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New Hampshire immigrants struggle to access safety nets during COVID-19 crisis

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 5/1/2020 9:32:52 PM
Modified: 5/1/2020 11:01:01 PM

MANCHESTER — Eva Castillo works with documented and undocumented immigrants as they transition to life in the Granite State. Right now she’s is busier than ever, assisting an immigrant community that has been hard hit by the economic effects of the new coronavirus.

“We’re overwhelmed with people calling for all kinds of information, and working to figure out how to address these concerns and help them out as best we can,” said Castillo, program director for Welcoming New Hampshire.

Many of New Hampshire’s immigrants work in industries like dining and hospitality that have been almost entirely shut down. At the same time, many immigrants are unable to access economic relief programs like unemployment or stimulus money, even if they are entitled to those funds.

“There’s no respite for them,” Castillo said. “Our economy benefits from the hard labor of these people, then when it comes time to do something for them and recognize their hard labor, there’s nothing for them.”

Little recourse for missing stimulus checks

Most immigrants with a Social Security number — which includes refugees, permanent residents and others — are entitled to federal stimulus funds, as long as they meet the income threshold. However, national reporting has highlighted a problem with the program: Families with mixed immigration statuses, where some individuals have Social Security numbers but others do not, are not getting their stimulus checks.

Castillo said she knows of families in New Hampshire who are in this situation.

“For people who are doing their best to file their taxes, it’s punishing them,” she said.

Ronald Abramson, chair of the immigration law practice at Shaheen & Gordon in Manchester, said that anyone with a Social Security number should be receiving the stimulus, even if they file taxes with a family member without a Social Security number.

“The plan and the IRS guidance seem clear that it should include any citizen and qualifying resident alien,” Abramson said. However, people who may be entitled have little recourse to claim the funds if they don’t arrive. “People aren’t likely to engage a lawyer to fight over $1,200.”

Abramson has had people inquire generally about this situation, but no one has asked him to look into their specific case. He recommends that anyone concerned about receiving their stimulus reach out to their members of Congress.

A refugee community on hold, but giving back

New Hampshire’s refugees should get stimulus checks since refugees all have Social Security numbers, but since many of them don’t yet have bank accounts they are waiting for paper checks, said Amy Marchildon, director of services for New Americans at Ascentria Care Alliance in Concord.

The federal refugee resettlement program has been put on hold through at least May 15. About 40 people who have been approved for resettlement are waiting in cramped refugee camps abroad to come to New Hampshire.

“It’s incredibly sad for the families who are waiting to be reunited,” Marchildon said.

With no new arrivals, the care alliance is working to support the 111 people who have resettled in New Hampshire over the past two years. Refugees who have been working can collect unemployment, and federal refugee cash assistance has been extended from eight months to 18 months in response to the coronavirus, Marchildon said.

“Refugees are survivors. They’re resilient,” Marchildon said. “We’ve seen amazing strength among the refugees who have been resettled and wanted to give back.”

Afraid to take help

New Hampshire’s undocumented immigrants have no recourse when they lose work. Since most undocumented workers have no health insurance, they go to the emergency room when they need medical care. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to be seen for non-emergency services in emergency rooms, Castillo said.

“They’re not bothering to go,” Castillo said.

Even people who are entitled to unemployment often struggle to find adequate translation or navigate the state’s websites.

“The systems are really complicated even for Americans,” Castillo said.

In addition, there’s a more serious barrier: collecting unemployment could jeopardize the immigration status for New Hampshire residents, even if they are entitled to collect funds. That’s because a new policy, adopted in February by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, requires most immigrants to complete a form to attest that they will not become public charges. Accepting public funds could result in a denial of an immigration or citizenship application.

“People need to proceed very cautiously,” Abramson said. “We don’t really know. Are people going to end up getting burned for getting help?”

For many immigrants, financial security is not worth a risk to their application — however small — Castillo said.

“Everybody is very scared of the government, and with reason,” she said. “You never know if it’s going to backfire.”

With immigrants apprehensive about utilizing government programs, or unable to do so, the community is left filling the gaps, trying to keep people fed and sheltered.

“We’re just scrambling to help them on our own, outside any system,” Castillo said.

Local food banks, church programs and even individual donations of stimulus money have helped her do that.

“The good news is in every crisis good decent people tend to rise up to help,” Abramson said.

These articles are being shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.




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