Many of us grumbled at some point during the pandemic about delayed unemployment checks or the nonsensical arithmetic behind the two recent stimulus bills. While these were valid concerns, it was shamefully rare to hear public complaints on behalf of undocumented immigrants who were excluded from pandemic relief entirely. While COVID-19 did not discriminate based on citizenship status, our elected officials did. As we receive our first and second doses of the vaccine this month, it is long past time to prioritize the community members the United States  has left behind. 

One state is starting to make amends. Earlier this month, New York allocated a special fund to grant one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented residents, or the equivalent of $300 per week for a year. The fund was blasted by conservatives and some moderates for “rewarding” noncitizens while U.S. citizens suffer, but its sponsors recognized that the undocumented are deeply integrated into U.S. society. For instance, about 69% of noncitizens have been here for more than a decade. Additionally, more than five million essential workers are undocumented in vital fields like agriculture, manufacturing, food service and healthcare, and they worked on the frontlines of the pandemic at higher rates than other immigrant groups and U.S. citizens. After more than a year of suffering its harshest blows while ensuring the rest of us could eat, these New Yorkers are more than deserving of some long-awaited pandemic relief.

Other states, as well as the executive branch, are severely lagging behind New York’s response. While many U.S.-born Americans have been able to rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and unemployment insurance to fill income gaps, undocumented residents were forced to depend on mutual aid, local food pantries and fundraising efforts like the Massachusetts Undocufund to keep food on their tables this past year (undocumented people are ineligible for public benefits). Every struggling household deserves basic necessities, so why do so many U.S. citizens treat the undocumented differently, especially while living in the wealthiest country on Earth?

Many well-meaning people insist that hard-earned American tax dollars should be reserved for struggling U.S. citizens and that employing public funds for undocumented pandemic relief rewards “criminal” behavior. But undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes each year, and our modern-day notion of the legal/illegal binary pinned to immigrants is distorted. Immigration status is a spectrum, ranging from undocumented to legal permanent residency to full citizenship, and millions of immigrants today live in mixed-status families. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of undocumented people did not arrive in this country after illicitly crossing a border, but rather from having overstayed a visa. And those who do cross the border are often women and children. Refusing to grant noncitizens pandemic aid funded by their own tax dollars was not just ill-informed — it was cruel.

For my fellow U.S. citizens who will respond that undocumented people who seek the benefits of citizenship should “come here the legal way,” a refresher of United States immigration policy is necessary. The defining aspect of our immigration history, and the one we most often forget, is that the United States was founded on stolen land. White Europeans — undocumented residents — committed genocide against the Indigenous peoples of this land and enslaved Africans to create and enforce the borders we now call the United States. While it is uncomfortable to reckon with this ugly truth, our past should inform how we treat immigrants seeking refuge here today. 

Additionally, in many modern cases there is simply no viable path to citizenship, in part because of the ‘90s era three and ten year bans that made residing in the country without papers for more than 180 days a deportable offense. Demands that immigrants come here legally to receive public assistance are out of touch with reality, as a legal route is often nonexistent. Reporting one’s presence to authorities could mean immediate deportation to an unfamiliar, even deadly environment. 

Clearly we need comprehensive immigration reform, but the process is slow-moving. Meanwhile, the pandemic has crystallized inequalities between racial groups, hitting undocumented immigrants particularly hard while many lack a financial safety net to fall back on. We must all push our state and local leadership to follow New York’s example by swiftly instituting relief funds for undocumented workers who put their lives on the line this year and kept our country running. Additionally, President Biden must include the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act in his upcoming infrastructure package to provide a pathway to citizenship for the more than five million essential workers currently living in fear of deportation. As we enter what is hopefully the final stage of this pandemic, these policy priorities can provide the undocumented members of our communities long-awaited recompense and lay the foundation for a new, compassionate era of immigration policy.