SANTA FE, N.M. – Lily Guido was having trouble hearing and she felt warm while talking to her co-worker at a California nursing home. She knew something was wrong.
Fearing the coronavirus, Guido, 30, of Santa Rosa, California, didn't go home to avoid possibly spreading it to her five children, isolating in a hotel room provided for health care workers like her.
“They confirmed that I had COVID, and my husband was like, ‘Oh God, what’s going to happen?'" she said last week. “I couldn’t take it. I was in tears. I was in denial.”
Out of work, her family's bills began to pile up this summer. While Guido is a U.S. citizen, and so are her children, her family hadn't gotten a relief check from the federal government in the spring because she files taxes jointly with her husband, Erik, who is an immigrant in the country illegally and not eligible for any federal payments.
An estimated 1.4 million spouses and 3.7 million children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents in mixed-status families like Guido's were cut out of the payments that many needed as the pandemic tanked the economy, according to tax data analysis by the Migration Policy Institute.
That's changed in the latest federal relief package. Guido celebrated that her family and others like them would get checks this time around, as well as a retroactive $1,200 tax credit.
“Mixed-status families with children count,” Guido said. “That makes such a big difference. And I jump for joy, you know, for those people that unfortunately aren’t able to work during this pandemic.”
But even in the latest bill, some 2.2 million children who are U.S. citizens or legal residents will be left out again because both their parents are in the country illegally, according to the Migration Policy Institute. That means no $600 check per child.
During the pandemic, officials in Democratic-controlled places have targeted rent relief and direct payments to all immigrant families who didn't receive checks. States like California and Vermont have distributed federal relief money to community groups helping immigrants, saying they pay taxes and work essential jobs, while New Mexico lawmakers sent U.S. funds directly to those without legal status.
When Guido got sick, her husband, Erik, had already lost hours at his pest control job, so he stopped working for two and a half weeks to take care of their kids.
Alone in the hotel, the virus took her appetite, strained her breath and tanked her heart rate. She prayed and talked to her husband every day. Though she isolated away from home, he and the kids got the virus, too, but not as badly.
“I was stressing on top of it, not knowing how we were gonna make it, how we’re gonna pay my mortgage, how we’re gonna pay the rest of the bills,” Guido said.
They maxed out their credit cards to buy food and other necessities. Erik, who was 10 when he arrived from Mexico, doesn’t have a Social Security number and pays taxes using a special number for non-resident immigrants. Guido asked that his last name be withheld, fearing it could affect an immigration application.
Guido says she tried to apply by phone for financial help from California but never got through. California's governor distributed money to a network of regional nonprofits to give to mixed-status families and adults in the country illegally early in the pandemic.
Recent aid packages passed by legislatures in New Mexico and Vermont directed federal relief funds to those who didn’t get checks in April, mostly through cash payments to mixed-status families and immigrants without legal status. In Phoenix, immigration advocates successfully sued to ensure residents could access rent and bill relief regardless of legal status.
New Mexico’s effort is unique because it paid applicants through direct deposit, instead of relying on community groups to distribute the funds, like California and Vermont.
“These are families — many of them with young children — these are essential workers, these are folks whose livelihoods have been interrupted by this pandemic,” said state Rep. Javier Martínez, who's credited with getting the measure into New Mexico's larger emergency relief bill.
Some 15,000 New Mexico residents have received about $465 each from a $5 million fund created by the Legislature. It's not just immigrants benefiting. The only requirements for the money are being a state resident and having not received a federal check in April, which includes homeless and elderly Americans who didn’t get a check because of IRS rules.
After getting about four times the number of applicants that the fund could support, state officials reduced the maximum amount and prioritized the lowest-income households.
The fund faced no resistance from minority Republicans in the New Mexico House, but some of them voted against the entire bill.
Cities also have used federal funds for direct payments to immigrants.
Angelica Rodriguez and her husband are restaurant cooks in Santa Fe and had their hours cut in half. But they have been able to catch up on rent thanks to the city's pandemic relief: a $750 payment last month and $1,500 this month.
She's a member of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Latino-focused group that advocated for the inclusion of immigrants in state relief efforts. It's also educated immigrants about not worrying that pandemic assistance will count against them in immigration applications, which ask about public aid like food stamps.
Despite the city payments, Rodriguez's family still can't afford to fix a broken washing machine and couldn't splurge on Christmas presents this year. She and her husband are in the country without permission while their three children are U.S. citizens.
“It’s really hard because the 15-year-old boy, the 13-year-old girl, they get it — we told them there won’t be Christmas presents this year because we’re working very little, and the money we are getting is to pay bills and rent,” said Rodriguez, 43.
“But the 6-year-old boy still doesn’t get it,” she said. When she told him Santa couldn’t come this year because the family had gotten COVID-19, he shot back: “He can leave my present outside the door and not come in.”