Watch CBS News

New York State is spending $2 billion on undocumented workers. Here's why.

Explaining "America's immigration amnesia"
"America's immigration amnesia": How U.S. struggles with immigration policy 04:09

The billions in federal relief spending during the coronavirus pandemic has markedly excluded millions of people in America: undocumented immigrants. But one U.S. state is taking the opposite tack, moving to offer these excluded workers who lost jobs during the crisis up to $15,600 each.

"This is the first time any kind of benefits for undocumented immigrants approach the level of what other kinds of workers get," said David Dyssegaard Kallick, deputy director of the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI) a nonprofit policy research group.

Under a $2.1 billion plan approved last week, nearly 300,000 undocumented people in New York will be eligible for the lump-sum payments, which start at $3,200. Such workers make up 5% of the state's workforce, mostly in frontline industries, and pay an estimated $1.1 billion in state and local taxes. Experts say offering them urgently needed financial relief will help energize New York's economy as businesses look to shake off the effects of coronavirus lockdowns. 

Coming after a months-long pressure campaign from immigrant advocacy groups that included a hunger strike and protests targeting prominent legislators, New York's move is also spurring activists in neighboring New Jersey to seek funds for undocumented people. 

Undocumented immigrants are commonly shut out of social safety-net programs. They don't qualify for unemployment benefits, although many employers who hire undocumented people pay into the unemployment insurance system. (Nationally, those payments comes to $13 billion over the past decade, according to an earlier FPI study.) And last year's multiple rounds of federal pandemic aid, including stimulus checks, also excluded not just immigrants but also citizens related to immigrants

Meanwhile, the Trump administration publicly clashed with states like New York after it allowed undocumented immigrants to get drivers' licenses

Major spending boost

New York's fund, while falling short of what activists had called for, is enough to make a "real difference" to a family, Kallick said. Undocumented workers can apply for a lump-sum payment of up to $15,600 as long as they can show they lived in the state before the pandemic and lost money because of it. 

That sum amounts to about half of what the average New Yorker receiving unemployment benefits would get over a year. Workers who can't meet the requirements to get the full $15,600 could potentially qualify for $3,200, or the amount they would have received in three federal stimulus checks.

The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that about 290,000 workers, or a third of the undocumented people in New York, will get aid under the bill. Nearly all that money will be spent, with about $1.5 billion in benefits earmarked for people in New York City and another $271 million for those on Long Island, also home to a significant number of undocumented workers. The rest would be spent across the state.

That money will be spent and help lift the local economy, FPI predicts. "[W]hen workers gain, so do the communities where they live. Shops, grocery stores, gas stations and local businesses in general will see an uptick in sales," the firm said in a policy brief.

"Before the pandemic, I always had work"

"The first thing I'm going to do is to pay my back rent," Rubi Correa, who has been out of work since last spring, told CBS MoneyWatch.

Correa, 48, typically cleans houses and babysits on Staten Island in New York City. But the 48-year-old has been out of work since the coronavirus struck last spring. She said she has supported herself by going "from food pantry to food pantry" and now owes several months' worth of rent. 

"Before the pandemic, I always had work, but it's very difficult to have a job now," said Correa, who was one of more than 70 workers who went on a hunger strike to pressure New York State to pass the bill. 

Sixta Leon, a 58-year-old housekeeper, turned to collecting cans and bottles during the pandemic. Like Correa, Leon lost all her cleaning work last spring; she has recently gone back to working one day a week.

Sixta Leon poses in front of a mountain of cans. Leon turned to collecting cans and bottles to make ends meet when she lost her work as a housekeeper in spring 2020. Sixta Leon

"When they told us the news that we had won I began to cry of happiness. I just thought of the many people that are going to get help," said Leon, who has lived in the U.S. for 33 years. 

Immigrant communities are overrepresented in the frontline workforce. In New York, one-fifth of undocumented workers are in the hard-hit food service and accommodation sector. Another fifth work in retail or health care, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

"These are farmworkers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, delivery workers, home health aides, grocery store workers, the people who do the warehousing, stocking, the delivery workers," said Fahd Ahmed, executive director of DRUM - Desis Rising Up & Moving, one of the groups that pushed for the New York bill. "The people who we were cheering for as essential workers are the same ones who were being left out of any benefits." 

Republican opposition

New York's move raised objections from Republicans nationwide, who say that citizens should be prioritized. Representatives James Comer of Kentucky and Jason Smith of Missouri wrote to the White House to accuse New York of "prioritiz[ing] illegal immigrants over American families." 

"This is madness," Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise tweeted after passage of the measure.

Some New York legislators had other issues with the package. Some were concerned that some undocumented people might move to the state in hopes of getting the money, according to the Democrat & Chronicle. One legislator initially said the package wasn't fair because it excluded working mothers who had to drop out of the workforce to care for children, the outlet reported. (The lawmaker ended up voting for the aid.)

Meanwhile, activists in neighboring New Jersey are pushing for a repeat. Immigrant advocates in the state launched a hunger strike to draw attention to their plight. New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank, points out that undocumented workers represent an even larger share of the workforce in New Jersey than in New York, and that they're concentrated in the frontline workforce. Governor Phil Murphy has offered tentative support for such a fund. 

"It's something that we're really trying to address," Murphy said at a press conference last week.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.