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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Overdue pandemic relief for undocumented immigrants

Congress has gone on vacation without passing the next round of pandemic relief.

Meanwhile, Washington state leaders are delivering assistance to people the federal government left out of the last round.

Gov. Jay Inslee recently announced a $40 million fund to help the state’s undocumented immigrants.

Immigrants – undocumented and documented – are critical to the state’s economy.

Whatever one thinks of the nation’s immigration policies, there is no getting around the fact that this state’s economy, like many states, would suffer if immigrant labor were not available.

By some estimates, there are more than 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Washington. Many of them have been here for years, working hard without getting into trouble. They are good neighbors who lack only official immigration status.

They also tend to work in jobs that are deemed critical during the pandemic. Washington’s agriculture industry especially relies on immigrants to harvest at this time of year. That means they’ve been acutely vulnerable to COVID-19.

Yet when Congress passed coronavirus relief, it specifically left out undocumented immigrants. Such was the political reality with a president who wouldn’t sign off on a bill that gave aid to undocumented immigrants.

So Washington is stepping up after months of advocacy from immigrant rights groups. Under Inslee’s plan, the $40 million will be disbursed as one-time payments of $1,000 to immigrants who lost income because of the pandemic. That’s less than the $1,200 stimulus checks that most Americans got under the CARES Act, and there’s no $600-per-week jobless benefit, but it’s something.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be distributing the money. Undocumented immigrants don’t go out of their way to declare their status to state government. And they’d be understandably skeptical about signing up for fear the federal immigration enforcement might find out.

The state therefore will choose a nonprofit organization to administer the fund, ideally one that has connections to and the trust of the immigrant community.

The common objection to this sort of program from people who are critical of undocumented immigrants is that it is taxpayer money going to people who don’t have legal status in the United States.

That’s true, but it’s also misleading. Undocumented workers pay taxes, too, typically without all of the benefits.

Independent data is hard to find, but estimates suggest Washington undocumented immigrants could pay more than $1 billion in taxes annually. One estimate puts their state and local taxes at $368 million and federal taxes at $679 million.

They might not have paperwork or citizenship, but they are productive members of society who deserve assistance when a pandemic-induced recession strikes. It’s not as if they will just abscond with the money. The support they receive will help people buy groceries, pay rent and otherwise survive. In other words, it will go straight back into the local economy.

There are fair debates to be had about U.S. immigration policy and reform. Whether to provide aid to the human beings who live and work here already shouldn’t be one of them.

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