In 2016, when Pattie Martinez’s husband applied for his green card, the two had already been married for three years.
“We met at a wedding,” the Alum Rock Elementary Union School District teacher says. “His friend got married, and my friend got married, and we met there.”
Soon, the two started dating. When, eventually, Martinez found out her boyfriend was undocumented, it didn’t much bother her. She followed her heart. “You don’t tell the heart ‘you can’t look at this person because they’re not legal,’” she says.
Before long, they were married themselves. A few years later, they began the process getting him his green card. We all know what happened next.
The election. The administration. And with it, its harsh anti-immigrant stance.
Since becoming president in 2016, Donald Trump has made punishing immigrants, legal or otherwise, a cornerstone of his administration. There have been unconstitutional travel bans, violations of due process, attacks on birthright citizenship, statements fellow Republicans have called the “textbook definition of racism,” ICE raids, “the wall,” and the generational trauma of forcibly separating thousands of immigrant children from their families—children who, in many cases, have since become lost entirely within a highly disorganized system. Most telling of all, the administration has slowed even legal immigration to “a trickle.”
In late March, Congress passed the CARES Act, which directed emergency funds to American individuals and businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Included in the act were immediate $1,200 stimulus checks for all adults who earn less than $99,000 a year, and an additional $500 for each child.
By now, most CARES stimulus checks have already gone out, having been automatically generated based on an individual’s 2018 and 2019 tax filings. However, one line in the CARES Act specifies that “in the case of a joint return,” “the valid identification number” of each spouse is required—meaning not only will currently undocumented Americans not receive a stimulus check, neither will U.S. citizens like Pattie Martinez who are married to an undocumented immigrant.
If at any point in the last four years her husband’s green card had been approved, the Martinezes would otherwise have received $3,900 in stimulus money ($2,400 for the adults, and an additional $1,500 for the three kids under the age of 17). Due to the exception, they’ll receive zero.
“It feels like we’re being punished for trying to make things right,” Martinez, who has been filing jointly with her husband for at least the last two years, says. “We can’t file separately if we are fixing his legal status, because then they say that technically we’re not really married. I don’t think it’s fair at all.”
The withheld funds come at an especially urgent time. Without a valid SSN, her husband can’t apply for unemployment. Normally a house painter, there hasn’t been any work for him to do since early March. For almost two months now, all six people in the Martinez household have been subsisting entirely on one elementary school teacher’s paycheck.
“We’re able to afford rent and basic food,” Martinez says, “but I don’t know about my other payments, like insurance, car payment and everything else. It’s very hard.”
Census data from 2010 indicate that 38.6 percent of San Jose’s population was born in another country. Zulma Maciel, director of San Jose’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, says her division estimates the further subset of San Jose residents who are undocumented is around 200,000 people—a number that is, at best, fuzzy.
“Those numbers are very difficult to get because they’re not on the books anywhere,” Maciel says. “They’ve been in the shadows for so long that it’s difficult to get any accurate data on the undocumented. But most of them are adults, and many of them have families—many of them mixed-status families, meaning they’re married to people who are U.S. citizens, or have permanent status.”
Many, like Pattie’s husband, also have children who are U.S. citizens in the community.
“Nationwide, there are an estimated five million children who have been denied financial assistance because one of their parents is undocumented,” Maciel says, citing figures from Unidos US (a representative from the non-profit confirmed the figure via email). “What happens is these families are forced to tap into emergency savings, if they even have any, which will be depleted in just a month or two. And then what?”
Another San Jose resident, a Marriott hospitality worker in his 60s who spoke to San Jose Inside on condition of anonymity, has also been out of work since March. Like Martinez, he’s a U.S. citizen who has been excluded from a stimulus check simply because of his spouse. Unlike Martinez, he isn’t even married to that spouse anymore.
“We got divorced last year in September,” he says. “That was the end.”
Before the COVID-19 outbreak reached America, the man’s ex-wife had already moved back to Mexico, her birthplace. As a U.S. citizen, the hospitality worker is receiving unemployment, but for the crime of having once married his ex-wife (which is entirely within a citizen’s right), the Marriott worker is now denied his stimulus check.
“Anything I could get right now would help,” he says, specifying that his job is serving banquets—exactly the kind of event which is off the books for the foreseeable future. “We take care of groups of 200 to 500 or more. If they continue with the social distancing, it’s going to be a long, long time before I can go back to work.”
“Denying a stimulus check to a U.S. citizen who qualifies for one seems unconstitutional,” Maciel says. “I think this administration has been trying to penalize anybody who has a status other than a U.S. citizen. But it seems like even the families of U.S. citizens are being hurt.” Maciel says her office is normally a proactive organization, focusing efforts on promoting inclusion and helping immigrant families thrive in San Jose. But since Trump took office in 2016, her office has had to shift its efforts.
“Over the last three years we’ve seen ourselves become less proactive and become much more reactive,” she says. “Reactive to the administration’s policies that have not been immigrant friendly, and which go against our values of creating a much more welcoming and immigrant-friendly environment.”
If Silicon Valley’s mixed-status families get through this, it will be in spite of the federal government’s efforts, rather than thanks to them. But as Maciel notes, COVID-19 has already shifted mainstream understanding of the work immigrants—documented or otherwise—do for the community.
“We’ve reevaluated what essential workers are,” she says in a recent interview. “From farm workers, to health care providers, to people who work in restaurants: they’re mostly immigrant populations.”