Migrants working through pandemic demand protection and benefits

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Union, Democratic lawmakers back stimulus payments for undocumented performing essential functions

Migrant farmworkers have been laboring during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP file photo)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — They have picked crops in California, sanitized buildings in Minnesota and given comfort to COVID-19 patients in Chicago during the pandemic.

Now, these migrant workers are urging lawmakers not to exclude them again from benefits should Congress approve a new stimulus package.

“As essential workers who are on the front lines every day we are the most exposed to the virus and to taking it home to our families,” said Elia Starkweather, a janitor from Minneapolis. “We do essential work but we are invisible to the government. That has to end. Documents or no documents, we’re exposing our lives and giving our best to this country that we love.”

She and other workers and labor leaders participated on Wednesday in a virtual town hall by Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They said migrant workers have been told to work through the pandemic, often without adequate personal protective equipment, without the benefits of paid time off and were excluded from the $1,200 per-person federal stimulus payment. They call that an injustice and want to stop it.

“I pick crops so people can take food to their families, but sometimes I don’t have enough to put on my table. My hours were cut at work so my children are down to two meals a day,” said Carolina Sanchez, a farmworker from California and a mother of six. “At work, they tell us to wear masks but they don’t give them to us. We have to decide between buying a mask or buying food for our children.”

Hilario Lechuga is a social worker in Illinois who’s been helping patients and their families navigate through hospital stays due to COVID-19 infections. He’s in close contact with the sick, taking down information and arranging for videoconferences with their families through an iPad. He also helps track down relatives of those who’ve died.

“It’s hard to let people know their loved ones have died or to ask them what to do with the remains,” he said.

Lechuga, originally from Mexico, said every employee made to work through the pandemic should get free personal protective equipment and be adequately compensated for exposing his- or herself to COVID-19.

“We’re the only income our households receive, but one in three workers at the hospitals have it (the virus). My brother got sick after his company denied him PPE. He lives with our mom. She’s 81 and she’s OK for now, but it’s stress we don’t need,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, supports their demands for protective equipment, emergency health care and stimulus payments.

“It’s important to take these demands into account so that all workers can be treated fairly.” the congresswoman from El Paso said. “We’re urging fellow legislators to extend Medicaid and CHIP access to migrants, to give health workers needed personal protective equipment to continue caring for patients and give childcare to essential workers.”

Escobar also supports the Leave No Taxpayer Behind Act of 2020 — which would make migrants eligible for stimulus payments — and a special enrollment period to the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

On Tuesday, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of six U.S. citizens who were denied federal stimulus checks because they filed joint tax returns with spouses who don’t have Social Security numbers.

The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the CARES Act, arguing that it discriminates against mixed-status couples because it treats them differently than other married couples.

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