Albany Times Union (Sunday)
Help for ‘the excluded’
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.