State’s outreach efforts lacking, immigrant advocates say

Arkansas United hosts a Facebook Live event discussing loan options and strategies for business owners.

Jose is afraid for his livelihood and for his community. He is the owner of a janitorial services company in Little Rock that serves restaurants and office buildings. The business’s Facebook page is full of photos of squeaky-clean restaurant dining rooms, freshly mopped bathroom tile floors, and commercial kitchen linoleum, immaculate after long, greasy shifts. By the end of March many of his clients had dropped off. By the middle of April, he said his one remaining contract would end.

“I’m worried because of my family and the income that my family is no longer receiving,” Jose said. “I know that many people here in the city of Little Rock are also in the same situation. But the federal government has really ignored the immigrant community. Right now, it feels like someone has just shoved us inside a bottle and put a cap on it. Just left to die.”

Right now, your immigration status determines what kind of aid — state and federal — you’re eligible for, or not. At the end of March, Congress passed the CARES Act, a $2 trillion economic relief package that will provide most American taxpayers with economic impact payments of up to $1,200. Taxpayers earning up to $75,000 are eligible for the full amount, plus an additional $500 for each qualifying child. But to receive the cash payment, a taxpayer needs a Social Security number — not something everyone in the immigrant community has.

Jose is undocumented. So he won’t qualify for the $1,200 payment. His family immigrated to this country in 2007. He and his wife run the business. They have four children. He says he’s always considered himself honest, responsible and hard-working. He’s filed taxes every year he’s been in the U.S.  

Undocumented immigrants like Jose pay billions of dollars every year in federal taxes. But in lieu of a Social Security number, the IRS issues an undocumented taxpayer an ITIN, or Individual Tax Identification Number. A taxpayer who files using an ITIN is ineligible to receive a relief payment of any amount. To make matters worse, if anyone in a household files with an ITIN, that renders every other taxpayer ineligible as well — even if they do have a Social Security number. (There’s an exception for military spouses.) 

Immigrants who live in the United States protected by programs such as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) or TPS (Temporary Protected Status) typically are eligible for a Social Security number. But many DACA and TPS recipients — and many U.S citizens, including millions of children — live with a parent or a spouse or a dependent who is unauthorized and files taxes using an ITIN. Every person in such a “mixed-status” household likely would be ineligible for an economic impact payment. In 2017, an estimated 85,000 people in Arkansas lived in mixed-status households, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.

Jose won’t get much help on the state level, either. Because he’s undocumented he won’t be able to file for unemployment insurance benefits. Approximately 50,000 people living in Arkansas are undocumented, according to Arkansas United, an immigrant rights and resource center in Springdale. 

But some immigrants can file for unemployment benefits. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Workforce Services, if an immigrant has legal authorization to work pursuant to DACA, he would be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits, just as any immigrant with legal authorization to work.

Since the outbreak, the state has been slow to make accommodations for, or offer aid to, the immigrant community, said Mireya Reith, the founding executive director of Arkansas United.

“They don’t have to think about us, which is putting all the onus on us to reach out to each and every agency and beg them to collaborate with us,” Reith said. “On top of that, there is not a single Latinx or Asian person in a decision-making role on anything coronavirus-related. Even on all these task forces being created. So we are having to educate these decision-makers and the work is all on us.”

Dr. Jose Romero is chief medical officer for the Arkansas Department of Health. On April 13, Governor Hutchinson named him to his Medical Advisory Committee for Post-Peak COVID-19 Response.*

MIREYA REITH (file photo)

Reith says the immigrant community needs three things right now: translations for information related to the virus, an expanded definition of who can access Medicaid in case they’re diagnosed (DACA and all other immigrants on work permits do not get access to Medicaid) and access to free or reduced-cost testing. 

Rep. Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale) represents the largest Latino population of any district in the state. She says translations and health care access are issues the immigrant community deals with every day, and disparities get heightened in a time of crisis.

Godfrey says translations for non-English speakers are vital. Without them, immigrant communities may be more likely to miss out on vital public health messages about COVID-19 transmission and mitigation. 

“I have yet to see anything pushed out on social media in other languages,” Godfrey said. “I think that’s one of the best ways to communicate. I do hope that we start seeing and hearing more non-English communications because it really is urgent. The governor has been extremely responsive when I brought this concern to him and his staff, as well as the health department.”

Meg Mirivel, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Health, said the department launched its second communications campaign early this week, and part of the outreach is dedicated to non-English speakers, especially to Latino and Marshallese communities. She said providing health department materials in other languages is standard practice.**  

“For the first campaign we used money from the federal government that was designated for Covid-19 activities,” Mirivel said. “That included Spanish-language media, radio, newspaper and digital targeting as well. For the second campaign, there was $1.5 million allocated. So far we’ve set out a budget of $500,000 for 45 days. We don’t really know where we’re going to be in 45 days so we wanted to be flexible if we need to shift gears. That includes Spanish media and translations for those spots. We’re doing broadcast TV, cable TV, radio all over the state, some print, and digital media. Outside of paid media we’ve done a lot of interviews with Spanish media as well.”   

Alisha Curtis, the chief communications director for the Arkansas Department of Commerce, said the department would unveil a landing page with information on unemployment benefits in Spanish and Marshallese this week. 

Zoe Calkins, communications director for the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, the agency tasked with handling jobless claims, said language assistance services are available to individuals who need it. The agency’s online claims filing systems are available in Spanish as are handouts on unemployment insurance benefits. But the agency turned down an invitation to participate in a Facebook live event hosted by Arkansas United.  

Access to health coverage and coronavirus testing through Medicaid is an issue for those in immigrant communities right now, Reith said. 

“We need to expand the current definition of who can get Medicaid assistance in case they’re diagnosed with COVID-19,” Reith said. “Right now you have to have been an LPR [licensed permanent resident, or green card holder] for five years or a U.S. citizen. So most immigrants are left out. We also need more access to free testing. We’re hearing about people being charged $150 for tests. Testing is only free at UAMS or if you have insurance, which again leaves out a lot of Arkansans, including most immigrants.”

Godfrey said there’s also a good amount of fear about immigration enforcement. 

“Something that I’ve heard concerns about, particularly from undocumented folks, is if they go to get tested, is there any kind of connection between that interaction and immigration enforcement?” she said. “Because there are so many questions about your interactions, your travel, who you live with, and where you work.”

Godfrey said Governor Hutchinson was asked about this issue on a conference call with legislators. The governor said there was no connection between what the health department is doing and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or any immigration enforcement agency. He said immigration status is irrelevant for treatment or testing or accessing any step along the way.

A spokesperson for the governor confirmed Godfrey’s account of the call. 

ICE made a public announcement, via its website, that “during the COVID-19 crisis, ICE will not carry out enforcement operations at or near health care facilities, such as hospitals, doctors' offices, accredited health clinics, and emergent or urgent care facilities, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Individuals should not avoid seeking medical care because they fear civil immigration enforcement."

Reith said a big test would come this week when the legislature and the governor will decide how they are going to allocate health funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. If the state uses current Medicaid criteria, most immigrants will be excluded, including the Marshallese communities in Arkansas, as well as those with work permits like DACA recipients, TPS holders and agricultural workers.

“Many of these individuals are the workers who are keeping our food supply chain running, in the poultry factories and fields,” Reith said. “But they also have the least flexibility when it comes to social distancing or missing work to either get tested or self-isolate. Our economy and state’s health cannot rebound if we do not address the health of these immigrant workers.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

Asterisks denote April 15 updates to the reporting.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.