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Citizens can’t get stimulus checks if their spouse lacks a SSN, but a Spokane woman is leading a lawsuit to change that

Jerysse Uzoegwu and her husband, Mayor, are among the potentially hundreds of thousands of American families who won't receive an assistance check from the federal government. The couple married in November, and Mayor has not yet obtained his citizenship in the United States, preventing both of them from receiving help they say would help them get settled in Spokane after moving cross-country earlier this year. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

After marrying her Nigerian husband in November, Jerysse Uzoegwu filed the new couple’s taxes jointly so he could receive an IRS identification number.

“We followed the guidelines,” said Uzoegwu in an interview last week. “We did everything that we were supposed to do.”

The decision that seemed best for their new family earlier this year, as they were preparing to move across the country from Uzoegwu’s home state of New York to Spokane, is now preventing them from receiving an assistance check from the U.S. government during the coronavirus pandemic.

The legislation that granted U.S. citizens a one-time payment of up to $1,200, and $500 for each dependent child, includes a provision prohibiting assistance if both people on a joint return do not have a Social Security number.

Jerysse Uzoegwu was expecting a check for herself and the couple’s 1-year-old son to help them get settled in Spokane as she started her new job for a company that helps hospitals with their cash flow. After several days with no money, and talking with her Air Force veteran brother who had already received his check, Uzoegwu reached out to her tax preparer and found out she was ineligible.

“I pay taxes. I’ve been paying taxes since I was 16, my first job was at the A&P,” Uzoegwu said, referring to the now-defunct chain of grocery stores based in New Jersey.

“I have family that has fought for this country, and meanwhile I’m being discriminated against because I decided to marry a noncitizen,” she added.

The Treasury Department reported late last week they had processed more than 88 million payments totaling $158 billion. The direct payments are intended to assist households that have been affected financially by government shutdown orders designed to stop the spread of the virus.

Uzoegwu said her husband was willing and able to work, but the shutdowns have also affected processing of immigration paperwork. That means no green card for Mayor Uzoegwu, who arrived in the country on a K-1 visa in October.

“He can’t work, and I have to hold this family on my shoulders, by myself, with one income,” she said.

The Uzoegwus are part of a population that’s difficult to quantify, because of the spectrum of legal statuses for immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens, said Randall Emery, board president and founder of the group American Families United that advocates on behalf of citizen/immigrant couples.

The Los Angeles Times profiled several couples in predicaments similar to the Uzoegwus last week and cited statistics from the Migration Policy Institute estimating 1.2 million Americans are married to undocumented immigrants, which Emery said was a good rough estimate of how many people are affected.

“The first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens,” Emery said. “This is an unprecedented pandemic. Citizens need protection, and we’re all in this together.”

The Uzoegwus aren’t the only Spokane family left without a check due to the restriction. Claire Barnard and her husband, Stephen Hoang, filed jointly this year in an effort to bolster his chances of earning a green card. Hoang now has that card, and a Social Security number, but because the couple filed their taxes before he got it, they won’t get a check for themselves or their two daughters.

“If we had waited, we could have used his Social Security number to file,” Barnard said. “We’re trying to amend our taxes, but the IRS is not taking paper forms, and they’re super behind.”

The couple met years ago in Vietnam, and Hoang has been working for two years to obtain legal status, Barnard said.

They may now be pulled in to a legal effort underway to get citizens their assistance, led by Uzoegwu.

She’s the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed last week in the Southern District of New York against the Treasury Department and IRS arguing a civil rights violation because she has not received a direct payment as a taxpayer and U.S. citizen. It’s intended to be a class action lawsuit on behalf of all citizens with immigrant spouses who did not receive their payments.

Some federal lawmakers are also seeking to change the law, which already includes an exemption for members of the military.

Uzoegwu and the group American Families United support legislation introduced by Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., that would add an IRS-issued taxpayer number, called an ITIN, to the list of acceptable identification for a family to receive a stimulus check. The bill has so far not been included in assistance legislation voted on by Congress, but additional relief legislation is expected to be introduced.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray penned a letter, along with dozens of other Democrats in the House of Representatives and Senate, last week calling for Congressional leadership to include assistance for immigrants in the next round of federal assistance during the outbreak. The request included allowing the families of immigrants with ITINs to be eligible for stimulus payments.

There may be building bipartisan support for a fix. Rep. Dan Newhouse, whose Central Washington district encompasses an area heavily dependent on migrant labor, also signaled support for a change that would allow U.S. citizens to receive their checks.

“While the CARES Act rightfully excludes ‘nonresident alien individuals’ from receiving these payments, we should not be excluding American citizens and their dependents from receiving this assistance during this crucial time,” Newhouse said, referring to the federal legislation authorizing the payments.

Jared Powell, a spokesman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said Tuesday the congresswoman has reached out to the Treasury Department for clarification on the rules surrounding payments.

The Senate is scheduled to return to session next week, while House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer announced Tuesday that chamber would not reconvene at the same time as originally planned.

Uzoegwu said the federal government should honor its pledge to assist all Americans during the crisis.

“I feel betrayed by my own country. I am a taxpaying citizen,” she said. “I’m just a regular woman that pays her taxes.”