‘Crushing’: Local family won’t receive stimulus money because of spouse’s immigration status

Jonathan Roberts • Apr 24, 2020 at 7:00 AM

When the novel coronavirus pandemic closed schools in Tennessee and cost her husband his job, Ashley Murguia Lopez went on leave from her job with the City of Johnson City to care for her five children while her husband looked for work anywhere he could.

Three weeks later, the family of seven is trying to make ends meet on two-thirds of Murguia Lopez’s salary, whatever money her husband brings home from his landscaping work and the family’s savings account, which they’re “draining” to make ends meet. There was, however, a beacon of hope: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES, which would send $1,200 relief checks to eligible citizens.

But as Murguia Lopez came to find out, she and her family were not considered eligible. That’s because she filed her 2019 taxes jointly with her spouse who, as an undocumented immigrant with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, does not have a Social Security number.

Had she and her husband filed separately, Murguia Lopez and her children would have been eligible for $3,700 in relief.  

“We were dependent on that $3,700 to help get us by until things settled down around here, so it was very crushing to learn otherwise,” Murguia Lopez said. “That $3,700, we could’ve stretched it a long way for our family.”

According to the Internal Revenue Service’s Economic Impact Payment Information Center, and a report from the Los Angeles Times, spouses who filed jointly must both have valid Social Security numbers to receive the stimulus payment, with exemptions only for those with a spouse who served in the military at any point during the tax year. So, despite Murguia Lopez and her five children being U.S. citizens, they’ll be excluded from the government’s $2 trillion economic relief package.

“It just made me feel like I’m less of an American citizen than I am,” Murguia Lopez said, adding that she feels as though her children are “being discriminated against because one of their parents doesn’t have a Social Security number.”

“It makes me feel like they’re not equal U.S. citizens, even though they were born here,” she added.

In an attempt to bring some attention to their story, Murguia Lopez reached out to anyone she thought could help, including U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

“This is bold faced discrimination!” she wrote to Roe in an email that was also shared on Facebook. “I’m not equal to any other citizen in this country. I don’t deserve the help?! More importantly, my kids don’t deserve the help?! We are not equal in the eyes of the law.”

In the six days since she sent the emails, she received only one response: A message from Lee’s office telling her the issue would need to be resolved by Congress.

In an emailed statement to the Press, Roe said he supported the CARES Act, and that he believes “any American citizens married to a lawfully present alien should be eligible for a recovery rebate, and I will work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that the law provides for this.”

A follow up email asking why a spouse's immigration status should prevent an American citizen from receiving stimulus money was not returned. Alexander and Blackburn did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I just wanted to make it clear to them, and I would plead to them, to take this to the White House and let it be known that this is not acceptable — we’re leaving out our own American citizens here,” Murguia Lopez said. “We should not be punished or feel punished because I chose to marry someone who has an ITIN number.”

In a statement to the Press, American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative and advocacy counsel Manar Waheed said “Congress deliberately left out millions of immigrants and their families,” and put them in an “impossible situation.”

“Congress has misunderstood its role in addressing this pandemic: protecting the well-being of everyone, and ensuring the future of our nation,” Waheed said.

In a more detailed blog post, Waheed also called the exception “cruel,” and called on Congress to pass another relief bill that grants immigrants access to testing, care, cash rebates and unemployment insurance. According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 1.2 million undocumented immigrants are married to U.S. citizens, though the exemption applies only to those who filed taxes jointly.

Earlier this month, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lou Correa of California introduced the Leave No Taxpayer Behind Act, which would amend the CARES Act to ensure all taxpayers — regardless of immigration status — would be eligible for the stimulus money, though it stands little chance of gaining bipartisan support in Congress.

Unless an amended bill is passed, however, the Murguia Lopez family stands no chance of receiving the relief funds they desperately need. So far, they’ve been able to hang on, but Murguia Lopez noted that could change once May comes.

On April 7, the family listed one of their cars for sale out of necessity, hoping to get as much money as they could to give them a little bit of a cushion before bills are due next month.

“It definitely makes me feel like less of an American citizen, if not even one,” Murguia Lopez said of the situation. On Facebook, she was even more glum. “I’m not proud to a be an American. I’m not proud to be a citizen. Because apparently in the eyes of the law I’m not one!” 

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