They met in a Facebook community for Catholics and connected over their shared love of gospel music. At 56 and 38, they married and settled into a modest life in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, where they could splurge on the occasional day trip across Puget Sound or fried fish at their favorite waterfront restaurant.
But like many people in the U.S., Jonny Arenas and his husband have seen their lives turn upside down. Both lost their jobs when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered much of their city, and they were hoping that a bank deposit from the federal stimulus fund to help struggling families would cover their rent and bills.
But the money never came, and suddenly it felt as if their relationship was being held against them. Though his husband is a United States citizen who was born and raised in Seattle, Mr. Arenas is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. The relief package negotiated in Congress makes clear that neither one of them is eligible for help because of Mr. Arenas’s legal status.
“If we pay the rent, we don’t have enough money to buy what we need, not even vegetables,” said Mr. Arenas.
A provision in the legislation that created the stimulus fund, which received little attention while it was under debate, prohibits payments to people who file taxes jointly with someone who uses an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, a common substitute for a Social Security number used mostly by immigrants without legal status.
The result, immigrant advocates say, is that many American citizens who are married to undocumented immigrants will not receive financial support at a time when the country is facing a staggering unemployment crisis.
Those families also must forgo the bonus payments that otherwise would be distributed based on the number of children living in their home. As a result, larger households in financial distress may lose out on thousands of federal dollars because of a single undocumented family member.
But immigrant advocates say most mixed-status couples file jointly because doing so is an important part of proving the legitimacy of their marriage, which is necessary for the undocumented spouse to eventually gain legal status.
Such is the case for Luz María Ortíz de Pulido, who had for years been saving extra money at the end of the month — often only $10 or $20 at a time — for a rainy day that has now arrived with the coronavirus.
Her husband, Valentine Pulido, an American citizen born in California, is now supporting the four children and one grandchild who live with them almost entirely on his own.
Money has always been tight in their home in Del Valle, Texas, a suburb of Austin. Ms. Pulido, who is from Mexico, knows never to splurge on unnecessary indulgences like yogurt, or anything but the cheapest off-brand cereals. But since the pandemic eliminated most of her work as a house cleaner, the family’s financial situation has become more precarious.
Were it not for the provision, Ms. Pulido’s family would have received about $2,700 to help cover their bills: $1,200 for her husband and a $500 bonus for each dependent child in their household under 16.
Instead, they had to cancel the insurance on Ms. Pulido’s car and request an extension on their rent for next month. “We needed that money,” she said. “It’s seven people in my house and just me who doesn’t have papers, and we are all punished. It’s hard.”
For many families, the exclusion is particularly painful because it applies only to those undocumented immigrants who pay federal income and Social Security taxes. Americans who are married to immigrants who are paid under the table but do not report their earnings to the federal government are not disqualified from receiving stimulus checks.
At least two federal lawsuits seeking a nationwide injunction blocking the restrictions on stimulus payments were filed last week, in Illinois and New York. The cases argue that denying the funds to U.S. citizens because their spouses lack Social Security numbers violates the constitutional rights to free association, due process and equal protection inherent in the Constitution.
An exception to the rule was made for couples where either spouse served in the military during the previous tax year.
Advocacy groups have begun to introduce programs meant to catch immigrant families that are slipping through the financial safety net that is being hastily sewn by Congress.
The billionaire George Soros pledged $37 million to help vulnerable New Yorkers who cannot access federal help, including undocumented immigrants and their spouses. And United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group, created a fund that is national in scope.
Within 10 minutes of making the application available online, the group received 1,300 requests for help from families in 30 different states, according to Bruna Sollod, its communications director. Ms. Sollod said they had to quickly take the application down because so far they have only raised enough money to provide 300 families with $400 in support each.
Undocumented immigrants were also disqualified from funding allotted in a later stimulus package to cover coronavirus testing and treatment. Immigrant and health advocates argue that the decision by Congress could put all Americans at greater health risk.
“For people to have to make decisions about whether or not to work in this environment without the cash assistance and potentially without testing and treatment as well is not only inhumane, but it actually hurts us in being able to address this crisis,” said Manar Waheed, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Congress has to protect everyone in order for us to get a hold on this crisis.”
For many families of mixed immigration status, being barred from stimulus funds is compounding the financial strain caused by sudden job losses because undocumented immigrants are also not eligible for unemployment insurance.
Irvi Cruz lost both his jobs in Manhattan restaurants last month, leaving his wife, Rachel McCormick, a teacher in the New York public school system, to support the couple and their two daughters, Sara and Ana, 7 and 5, on her income alone.
Mr. Cruz, who grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico, has been paying taxes for nearly 10 years with a taxpayer identification number he obtained around the time he married Ms. McCormick, who is from Pennsylvania. Neither received any stimulus funds.
“What more do I have to do to deserve that money?” Ms. McCormick said. “And so why is the government making this decision that my family doesn’t need to survive? Or needs to find another way to survive?”
While their rent payment looms closer, Mr. Arenas and his husband have stopped eating lunch, hoping that limiting themselves to two meals a day will stretch their financial reserves a little further.
They have noticed that their neighbors — mostly American citizens or legal immigrants who work for the city’s many tech companies — seem to be staying inside as much as possible in order to stay safe from the virus.
But Mr. Arenas has not had that luxury. Now that his work as a house cleaner has dried up, he sanitizes groceries at a local market for two hours a night to bring in extra money.
The gap between his situation and his neighbors’ seems larger than ever. “We are human beings, we are not different,” Mr. Arenas said. “We work and file taxes every year, and we are vulnerable, too.”