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Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, left, and Senator Marco Rubio in Washington in December.

Congress Ends Penalty That Kept A Million Americans From Getting COVID Relief Funds

Citizens who filed taxes with an undocumented immigrant can now receive stimulus payments.

More than one million Americans who were left out of the first round of coronavirus stimulus payments because they are married to undocumented immigrants will receive some payments under a fix included in the relief bill Congress passed late Monday.

The amended provisions, which appear almost 2,000 pages into the giant 5,593-page funding package, partially eliminate an obscure but damaging penalty in the first stimulus bill, passed in March. That penalty applied to 1.4 million American citizens and legal residents who filed their taxes jointly with an immigrant who used an individual taxpayer number, a legal alternative to a Social Security number. Under the exclusion, the entire family was disqualified from stimulus payments.

Those families will now be eligible to receive payments of $600 for an individual taxpayer and $600 for each dependent child on a tax return. The new bill also allows those families to recover, when they file their 2020 taxes next year, most of the money they were denied in the first round of stimulus payments. They were entitled to $1,200 for a taxpayer and $500 for each child. Undocumented immigrant family members are still disqualified from any payments.

About 2.2 million children who are U.S. citizens in low-income families, many financially suffering as the pandemic drags on, will still be left out of any payments, because their parents are undocumented immigrants who filed tax returns using taxpayer numbers, according to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan research group.

The amendments in the new bill were added in the final hours of a marathon debate by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and immigrant advocacy groups, a meeting of minds across the party divide that has been rare on immigration issues under President Trump. Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, led the legislators pushing for the change. The Democratic-controlled House had passed provisions to restore the payments for everyone in the excluded families in legislation passed earlier this year, but that bill stalled in the Senate.

The negotiations confronted lawmakers with discrimination faced by the growing numbers of Americans in what are called mixed-status families, which include undocumented immigrants. They settled on a compromise providing federal aid to U.S. citizens and green-card holders in those families. But even as COVID-19 infections are spiraling across the country, throttling the economy, Congress stopped short of offering assistance to all low-income taxpayers, regardless of their immigration status.

Late Tuesday Trump, in a video posted on Twitter, called the new bill “a disgrace” and demanded Congress increase the individual payments to $2,000. He falsely claimed that “family members of illegal aliens” would receive “far more than the Americans are given,” even though the family members now eligible are Americans and they will receive the same payments as other taxpayers. It was unclear what impact the president's outburst would have.

The exclusion in the first stimulus bill was focused on immigrants who filed taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, which was created by the Internal Revenue Service to allow people who do not have Social Security numbers to pay what they owe. It is used by millions of unauthorized immigrant taxpayers.

The fix was welcome news for Lily Guido, a 30-year-old nurse in California who is an American citizen, married to an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico. Together the couple reported four U.S. citizen children as dependents on their joint tax return.

“I’m overwhelmed with joy to know that my family finally counts,” Guido said, speaking on her mobile phone as news broke Monday night that the relief bill had passed.

For almost three weeks in July, Guido said, she isolated herself in a hotel that state health authorities set aside for quarantine for front line workers near her home in Sonoma County. Guido said she likely had contracted COVID-19 in a hospital recovery facility where she worked. Gasping, at times delirious, and with no treatment beyond water and ibuprofen for body pain, Guido said she rode out the illness by herself to avoid harming her family. Her husband, who works as a pest exterminator, had to stop working for a month to stay home to care for their small children.

When she realized that the family would receive no payments from the first stimulus bill, she said, it added to their sense of desperation.

“I felt like the system had failed me,” said Guido, who returned to her work as a nurse when she recovered.

The groups who came together to advance the amendments included the American Business Immigration Coalition, whose board includes corporate executives and Republican donors, as well as the New York Immigration Coalition, a progressive group focused on assistance for low-income and unauthorized immigrants. At one point last summer, the New York group stung Schumer, usually a close ally, with television ads accusing him of neglecting the city’s vulnerable immigrants during the pandemic.

But Murad Awawdeh, interim co-executive director of the New York coalition, said Schumer had shifted gears and maneuvered effectively to usher the amendments into the final bill.

The legislative fix did not resolve a case in federal court in Maryland brought with the help of CASA, an immigrants’ rights group, on behalf of American children excluded from the first stimulus.

“It’s disappointing to see that those left behind again are the most politically powerless,” said Robert Friedman, a lawyer at Georgetown Law school who is representing the children in that case. “Children can’t vote.”

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Julia Preston covered immigration for The New York Times for 10 years, until 2016. She was a member of The Times staff that won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on international affairs, for its series that profiled the corrosive effects of drug corruption in Mexico. She is a 1997 recipient of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for distinguished coverage of Latin America and a 1994 winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Humanitarian Journalism.