COVID-19 Pandemic

Promoting the Well-Being of Immigrant Families at a Time of Urgent Need

By Mark Greenberg and Essey Workie    June 29, 2020


Amidst the historically unprecedented job losses and disruptions in the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of families and children need help to meet basic family needs. With new federal legislation, states and localities face challenging and urgent implementation issues. In moving forward, it is important to address the distinctive policy and implementation issues affecting families with immigrant members. It is crucial to do so because immigrant families, particularly those with one or more unauthorized persons, face significant barriers to accessing safety-net programs and assistance available to others through the pandemic legislation, both because of eligibility restrictions and fears about the consequences of seeking needed services.

One fourth of the nation’s children are children of immigrants, and 88 percent of these children are citizens. Before the pandemic, one third of the nation’s children experiencing poverty were children of immigrants. Under ordinary circumstances, addressing the needs of children of immigrants should be a key part of any strategy for promoting child well-being and reducing child poverty. The economic fallout of the pandemic increases the risk of poverty for immigrant families since immigrants are over-represented in industries hardest hit by the pandemic including hotels, restaurants, cleaning services, in-home childcare and nail and hair salons.

There were notable gaps in assistance for families with immigrant members long before the pandemic began, with significant restrictions in federally funded Medicaid, SNAP, TANF, Supplemental Security Income, and other federal public benefits. Some states have responded to federal restrictions by establishing state-funded programs of medical care, food, and cash assistance but even the replacement state programs are often limited in scope.

While the pandemic legislation provides important assistance, the assistance does not reach many families with immigrant members. The tax rebate payments are only available to families in which both parents have Social Security numbers, leaving out children for which one or both parents are unauthorized. Twenty-seven percent of children of immigrants have an unauthorized parent, and 81 percent of these children are citizens, but they will not benefit from the rebates. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that due to the Social Security number requirements, 15.6 million people will be excluded from the stimulus payments: 10 million unauthorized immigrants, along with 3.8 million children and 1.8 million spouses who are either U.S. citizens or green-card holders. The expansions of unemployment benefits apply to workers who are citizens or work-authorized immigrants but leave out the families of unauthorized workers. Children will benefit from Pandemic EBT regardless of immigration status, but this will only help those families with school-age children. And, the legislation does not modify existing Medicaid immigrant restrictions, under which most legal immigrant adults are ineligible for federally funded Medicaid. Some states have chosen not to extend Medicaid to lawfully present children and pregnant women, and unauthorized adults and children are only eligible for Emergency Medicaid.

Even when families are eligible for benefits and services, they may be fearful of accessing them. The public charge regulation implemented in February 2020 has made many immigrants fearful that seeking support will have negative immigration consequences for them or family members. However, analysis by MPI finds that few people applying for green cards will be adversely affected based on use of public benefits since those without green cards are rarely eligible for public benefits. But the rules are complex, chilling effects are severe, and the administration has done little to dispel the confusion. Moreover, members of immigrant families may be fearful that accessing benefits puts them at risk of immigration enforcement, even during the pandemic.

States and localities can do more to help families with immigrant members by opting for inclusive eligibility policies that make it possible for immigrant families to access essential resources during the pandemic. California has partnered with the philanthropic community to establish its Disaster Relief Fund to support unauthorized immigrants who are ineligible for federal assistance, and Washington State has implemented its Disaster Cash Assistance Program which is available without regard to immigration status to those ineligible for other cash assistance in the state. Local governments in cities including Boston, Chicago and Austin have developed cash assistance programs through public-private partnerships, providing support to families in need, including those ineligible for federal assistance. Typically, these locality-centered programs provide one-time grants to families both in need and ineligible for federal assistance. Some state and nonprofit refugee resettlement agencies—including ones in Arizona, Maine, Maryland and Utah—are collaborating to help refugees who have arrived in recent years navigate the available support systems. Some of these efforts also provide outreach to those who have been granted asylum, who are generally eligible for the same benefits as refugees but are often not linked to those benefits, and to asylum seekers, who are typically eligible for a limited set of benefits and services. Some non-governmental organizations are using remote access technologies to reach out to unaccompanied children and their parents or other sponsors. And, some states and localities have developed new guidance to address potential consequences of accessing needed health care and other essential resources and combat misinformation and related fear about the federal public charge rule.

It is in all our interests that everyone in need of medical care during a pandemic is able to access it without fear. And it is in all our interests that children and families not grow hungry or face eviction when parents are unable to work through no fault of their own. For all states, it is important to understand the extent and limits of federal assistance, to review state policies to determine the extent to which state programs are reducing the gaps, and to focus on accurate messaging to immigrant communities so that families are not fearful of accessing the support systems available to them. Doing so is a key part of efforts to promote the well-being of all children and families in a time of urgent need.

About the Authors

Mark Greenberg

Greenberg is a Senior Fellow and directs the Human Services Initiative at the Migration Policy Institute. He previously served as Acting Assistant Secretary at the Administration for Children and Families. Read Full Bio »

Essey Workie

Workie is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Her research interests include immigrant children and families; health, mental health and human services; diversity, inclusion and equity; and leadership development. Read Full Bio »


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