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April 8, 2020

Virginia Has a Role In Securing Resources For Immigrants Left Behind By Federal Packages

The current crisis has highlighted a long-standing fact: Our health and well-being is highly intertwined with that of our neighbors, and our communities are stronger when everyone has the resources needed to be healthy and provide for their families. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the more recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act are expected to extend a lifeline for families across the nation who are in need of economic, health, and other support, yet restrictions on these benefits mean they are largely unavailable to immigrants who lack full legal status and who often work in the industries most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As federal and Virginia leaders encourage people to stay at home and seek medical treatment if needed, ensuring everyone has the resources to do so will be paramount in our efforts to “flatten the curve,” reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and help our economy bounce back once the public health crisis has diminished. 

Latinx family, outside, some smiling, close together and looking at the camera. 

Includes text that reads: "Our communities are stronger when everyone has the resources needed to be healthy and provide for their families."

According to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, there are 175,000 unauthorized workers living in Virginia. Unauthorized immigrants are an important share of workers in essential industries such as agriculture, while many other unauthorized Virginia residents work in sectors that have mostly shut down due to the need for physical distancing. Roughly 34% of unauthorized Virginians work in hard-hit industries such as accommodation and food services, entertainment, recreation, and retail. 

It’s important that workers in all industries can get health care and stay home when they or a family member are sick so they do not risk infecting people in the community. While many who have lost employment as their places of work have shut down or because they themselves need to self-isolate to protect public health may be able to get by through a patchwork of benefits, unauthorized individuals and their families have little to no public assistance to rely on. 

Virginia and its localities can step in where possible in order to ensure everyone impacted by COVID-19 has the chance to pay for the essentials, take paid leave when necessary, and access low-cost or free medical care.

This post focuses on the following critical recommendations to help make that happen: 

  • Virginia policymakers should set up an unemployment compensation or other cash assistance program for workers ineligible for direct payment checks and unemployment insurance despite a history of working and paying taxes on wages
  • Gov. Northam should clarify that emergency Medicaid can be used for COVID-19 testing, diagnosis, and treatment, thereby ensuring COVID-19 health care coverage for uninsured unauthorized individuals at no cost
  • Virginia policymakers should build on the temporary federal paid leave programs and provide long-term paid medical leave for all workers in Virginia, including low-wage workers in large companies

Income Replacement 

One of the most highly touted policies in the CARES Act are the one-time checks of up to $1,200 for individuals ($2,400 for couples) many will receive in the coming weeks. Working unauthorized immigrants often pay federal and state taxes on their wages through the use of an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN). The CARES Act requires individual filers and couples filing jointly to have been issued Social Security Numbers in order to be eligible to receive the one-time check. This makes unauthorized individuals who worked and paid taxes on wages under an ITIN ineligible for a stimulus check, and in many cases will make other family members in mixed-status families ineligible as well.

An individual who has a valid Social Security number and whose spouse worked under an ITIN would need to have filed separately in order to be eligible for a $1,200 check. The spouse using an ITIN would not qualify. An additional $500 rebate is available per child claimed as a dependent on an eligible taxpayer’s return, however, the child must also have a valid Social Security number. A parent who does not have a Social Security number would be ineligible for the $500 child rebate regardless of the child’s immigration status.

Both the CARES Act and the FFCRA expanded unemployment insurance (UI) in response to the COVID-19 crisis but again leaves out unauthorized workers. Changes made by the CARES Act include extending the UI time limit by 13 weeks beyond what the state offers and adding a $600 boost on top of the weekly payments that individuals already or will receive through July 31, 2020. In Virginia, the governor expanded eligibility for UI, relaxed restrictions like work search requirements, and waived the one-week waiting period for benefits.

Only immigrants who were authorized to work throughout the entirety of the benefit period are able to file for unemployment and claim benefits. This includes people who have valid work permits, whose immigration status allow them to work, DACA recipients, or those who are otherwise authorized to work in the U.S. during their base period (the time period used to determine eligibility). It’s important to note that UI is an earned benefit, not a public benefit, and does not count in assessing whether someone is or is likely to be a “public charge” under the most recent ruling.

These federal policies effectively punish mixed status families and families without legal immigration status and fail to meet the needs of all workers who have had their income or job status affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, immigrants who are unauthorized are left behind with little support to weather the crisis economically. Virginia policymakers can help immigrant workers by providing direct financial assistance, whether through a new unemployment compensation program for those left out of the regular unemployment compensation system, through emergency cash assistance (possibly administered through nonprofit organizations that are best positioned to understand local needs), or through another mechanism.

