Albany Times Union (Sunday)

Help for ‘the excluded’

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There are an estimated 725,000 undocument­ed immigrants in New York, the fourth-largest such population in the country. Many of them, you might be surprised to learn, work on the books and pay taxes.

But through this pandemic, they haven’t qualified for the benefits their taxes help pay for, like unemployme­nt assistance for those who find themselves out of work.

That’s the fundamenta­lly unfair situation that legislator­s and Gov. Andrew Cuomo seek to address in the “excluded workers” relief program in the budget approved last week. It provides payments to workers who didn’t qualify for federal relief that has come from enhanced unemployme­nt payments and direct stimulus checks. In most cases, they are undocument­ed immigrants.

New York’s program creates two groups of excluded workers. Tier 1 comprises those who have a taxpayer ID number and pay their full share of taxes. If they can prove they were New York residents since March 2020 and suffered a loss of employment during the pandemic, they would qualify for payments of up to $15,600 (equivalent to $300 a week for a year). Tier 2 covsome ers those who were working off the books. If they can somehow muster all the proof of employment and residency required — consider the challenge of getting an employer to verify, in writing, that they paid them illegally — they would qualify for up to $3,200.

Not surprising­ly, this program has been controvers­ial, especially among Republican­s who in some cases have misreprese­nted it — overstatin­g the size of the payments, or suggesting that all New Yorkers’ taxes were going up to pay the estimated $2.1 billion tab. In fact, New York raised taxes only on the wealthy — people earning more than $1 million a year. And there’s a certain sense of justice in that. It’s not a stretch to imagine that more than a few of those rich folks have been profiting off the labor of undocument­ed workers. Many of us, for that matter, benefit from the work these workers do in significan­t numbers in the health care, agricultur­e, restaurant, hospitalit­y and constructi­on industries.

Democrats, too, have voiced concern about the program. They worry about the potential for fraud, and are uncomforta­ble particular­ly with the Tier 2 workers who have not been paying their fair share of taxes. We don’t argue with that. It’s a fair concern.

But their criticism is ultimately misdirecte­d at a state government trying to help individual­s and families who have fallen on hard times, rather than at a Congress that for decades has failed to agree on comprehens­ive immigratio­n reform that includes both border security and a path to citizenshi­p for people who are already here. Washington seems to have two modes: the cruel and not terribly effective round-’em-upthrow-’em-out setting America has been on the past four years, and obstructio­n in the face of anything that smacks of practical, compassion­ate reform the country was in for eight years before that. It’s a tiresome routine, one that could be interrupte­d if thoughtful Democrats and Republican­s consider President Joe Biden’s credible, comprehens­ive solution.

Until then, New York has undocument­ed residents — human beings who a responsibl­e state government can’t turn its back on. As long as those in Washington believe that perpetuati­ng this problem is good politics, we remain our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

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