One tenant saw an amber glow flickering through her bedroom window. Another, awakened just after midnight by frantic shouts, put his hand on the wall and felt heat.
The side of their apartment building was engulfed in flames. They seized their children and fled down darkened stairways.
“There was so much smoke we felt like we were drowning,” tenant Lucia Mateo Pérez recounted. Within minutes, the room where her toddler son had slept became a furnace.
As the fire feasted on the clapboard siding of the old rooming house, it leapt to the building next door, devouring the roof. A general alarm summoned every fire station to the fight in New Bedford, a seaside city on the south coast of Massachusetts.
The conflagration on April 19 on Acushnet Avenue exposed the hardships for a tight-knit community of immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the tenants in two buildings that were destroyed were Mayan immigrants from the highlands of Guatemala, many of them workers from the port city’s seafood packing plants. In all, two men died, and 40 people were displaced from the crowded dwellings, fire officials said.
Even with the city’s economy recovering, many immigrant families are still struggling with bare subsistence in New Bedford. Prospects for these workers, who have proved to be a vital and resilient labor force for its seafood industry during the crisis, are closely tied to President Biden’s sweeping $2 trillion social policy bill, now under debate in the Senate. Because many of the immigrants are undocumented, they were excluded from most federal COVID-19 relief.
Immigrants were left out of thousands of dollars of vital payments, even though they were working in an essential food industry and paying taxes. Their exclusion meant that aid did not reach an especially vulnerable group of Americans: their children, most of whom are citizens because they were born in the United States.
The vast bill that passed the House of Representatives on Nov. 19 includes $700 billion in assistance for working families, including nearly $200 billion in direct payments through tax credits. Biden said one of his goals is to cut child poverty by half.
Whether he reaches that target could depend on places like New Bedford, which city officials say is the biggest commercial fishing port in the United States and the scallop capital of the world. If Congress passes the plan without expanding access for immigrants, scholars say, as many as 4.9 million mixed-status families — those that include undocumented parents and their U.S. citizen children — could be excluded from support again.
As many as 1.6 million American citizen children in the lowest income families — one in five of all children living in poverty — would miss out on Biden’s push to lift the youngest poor, according to research by Roberto Suro and Hannah Findling at the University of Southern California. They face a punishing income gap compared to families with American citizen breadwinners that were sustained through COVID-19’s lean times by direct federal payments.
Seafood workers clock in before dawn to plants that line the waterfront, donning gloves and plastic gowns over double layers of sweaters to keep out the icy chill. Men heave crates of scallops, cod, flounder and haddock. Women stand at the lines, skilled hands wielding sharp knives and small tweezers to clean fillets, hour after hour, removing every spine, sorting and sizing scallops, not letting an off-color one get by.
Workers speak with pride of the seafood they packed for American tables. In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, the seafood plants were deemed essential by federal authorities and remained open as other businesses locked down. But concern grew among health officials that workers were reluctant to inform their workplaces if they fell ill.
By April, with the virus spreading and restaurants shutting everywhere, seafood plants closed down, sometimes for weeks. Unauthorized workers, who are not eligible for unemployment insurance, quickly exhausted their funds. They lined up at food banks, going for days on cereal and sandwiches, and fell behind on rent.
Cash-strapped families doubled and tripled up in ramshackle wood-frame apartment houses that have sheltered generations of immigrants working in the fisheries. The overcrowding intensified as schoolchildren were stuck at home all day with online learning.
As soon as the plants reopened, immigrant fish workers went back to their jobs.
The Acushnet Avenue fire was started accidentally by “smoking materials” — probably a cigarette butt — dropped from an upper window into an alley between two buildings, the fire chief, Scott Kruger, said.
The fire alarms in the southside building had either expired or appeared to have been disabled, fire officials said. Tenants on the third floor said they rushed toward the emergency exit door, only to find it blocked with a sofa and a desk. One family, including a mother who was pregnant, escaped by climbing out a back window and jumping over flames to an adjacent landing.
Firefighters, after battling until dawn to subdue persisting embers, found the two men who died on the top floor. That building was charred beyond use, and the other was soon condemned and razed.
For Lucia Mateo Pérez, the fire was haunting. When she was 6, she said, Guatemalan government soldiers came hunting for her father, an activist defending rights of Mayan farmers in the highland province of Quiché. Not finding him, they burned down the family’s house and lit a match to Mateo’s hair. She is partially bald from that childhood burn.
This time, she measures the damage in terms of the wage-earning hours she worked to buy each item that was lost.
“We worked very hard to establish ourselves,” Mateo said. “We had our things, a sofa, a table, a computer, shoes, baby clothes. We were left with nothing.” Once an undocumented fish worker, she won her claim for asylum just before the pandemic in 2019. With legal status, she speaks with her full name without fear of deportation.
“To this day, we are still fighting that fire,” she said. During the pandemic, rents have soared, with landlords asking $1,400 a month for cramped fire traps. She now lives in four small rooms with seven adults and three children, in conditions more crowded than before.