Accessing Medical Care for COVID-19

The FFRCA introduced a state Medicaid option to cover costs related to COVID-19 testing for uninsured individuals regardless of income or assets. This is an important first step in meeting the needs of Virginia’s uninsured population. However, the bill does not alter Medicaid eligibility for immigrants, meaning unauthorized immigrants will not be covered for non-emergency Medicaid services, including testing for COVID-19, through this option. 

The FFRCA does provide a $1 billion pot of funding to reimburse providers for COVID-19 related diagnosis and testing at community health centers, outpatient clinics, and doctors’ offices for uninsured people regardless of immigration status, yet individuals may be responsible for the costs associated with a visit if the provider determines no testing is needed.

Treatment for COVID-19 has not been directly addressed for the uninsured population in either the FFRCA package or the CARES Act. Additional federal funding for Community Health Centers will boost the ability of these key health care providers to meet the needs of the uninsured population, and treatment for severe cases of COVID-19 would likely take place in hospitals that are also getting additional federal funding. The Trump administration has stated that hospitals will be reimbursed for treatment of COVID-19 of the uninsured at Medicare rates and will not be allowed to charge patients directly, but details of the program have yet to be released. This uncertainty means uninsured Virginia residents, including many unauthorized immigrants, may fear being hit by an unaffordable medical bill if they seek help, despite the providers getting additional direct funding.

One way Virginia could meet COVID-19 testing, diagnosis, and treatment needs of the unauthorized community would be for the state to determine those services eligible for emergency Medicaid. This is a measure that several states have already taken and would allow more unauthorized individuals to seek the services they need without fear of how they will pay for it. This would particularly benefit families with low incomes who meet all other criteria for Medicaid other than immigration status. Additionally, Virginia should choose to take up the existing pre-natal state option to provide pregnancy-related care to women regardless of status. 

Paid Leave Policies

The FFRCA introduces temporary paid sick and family leave programs with some limitations. Working people are entitled to these leave benefitsunder certain circumstancesregardless of their immigration status. Mixed status families and families without legal immigration status may be wary of utilizing these benefits due to privacy concerns, but because paid sick and family leave is paid directly to employees by their employers the same way wages are paid, there should be no involvement with government agencies. The only exception would be if an employee decides to file a claim alleging violations of a paid sick or family leave law. In this case, the body in the U.S. Department of Labor enforcing these policies does not inquire into workers’ immigration status in conducting its enforcement activities. 

These policies are promising but still leave people behind, including anyone who works for a company with more than 500 employees, many of whom are likely to be low wage workers. This could have a large impact on unauthorized immigrants as an estimated 46% in Virginia have a family income lower than 200% of the federal poverty line. Low wage workers who are employed by large companies can’t access the leave provided by these policies and are less likely to be able to afford to take unpaid leave. And only 11% of the lowest wage workers have access to paid medical leave in the form of short-term disability insurance compared to 67% for the highest paid workers. Expanded paid leave policies also fail to provide leave for caregivers of older adults and people with disabilities whose regular daily caregiving arrangements have closed.

Critically, there is no federal mandate on access to longer-term paid medical leave (beyond the 10 days included in FFCRA) for individuals who may need to care for themselves or a family member diagnosed with COVID-19. For those who work for employers without a paid medical leave policy, this could result in financial hardship and difficult decisions between employment and taking care of a loved one. For unauthorized and mixed status families with low incomes who will not benefit from one-time checks and unemployment insurance, the prospect of financial hardship due to a long-term absence from work greatly increases. 

Virginia should consider implementing a statewide paid sick leave policy and a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program in order to ensure access to paid leave for all working families beyond the federal public health emergency.


There is still much for the state to do to ensure the safety and economic security of all Virginia residents. Clarifying that COVID-19 testing, evaluation, and treatment are covered under emergency Medicaid would help make sure unauthorized Virginians can get medical help and reduce the risk to their family and community members. A statewide paid family and medical leave program and paid sick days would remove barriers that were not addressed in the federal legislation and ensure working people have options after the federal public health emergency is over and many of these provisions are no longer available. And policy makers should make sure that working people who are unauthorized are provided direct financial assistance in whatever way possible, possibly through a new state UI program or through emergency cash assistance. The state and its localities have a role in making sure all residents are able to withstand this pandemic, and that no one is left behind.

Health Care, Immigration

Freddy Mejia

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