NORTH CAROLINA, Raleigh– For the last couple of weeks, Alejandra* has been trying to figure out whether her mother, a farmworker, qualifies for a stimulus check. Her mother became a permanent resident in the 1980s and has worked decades in the fields. At retirement age, she still travels from Mexico to N.C. to plant tobacco and work through the end of harvest. Understanding who qualifies for a stimulus check resulted to be more complex than Alejandra originally imagined.
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The family assumed that the stimulus check, or Economic Impact Payment (EIP), was only available to residents who recently filed taxes. Alejandra’s mother doesn’t work enough hours to be required to file federal taxes. But the IRS has offered the tax credit to non-filers, too, who can apply on its website. Once Alejandra realized this, she quickly helped her mom submit an application.
“It’s right there and so easy,” she said.
Some joint filers are not eligible to receive stimulus money
Yet in the process, Alejandra discovered her own hurdle. When she signed onto the IRS website to update her direct deposit, she received an error message that said she was not eligible for the Economic Impact Payment. A U.S. citizen, Alejandra files taxes jointly with her undocumented spouse. Filing taxes jointly as a married couple with one SSN and one ITIN disqualifies her — and potentially millions of joint filers nationwide — from receiving the economic stimulus.
“This is so heartbreaking,” Alejandra said. (She is going by a pseudonym to protect her privacy.)
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was signed into law on March 27. The economic stimulus, or Economic Impact Payment, is only available to taxpayers with Social Security numbers (SSN). Non-U.S. citizens with an SSN who live and work here, including green card holders and workers using visas, such as H-1B and H-2A visas, are eligible to receive stimulus money. So are immigrants who are DACA recipients or have Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
But this one exception affects a mixed-status married couple’s eligibility — and a U.S. citizen’s right to a tax credit because they married an undocumented immigrant — putting a greater strain on many immigrant families who thought they were in the clear.
The situation of millions of immigrant families
Pew Research Center estimates that for 2017 (the most recent data available), about 2.4 million mixed status families lived in the U.S. These are couples or single individuals with minor children where one or both parents are unauthorized immigrants and one or more children are U.S. citizens (because they are US-born), according to Pew senior demographer Jeffrey Passel. Pew estimates about 85,000 such families in N.C. According to NC Policy Watch, at least 300,000 adults and children across the state will be excluded.
For Alejandra, filing jointly with her non-resident spouse was a way to follow the rules while working to get her husband’s documentation in order.
“We file taxes jointly because we both work,” she said. “I’m trying to do this right. I’m trying to do this legally.”
In fact, Alejandra said she did her 2019 tax filings in February and already paid the amount owed on both the federal and state levels. If she had waited to file by July 15 under this year’s extension, lawyers say she could have filed as Married Filing Separately and gotten the check. According to a report released by the National Immigration Law Center, separate tax filings may render a person ineligible for Affordable Care Act subsidies that may be larger than the Recovery Rebate. The organization urges taxpayers to consult professional tax preparers about the best options for their unique household situation.
In Alejandra’s case, a U.S. citizen born in this country will be denied her stimulus check. Of course, her husband falls into the same category of roughly 4.3 million immigrants who do not have a Social Security number but file taxes using a taxpayer identification number, or ITIN. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that half pay taxes; none qualify for the $1,200 stimulus check.
Who qualifies for the stimulus check?
So, who does? Since the EIP is a federal tax credit, not a public service benefit, anyone with DACA or TPS should receive a check. Even if they claim a dependent who is a non-resident, they should still get a check, just no extra money for the dependent.
An example would be that “sometimes people claim their parents with taxpayer identification numbers as dependents,” says attorney Lazlo Beh at Philadelphia Legal Assistance. “The law as written doesn’t disqualify you from receiving a stimulus check; but your parent with the ITIN wont receive it.”
An H-2 worker (like an H-2A farmworker or H-2B fishery worker) qualifies for the economic stimulus if they have filed federal taxes and meet the IRS substantial presence test, works season that is more than 6 months, or, if they have been coming for at least three years, whose seasons are more than four months.
The provision disqualifying a mixed-status marriage would apply, too, but most H-2 workers who are required to file federal taxes do so as single payers and do not include their spouses.
“It is assumed that a married H-2 worker’s spouse will reside in the H-2 worker’s home country and will not have a SSN,” according to Beh. “But, if the spouse does have a SSN, the couple should be able to file jointly and qualify for an Economic Impact Payment of $2,400.”
Like many tax attorneys around the country, Beh is working to interpret how the law will be put into effect.
“I don’t know how the IRS will actually process it,” he said.
When reached for comment, an IRS spokesperson told Enlace Latino NC that the agency is not doing interviews at the present time.
Who to contact if you have problems getting stimulus money?
Beh suggests that if someone thinks they are entitled to a stimulus payment or has been denied or not gotten it, they should contact a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic or other legal aid service. Low Income Taxpayer Clinics are funded in part by the IRS to “represent low income taxpayers in controversies with the IRS and provide education and outreach to taxpayers who speak English as a second language,” according to its website.
There are two of these clinics in North Carolina: one in Charlotte and one in Durham. Legal Aid is another resource. Legal Aid’s farmworker unit is developing a fact sheet for H-2 workers to explain the tax law, to be released within a couple weeks. It will include specific information on how to make sure taxes will be processed and checks with the stimulus payment mailed to the right address.
For Alejandra, the principle is “infuriating” and compounds onto a pile of unjust policies that disregard immigrant contributions to this country, as well as her own as a first-generation American.
“My American neighbors are set. They’re always set,” she said. “But I was born here, too.
We want to be here, too. Why don’t we get the support? How much more do we have to prove that we are not trying to hurt anybody?”