She wants something better for her American son, born in Massachusetts, who is 4 years old. “I never had a childhood playing with dolls and LEGOs,” she said, “I don’t want my son to go through the terrible discrimination I had to live through.”
To T.S., a Guatemalan seafood worker who is undocumented, the most painful losses in the fire were cookware for her signature tacos, her 4-year-old son’s Mickey Mouse toy and the school laptop of his 13-year-old brother. Both boys are American citizens.
Local immigrant groups stepped up with donations of food and clothing, while the Red Cross and the Salvation Army offered emergency housing. But as the charity ran out, T.S. said, she never considered seeking government aid.
“Since we don’t have papers, we can’t just go ask for any kind of aid,” said T.S., who requested her full name not be published because of her immigration status. “Thank God, I went back to work again.”
The fire’s impact reached beyond the survivors to dozens of families in New Bedford. It destroyed the offices of the Community Economic Development Center (CEDC), an immigrant assistance organization and longtime community hub headquartered in one of the gutted buildings. Corinn Williams, the executive director, watched in mourning from across the street as flames and water wrecked files full of vital records of families they had helped over two decades. Among the lost documents were piles of tax returns, just prepared by her staff.
Whether or not they have legal papers, many immigrant workers file annual returns.
To maintain a flexible, low-cost workforce in a seasonal industry, the fish plants employ few packing workers directly. Instead, they use temporary staffing agencies, which hire workers and send them to the companies based on demand. The staffing agencies generally pay minimum wage and provide fewer benefits.
It is an open secret in the seaport that the staffing agencies are less rigorous about verifying immigrants’ identity documents to confirm they are authorized to work.
The agencies pay workers in weekly paychecks, with standard deductions for unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare and other taxes.
Seafood workers say they are sharply divided into two classes of earners. There is a privileged tier of those who have a valid Social Security number, un social in Spanish. Immigrants with a legal status like a permanent resident green card and asylum-seekers who have been granted work permits receive Social Security numbers, indicating they are officially approved to work.
Then there are the undocumented workers who don’t have un social. They can still file their taxes using an identifier, created by the IRS, called an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN.
Some undocumented workers file taxes hoping for much-needed refunds. Some say they want to meet their obligations, to be ready in case the government should one day give them a chance to legalize their immigration status. The IRS has reported that filers using taxpayer numbers pay more than $9 billion annually in payroll taxes.
Yet immigrants who file with taxpayer numbers are disqualified from most federal programs, even if their children are American citizens. During the pandemic, when the IRS became the lead agency for dispensing relief funds, the impact of the exclusions was severe.
“It was two different worlds,” said Joselyn Feliciano, a tax specialist at the Community Economic Development Center. “You have people with socials doing fine, staying home, being OK. And then the seafood workers, getting up, going to the factories, putting themselves in danger, getting sick, seeing hours reduced.”
Since undocumented immigrants were not eligible for unemployment, during the pandemic they also missed out on federal COVID-19 bonuses. On top of regular benefits, jobless workers who were eligible received an extra $600 a week in 2020 and $300 a week in 2021.
Immigrants filing with taxpayer numbers cannot receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits lower-income families. During the pandemic, a family of four that was eligible for the credit could receive up to $5,980 in federal payments a year.
Families of those filers were also disqualified from the first two rounds of stimulus payments. In the third round, in March, their children who had Social Security numbers could receive payments as dependents. Families of four that were fully eligible for all three rounds of stimulus received as much as $11,400.
Take the case of a family of four with two American citizen children and an annual income of $24,000 — the earnings reported by many immigrant seafood workers. Over the course of the pandemic, with eight weeks of unemployment for both breadwinners, the difference in aid if the parents were citizens or if they were undocumented immigrants was at least $35,470, according to an analysis for The Marshall Project by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a non-profit, non-partisan tax policy organization. That is significantly more than what most seafood workers make in a year.
Some immigrant families that were eligible never received payments. The COVID-related bureaucratic delays and technological hurdles at the IRS were too much for immigrants whose primary language is Maya Quiché.
The community tried to get by with self-help. Williams’ community center wasted no time reopening, cramming the operation into a borrowed classroom so the staff could rebuild files, resend tax returns and resume connecting immigrants to local programs. Churches, labor groups and immigrant organizations stepped up with food, rental assistance and laptops for children schooling at home.
To make up for lost income, people cooked popular dishes from home countries to sell by word of mouth or Facebook. Drawing on farming wisdom from past lives, immigrants found plots of land on the city’s edges to cultivate tomatoes, squash and Guatemalan hierba mora to market in town. Homes became textile shops where immigrants sewed tote bags and children’s jackets for wholesalers.
But for T.S. and other seafood workers, the basic solution was to keep paychecks coming in. A cheerful woman whose devout Catholic faith lifts her spirit, T.S. said prayers of thanks every day for her job. She has been in the same job in the same company as a staffing agency temporary worker for more than four years.
