When the pandemic forced Chicago to shutdown, Citlali started buying grocery gift cards for the undocumented families in her Little Village community.
As the virus spread through Little Village, the Chicago Public School teacher continued donating to neighbors.
“I was donating money because there’s been so many deaths. When I heard that we were going to get the stimulus money, I said, that’s wonderful. I’ll use that stimulus money for donations,” she said. “But then I read that I may not get anything. I was in shock.”
Citlali has been married to an undocumented immigrant for more than 20 years. Her husband hasn’t been able to adjust his status because immigration laws would force him to go back to Mexico and live there for years before he could return legally. They file their taxes together but he uses an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which is issued by the Internal Revenue Service to immigrants so they can pay taxes.
Since Citlali’s husband has an ITIN number, she was ineligible for any stimulus money this past spring from the CARES Act. So she didn’t get a $1,200 check nor did she receive an additional $500 for each of her three children.
“I am American, and when I was slapped with this I was like I didn’t need the money. It was more like: how dare you tell me that I don’t have the right of other Americans,” she said. WBEZ is withholding Citlali’s real name because her husband is undocumented.
There are about 244,000 mixed-status families like Citlali’s in Illinois. And these families were excluded from receiving any money from the $2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that was approved in March.
“Unfortunately under the CARES Act, even if one adult in the household did not have a social security number, that disqualified the entire family from getting any payment,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Under the new relief package approved by Congress this week, mixed-status families would receive the $600 stimulus check for each family member with a valid social security number. The government will not be able to withhold checks for an entire family, if one member doesn’t have a valid social security, according to U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
“I heard from individuals married to U.S. citizens that were ineligible to receive first rounds of stimulus checks,” said Garcia. “It was and is simply unfair and unAmerican.”
About 16.2 million Americans are part of a mixed-status immigrant family, according to the National Immigration Forum.
The $900 billion relief package is now waiting for President Donald Trump to sign it. However, Trump said this week that he might veto the bill.
“The new law also goes back and fixes parts of the CARES Act,” Tsao said, adding that Americans like Citlali and her children are now eligible to get the stimulus checks they missed back in March.
Paloma, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is also married to an undocumented immigrant.
She wasn’t surprised she didn’t receive a $1,200 stimulus check earlier this year.
“I went to the website to check and, sure enough, I got a message saying that I wasn’t eligible,” she said. “It’s unfair because we pay taxes.”
Paloma said this is one example of the challenges mixed-status couples face.
She met her husband years ago in North Carolina when Paloma was in graduate school and he worked in the logging industry there.
They met for the first time at a Spanish mass that Paloma attended because she was feeling homesick. Later, they saw each other at a Mexican grocery store, and he asked her out. They dated for three years before they got married in 2018.
Paloma’s husband said it’s unfair to ask everyone to pay taxes and then withhold the benefits of paying taxes to some.
“I felt like I wasn’t part of this community,” he said in Spanish. “It feels unbalanced. We are all asked to pay taxes but then we’re excluded from getting benefits. I felt excluded.”
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.