran of the New Jersey Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq from 2008-2009.