Of two dozen workers on the scallop packing line where she works, T.S. said, she was the only one who did not get sick with COVID-19 as it spread last year. When the fish houses reopened after lockdown, the city government and the seafood companies took measures to enhance health protocols in the plants, and she felt safer. Now, most of her co-workers are vaccinated, T.S. said. But the company no longer provides masks, so she must buy her own.
Tight labor markets have been driving up wages in Massachusetts. But not for seafood workers, whose hourly earnings have only risen with state-ordered increases in the minimum wage.
Scallop production has been up and down, and so has T.S.’s income. Her work shift starts at 6 a.m., but she doesn’t know how long, or short, it will be. “We never know how many hours they will give us,” she said.
T.S. does not complain. New Bedford’s immigrants have not forgotten a raid that took place more than a decade ago. In March 2007, immigration agents swept into the Michael Bianco textile factory, detaining more than 350 immigrants. Many were deported. Families were permanently separated, as parents left children behind to grow up without them.
“We are not free in this country,” T.S. said. “They could come and take me at any time and my children would stay here suffering. If I had a social, it might be different,” she said. “But since I don’t, I am in the hands of God.”
Undocumented parents feel frustrated that their limitations are holding back their children, especially those born in the United States. As money ran short, children in cash-strapped families were called upon to pitch in. They cooked, cleaned and babysat for younger siblings while trying to attend virtual school. Teenagers took jobs in fish plants, logging into high school classes on their phones from packing lines.
T.S.’s older son, Y.R., was at the end of his virtual seventh-grade year when he lost his home to the fire.
“It was sad, it was depression, it was a lot to take in,” said Y.R., who also asked that his name not be published. He chose not to tell any of his middle school classmates about the disaster, he said, or why he missed a week of school. He did not want to draw attention to his immigrant family’s situation.
“I mostly didn’t tell nobody about it because I didn’t feel comfortable telling them,” he said.
To do his part to overcome the setback, Y.R. said, he kept up with his schoolwork, returning eagerly in September to in-person eighth grade, and did whatever chores his mother commanded.
“It’s my mom,” he said. “I help her in everything she needs me to do.”
A significant exception to the exclusions for undocumented taxpayers is the Child Tax Credit, a popular feature that reaches more than 35 million American households. By law, taxpayers filing with identification numbers can receive the credit if they have children who are citizens or legal residents with Social Security numbers. But until the pandemic, the child credit provided little cash to the lowest earners. Immigrants were reluctant to apply for it.
President Biden has made the Child Tax Credit a centerpiece of his anti-poverty ambitions. In the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package he signed in March, the amount of the credit was temporarily increased. Crucially, the IRS was authorized to pay it as a refund in advance, even to the lowest earning families, and to make monthly payments directly into bank accounts, without families having to apply. A family with two qualifying children under 6 years old could receive up to $7,200. Congress is now debating whether to extend the increase, and for how long.
For immigrants in New Bedford who filed with taxpayer numbers, the deposits of $300 for each of their American-born children that started showing up in their bank accounts this August seemed like miracles. Families bought new shoes for students going back to in-person school. They filled prescriptions for postponed medications and paid overdue bills for care for ailing children. They paid back rent, staving off eviction.
For fire survivors, it was cash to buy a table or a chair.
The social safety net bill approved by the House would extend the Child Tax Credit increase for one more year. It would make the full refund payments permanent, including to the lowest earners. It would also expand access for foreign-born children by revoking a prohibition, imposed in 2017 by President Trump, on young undocumented immigrants who do not have Social Security numbers.
The House bill approved in November also contains a much broader plan that would provide undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade with protection from deportation and work permits — with socials — for up to 10 years.
Senate Democrats hope to pass the bill before the end of the year by a process known as reconciliation, which would not require Republican votes in the evenly divided chamber. So far, there has been little dissent among Democrats about the Child Tax Credit provisions. But the immigration plan faces high procedural hurdles. Republicans say they will unanimously oppose the entire package.
The outcome of the debate will have a direct effect on Diego G., who is 13, a survivor whose only possession salvaged from the Acushnet Avenue fire was one pair of Crocs. He is the oldest of four American-born siblings, including an infant sister born in October.
Their Guatemalan mother is a legal resident with un social. The COVID-19 relief payments she received meant the family survived the worst of the pandemic without going hungry. Their father came from Guatemala 20 years ago. But his complex immigration case is stalled, and he has not been granted a work permit. Recently, debilitating muscle pain, untreated during the pandemic, is keeping him from doing seafood work. Now Diego’s mother has to stay home caring for the baby, so both parents are out of work. His father’s income is sorely missed.
“It’s pretty hard for me,” Diego said. “He can’t buy us some school supplies. Shoes, clothes for me and my brothers and sisters.”
Diego worries that his father will not be able to provide things he and his siblings need, even though they are American citizens like most of their school friends. He asks a basic question: “How is he going to get money for our food?”