Desert Sun: Will COVID-19 testing jeopardize my green card? FAQs for undocumented residents

, Palm Springs Desert Sun

Published: 2:07 p.m. PT April 29, 2020

It’s not just fear of the coronavirus that is spurring some Riverside County immigrants to call a local information hotline at all hours of the night. It’s also the concern that getting tested for COVID-19 could jeopardize their future in the United States.

Some callers are worried that getting a positive diagnosis could make them ineligible for a green card. They cite a new federal rule that authorizes immigration officials to consider several factors — including a green card applicant’s economic situation, education and health — when determining whether he or she is likely to rely on the government for support in the future.

In response, staff at TODEC, a Riverside County immigrant advocacy organization that operates the around-the-clock hotline, reassure callers that getting tested for or diagnosed with the virus won’t impact their green card application. They provide people with the most up-to-date information from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

They also provide some tough love.

“If you have any symptoms, it’s important for you to get diagnosed and get treatment,” Luz Gallegos, community programs director for TODEC, said she tells callers on the other end of the line. “If you’re not alive, you’re never going to get a green card.”

Immigrants in the Coachella Valley were in a precarious position before the virus arrived. They have withstood vilification and threats of mass raids. They have been the targets of policies aimed at reducing legal and unauthorized immigration to the United States.

The situation has intensified since the onset of COVID-19.

Some undocumented workers have been laid off from jobs in the desert’s hospitality sector. Ineligible for unemployment insurance or stimulus payments through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, they tell hotline staff that they are now scrambling to pay their rent and bills. Others continue working in essential industries like agriculture, even as the rates of infection in eastern Coachella Valley communities soar and at least one outbreak has been reported at a local date packinghouse.

“Immigrant workers are making sure that the country survives this moment,” said Almas Sayeed, deputy director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. “Yet a large portion of them who are undocumented have no access to federal relief and very limited access to state relief to make sure that they themselves survive.”

Undocumented immigrants in California are eligible for $500 through a new fund, the state’s Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants Project. An estimated one out of every 10 workers in the state is undocumented, she said.

The fund is “an incredibly valuable step in the right direction,” Sayeed said, but, “it’s not going to be enough to cover the need.”

Immigrant families across Riverside County now find themselves with a thin safety net, fear of accessing critical services and a lot of questions. Since TODEC activated its hotline in March, Gallegos said, the organization has received more than 5,000 calls from people who are anxious about their families, their finances and their futures in the United States. The hotline can be reached at 1-888-TODEC-91 or 1-888-863-3291.

“It’s very emotional, hearing our community go through so much suffering,” she said.

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions heard on the hotline. The Desert Sun will update this list as more information becomes available.

Will getting tested or treated for COVID-19 prevent me from getting a green card?

The short answer is: No.

Under the federal government’s new public charge rules implemented in February, immigration officials consider a green card applicant’s use of certain public benefits to determine whether he or she is likely to rely on the government for support in the future. They also consider several factors related to an immigrant’s economic situation, education and health.

But during the pandemic, the federal government says everyone should seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services. It says testing, treatment and preventive care for COVID-19 will not be considered in the public charge test. These services will not impact a green card application, even if their treatment is provided or paid for through public benefits, such as federally funded Medicaid.

TESTING: Riverside County has expanded COVID-19 testing to all residents, even those without symptoms.

Testing is free. You will be asked for a social security number, but this is only for reimbursement from insurance providers. If you don’t have a social security number or insurance, you can still make an appointment, according to county spokesperson Brooke Federico.

Coachella Valley residents should call (800) 945-6171 to book an appointment. Spanish-speakers are available to help schedule a time slot.

TREATMENT: If you are undocumented or don’t have insurance, you can get treatment for COVID-19 and it will be covered by Medi-Cal emergency services. Using Medi-Cal for testing or treatment of COVID-19 does not count under the public charge rule because it is the treatment of an emergency condition.

How am I going to pay my bills?

If you are authorized to work in the U.S., and you were authorized to work when you lost your job, then you should be eligible to collect unemployment insurance. The state’s Employment Development Department verifies immigration status and work authorization through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Additionally, as part of the CARES Act, the federal government is sending stimulus relief checks to millions of Americans. The federal stimulus package, which is the largest in U.S. history, is intended to address the economic crisis spurred by the pandemic.

The amount of money you get is based on your household income and how many children you claim as dependents on your taxes. The USA TODAY Network offers this handy calculator to determine how much you might get.

Immigrants with valid social security numbers, green card holders and recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or Temporary Protected Status should be eligible for stimulus checks, according to TODEC.

People without social security numbers do not qualify for the funding. Additionally, if anyone in a family — either the tax filers or their children — uses an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number rather than a social security number, or does not have a social security number, the family will not be eligible for the payment.

There are a couple of other ways undocumented people might get help.

California Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants Project: Undocumented adults can get $500 through the state’s Disaster Relief Assistance for Immigrants Project. To qualify, you must be undocumented; ineligible for federal COVID-19 related assistance, including the stimulus payments or pandemic unemployment benefits; and have experienced a hardship as a result of the pandemic.

The one-time assistance is limited to two undocumented adults per household.

Immigrant-serving nonprofit organizations will help you apply for the funding and directly deliver the money. The state is expected to name the nonprofit groups in May.

The information you provide to the nonprofit groups will only be used to confirm eligibility, the state says. The organizations won’t provide your name, address or any personal information to any government agency as part of this project. The groups will only report general demographic information, like age, gender and preferred language, to the state.