The House of Representatives has passed a sweeping $3 Trillion COVID-19 Relief Package that contains among its many provisions several that would provide relief to immigrants and other migrants in the United States who have been negatively impacted by the disease. The House-passed measure constitutes a reversal of fortunes for immigrant advocates compared to previously enacted COVID-19 bills that ignored the needs of immigrants. However, at best, the House-passed measure and its immigration provisions face a difficult future in the Senate and a veto threat from the White House.
As passed by the House H.R. 6800 contains provisions providing for the issuance of stimulus payments to households that include unauthorized migrants; extensions of status for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries; extensions of expired and expiring employment authorization documents (EADs); roll-over of unused visas into future years; relief from detention for certain immigration detainees; heightened detention standards for immigration detainees; eased immigrant and nonimmigrant pathways for foreign-born medical professionals; access to COVID-19 testing and treatment without regard to immigration status; and remote naturalization oath.
Vulnerable Democrats Join Republicans on Failed Anti-Immigrant Motion. The vote was almost as close on a failed Republican effort to strip the bill of its provision that would make COVID-19 economic stimulus payments available to households containing undocumented aliens. That effort, a motion to recommit the bill with instructions (MTR) made by Representative Denver Riggleman III (R-VA), failed by a vote of 198-209, with 13 Democrats joining all of the Republicans who cast a vote in supporting it.
Democrats supporting the Riggleman motion were Representatives Axne (D-IA03), Cunningham (D-SC01), Finkenauer (D-IA01), Golden (D-ME02), Horn (D-OK05), Lamb (D-PA17), Luria (VA-02), Malinowski (NJ-07), McAdams (UT-04), Pappas (NH-01), Peterson (D-MN07), Slotkin (D-MI08), and Spanberger (D-VA07). All 13 are in tight reelection races, and all but one (Malinwowski) represent districts won in 2016 by President Trump. In the case of Malinowski, former Secretary of State Clinton bested Trump in his district by just a margin of just 1.3 percent in 2016.
As a technical matter, the Riggleman MTR contained instructions to require the bill to be reported back to the House with an amendment to strike in subtitle A of title I of division B, section 20102 pertaining to Individuals Providing Taxpayer Identification Numbers Taken into Account in Determining Credit and Rebates. It was debated for just six minutes, with only Representative Riggleman speaking in favor of it and the bill's floor manager, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-NY) speaking against it.
In her response, Representative Lowey contended that "the only thing Republicans can offer is regurgitated talking points about immigration." Continuing, she declared, "I want to make it very clear. COVID-19 does not discriminate or differentiate on immigration status. Our country doesn't have time for Republicans to re-litigate the culture wars. Regardless of background or country of origin. We need action today."
- Stimulus Payments. The bill would reverse a provision in the CARES Act by permitting the issuance of coronavirus stimulus checks to families that include within them unauthorized immigrants so long as one family member had a taxpayer identification number. They would become eligible retroactively for the first round of stimulus checks, which the government started sending out in April, as well as a proposed second round of checks, which would amount to up to $1,200 for each tax filer and $500 for each child, depending on household income.
- Extensions of Certain Work Authorizations, Visas. Sections 191201 and 191203 of the HEROES Act would provide extensions of status for DACA and TPS beneficiaries, as well as extensions for certain other noncitizens in the United States and certain immigrant visa applicants affected by processing delays and travel restrictions related to COVID-19, including automatic temporary extensions of employment authorization documents (EAD) that are set to expire during COVID-19. The measure also would extend voluntary departure deadlines during COVID-19.
- Rollover of Unused Visas. The bill would provide that immigrant visas that go unused at the end of the fiscal year would be rolled over for use in subsequent fiscal years.
- Release from Detention. The bill would require US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to review all the files of detained immigrants and release all those who aren’t subject to mandatory detention and don’t pose a risk to public safety or national security. Alternatively, the agency could explore comparatively low-cost alternatives to keeping immigrants in detention.
- Detention Standards. The bill also exacts new standards for immigration detention. Detainees would have to be provided with free and unlimited soap as well as phone and video calls so they can communicate with their family members and attorneys, who are not allowed to visit most detention centers in person during the pandemic.
- Relief from Deportation for Essential Workers. Under the bill, essential workers would be shielded from deportation and offered employment authorization during the pandemic, and employers in critical industries would not be penalized for hiring unauthorized immigrants.
- Ease Immigration Pathways for Foreign Medical Professionals. The bill would speed up the processing of visas and green cards for medical professionals. Anyone seeking to practice medicine, conduct medical research, or pursue education or training to combat COVID-19 could be approved for a visa on an expedited basis. Consulates that are closed for regular business abroad would have to conduct visa interviews over teleconference or grant an emergency visa appointment in person. Foreign physicians who have already completed residency programs in the US could also get green cards more quickly.
- Health benefits for immigrants regardless of status. Section 30105 of the bill would allow unauthorized immigrants without health care coverage to qualify for no-cost testing, treatment, and vaccines related to coronavirus. The measure, further, provides that the use of Medicaid for such treatment would not be considered for public charge purposes.
- Remote Naturalization Oath Ceremonies. Section 191202 of the HEROES Act would require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish procedures for remotely administering naturalization oath ceremonies during COVID-19.
While the Administration referenced a number of concerns about the bill that would cause the President's advisors to recommend a veto, among the concerns listed was a concern that the measure would "send Economic Impact Payments to illegal aliens and establish dangerous restrictions on immigration enforcement, including deportations, during the public health emergency."
At the time of this writing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had strongly signaled that he had no intention for the Senate to take up H.R. 6800 or any other COVID-19 Relief bill in the near future. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Majority Leader's position will remain firm or whether the political dynamic will force him to change his stance and enter into negotiations with the House on a COVID-19 relief bill.