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Undocumented parents have weathered a pandemic with no safety net


The place Alejandra and Alberto had found wasn’t much. A one-bedroom apartment without outdoor space, it was far from their restaurant jobs in downtown D.C. But it was enough for them to share comfortably with their 11-year-old daughter. “This is going to be the year,” Alejandra felt.

And then the coronavirus hit. Both parents lost their jobs, their daughter’s school moved online and the three were stuck at home together. Suddenly, moving to a bigger home was out of the question.

The pandemic presented challenges for many families, from the shortcomings of remote learning to the struggle of being stuck with loved ones 24/7, to the dire stress of losing work and pay. But Alejandra, 33, and Alberto, 40, faced another set of circumstances. Both parents are undocumented immigrants, and although their daughter is a U.S. citizen, they are excluded from most kinds of formal aid that made pandemic life more feasible for many.

Like many undocumented immigrants, they also work in the service industry, which has been turned upside down during the pandemic. (They requested using their middle names, for fear of being discovered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.) Trying to keep food on the table, rent coming in, and perhaps most important, protecting and helping their children thrive has been nearly impossible.

For families like Alejandra and Alberto’s, there’s a sense of complete devastation, with no relief in sight. The money that Alejandra and Alberto had finally been able to set aside for moving instead became used “for survival,” she said.

The pandemic, for them, has meant the death of dreams, and falling back into poverty and an unknown future.

A patchwork of federal aid kept many families afloat during the pandemic, but families with undocumented parents did not qualify for most of it, including unemployment insurance, the stimulus payments, Medicaid and food stamps. Taxpaying undocumented immigrants — they pay using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) instead of a social security number — are also excluded.

Children with Social Security Numbers whose parents file taxes with ITINs were eligible for the third stimulus payment (not the first two), but only the child received their portion of the stimulus payment, not all members of the family.

Parents whose children aren’t citizens have few options, like Karla, 40, a Virginia-based mom whose 13-year-old daughter was born in El Salvador. She chose to use only her first name. She cleans warehouses but continues to see reduced hours thanks to the pandemic, as many workers continue to work remotely. “If no one gets anything dirty, if there’s no trash, there’s no work,” she said.

For her, finding care for her daughter has been difficult, as she’s limited to caregivers who don’t require a social security number or health insurance. She feels she in turn can’t ask them questions, like whether they’re vaccinated. Those engaging in these arrangements, she said, are doing it because they also have no other option.

It’s been hard psychologically, but she tries to hold it together for her daughter. “I don’t want her to live with fears and frustrations,” she said. “She’s not going to keep going if she sees that in me.”

For aid, Karla has relied almost entirely on food donations from a church group. “We’ve had to call for a lot of help from kindhearted communities,” she said. “They’ve helped us to keep going.”

Many daytime service jobs still haven’t returned, so Alejandra and Alberto work evenings. But with their daughter back in school, evenings are also the only time they have with her. “I need to see her,” Alejandra said. “I don’t think it’s fair [to] her for me to be working, working, working.” Alejandra works two or three nights a week so she has some time with her daughter; an aunt helps the other nights.

They’re making less than 75 percent of what they were before and have fallen behind on payments for their car, bought in anticipation of the move they never made.

Before the omicron variant emerged, Alejandra thought she might finally find a daytime job, but surging case numbers and uncertainty about how schools will adapt put that in doubt. Even if she could find a job and schools remained in-person, she worries kids might be sent home too often for it to work.

Many single undocumented parents have it even worse. “I’m so tired of this stress,” said one 43-year-old mother, who lives in Adelphi, Md., and agreed to use her middle name, Rachel. Her work schedule means she must pay a sitter for before and aftercare for her two kids, ages 4 and 5. It’s $50 a day, or 40 percent of what she makes at her check-cashing job.

“There are no savings, I can’t, I tried to save, I’ve been trying, but I’m only one person,” she said. “I cover everything for my kids and my mom,” who still lives in El Salvador.

She also worries because if the sitter falls through, she has to be there for her children. She lost another job after arriving late twice for similar reasons. “Two times, I’ve had to get them and my boss didn’t like it,” she said.

Because her children are citizens, she can receive the child tax credit. In her case, however, the money goes to the children’s father’s bank account, and he only occasionally uses the money to help the family financially, she said. So she doesn’t actually receive that money to help her children.

Parents of citizen children can access aid like food stamps, however, many don’t. “A very uncertain immigration environment continues to make people very concerned about accessing benefits,” said Elaine Waxman, a researcher at the Urban Institute.

Local organizations help, but it isn’t enough. “Some people are really restarting their lives and others are left [behind],” said Judy Estey, executive director for the D.C.-based Platform of Hope (POH). “Unfortunately, it’s a lot of these same families who already had very limited resources.” POH connected Alejandra to DC Cares.

A single father of four kids, which includes a set of twins, Hugo might normally rely on his eldest, 15, to help take care of the others, but she has developmental disabilities. So instead, he pays a sitter. “Almost everything goes to [the nanny],” he said. “What I save isn’t anything. I have to pay rent. I have to pay her.”

Since the pandemic, he hasn’t been able to find a daytime kitchen job, meaning the hours when the kids are in school go to waste. He got by before the pandemic by working 12-hour shifts, five days a week. It was a lot but he could save. The family is able to access food stamps because the children were born in the United States and are citizens. Without food stamps and the Pandemic EBT program (a program supplementing school lunches), he doesn’t know what he would have done these past two years.

It can be hard for Hugo to think about how much circumstances have changed since immigrating. Ten years before, he and his wife, Silvia, were using their savings to build her dream house back in Guerrero, Mexico. But she died in the U.S. giving birth to their twins, and the house sits unfinished. “Since then I’ve been on my own,” Hugo said. “I’ve felt hopeless.”

The little help he’s received has been enough to stay afloat, but he can’t imagine anything will change until his eldest can sponsor his citizenship after she turns 18. Until then, the uninsured line cook will try to be the best father he can, and take life one day at a time.

Michael Loria is a freelance writer.