Phil came to the U.S. in search of opportunity, but when COVID-19 hit he lost his job, immigration status, and health care when he needed it the most. The child tax credit was a lifeline.
By: Domenica Ghanem
The lone member of his family who made his way to the United States from Nigeria, Phil built a carefully orchestrated life. His prudent calculations — a university that provided a scholarship, a condensed program to lessen his tuition, an engineering job that would provide him a visa and subsidized health care — weren’t really choices so much as necessities. At 23 years-old he knew he had to support not only himself in a new country, but his parents, siblings and extended family back home.
He met his wife in school and while they had to hustle, they had a plan, were working, and in February 2020 were thrilled to learn they’d soon be welcoming their first child into the world.
But then, like millions of families, the onset of the global pandemic in the United States quickly turned their joy to fear. As the world began to shut down, the billion-dollar technology conglomerate that had recently hired Phil decided that they could not afford to keep him on. No amount of planning could have prepared him for the reality that he suddenly had 60 days before he would lose his legal status, his paycheck, his health insurance, and all the prospects he had for his family’s future.
For anyone, losing a job unexpectedly and through no fault of your own is traumatic. For Americans, it often means losing your health care, too. The U.S. relies on employers to provide health insurance more than any other country. Thanks to pandemic unemployment, more than 5 million people in the United States lost their healthcare at a time when they needed it most.
For an immigrant in this country, you can multiply all of those factors with the lingering fear of being physically uprooted from the life you’ve built and deported.
For months, Phil applied for jobs to no avail. He entered a dark place in his mind, wondering how his new family would make it through. But he tried not to let it show for the sake of his wife who was newly pregnant and his family back in Nigeria who relied on his earnings to keep them from going hungry. He didn’t dare complain about his struggles to them as they suffered their own economic recession during the pandemic.
“I looked at it like I’m going to take all of this stress on myself, this is what it is to be a man. But it was sucking all of my energy,” Phil said. “I was always the social guy who would make jokes at all of the parties. My friends could tell there was something off, they were like, ‘This is not the guy I know.’”
While Phil may have felt alone in his burden, millions of Americans around the country were experiencing something very similar.
Food insecurity doubled from 14% to 28% and an additional 2.5 million households with children fell below the poverty line, according to a Harvard study.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found ten percent of all adults couldn’t put food on the table, compared with 3.4 percent the previous year. More Americans went hungry, lost their jobs, and couldn’t afford the rent than at any time in recent memory. Life expectancy for people in the U.S. plummeted dramatically, with Black and Hispanic Americans losing 3.25 and 3.88 years respectively, compared to 1.36 years for white Americans.
His pandemic experience changed his outlook on people who were struggling. “Before I might have looked at someone and said ‘Go to work!,’” he said. “But I tried everything and I literally could not secure any work.”
Policymakers don’t always understand the enormous responsibility that is on your shoulders if you’re the one to make it out of a bad economic situation in your home country, Phil said, let alone the fears you have living in the United States as an immigrant. During the Trump years, while he was still in school, Phil said he would watch the news and worry, “What am I going to do if I don’t secure a job and have my status to protect me?” He shuddered at the possibility of being forcibly separated from his new wife.
Phil’s only other option is to apply for citizenship through his marriage. But because of the public charge rule that the Trump administration instituted, his lawyer advised him to avoid receiving any benefits from the government until his case is settled. That means any boosted pandemic unemployment benefits that have helped millions of families in situations similar to his were essentially unavailable to him.
The Biden administration said in March that it would stop enforcing the rule, but families with ongoing immigration cases are still encouraged to err on the side of caution as many states litigate the federal suspension.
Phil called this system upside-down. “When I had money, they helped me out with benefits. When I don’t have any money, there is no help.”
The feeling that our system is backwards is not unfounded. A recent Institute for Policy Studies report found that CEO pay soared even as those same companies laid off workers.
In between driving for Uber and child care, Phil organizes with the Worker Center for Racial Justice to help other families like his. Here, he speaks at a Community Change Action event: Lean On Me: How the Child Tax Credit Can Empower American Fathers.
Thanks to his wife’s citizenship status, she and his new baby did receive stimulus checks, which Phil called a “lifesaver.” His family also qualifies for the expanded Child Tax Credits under the American Rescue Plan (ARP). Starting next month in July, they hope to receive monthly payments adding up to $3,600 for their child. He said that first check is likely going straight to the mounting healthcare costs that come with having a newborn and no paid leave or health insurance benefits from his current job — driving for Uber.
As an Uber driver Phil earns nearly 50 percent less working up to 50 hours per week while also taking responsibility for the childcare while his wife works.
The monthly CTC payments are giving him and his wife hope they can pay for the things any family needs to care for an 8-month old baby: diapers, clothes, food.
“In sports, they talk about gathering momentum — when you hit a good shot, you keep going and hit more good shots. That’s how this boost from the Child Tax Credit is for me. One good move can ripple and help you keep that momentum,” he said.
That sentiment is exactly why groups such as Community Change Action and the Economic Security Project, as well as several Democratic members of Congress, are calling to make the expanded child tax credit benefits permanent.
The expansion in President Biden’s ARP includes a boost for families with children who may see up to $3,600 more per child in their bank accounts this year. It also kicks in regardless of whether a family reports wage or salary income. With the average cost of housing, feeding and clothing a child at more than $1,000 a month, the expansion of the child tax credit could pay as much as a third of the yearly costs of raising a child.
Community Change Action is also working to make the credit more inclusive so that all families, regardless of their immigration status, can receive the benefit. At least one million children of immigrant families were excluded from these tax credits when Republicans rescinded these benefits from ITIN filers — those who pay income taxes, but don’t have a social security number — in 2017. The expanded credit in the ARP failed to address this exclusion, even as many of these immigrant families have worked jobs deemed essential and borne the brunt of this pandemic.
“We asked God for this baby and told friends and family to pray for us. When we found out that our prayer had been answered we were so happy,” Phil said, remembering those first couple weeks of the new year with a sad smile.
For families like Phil’s, a permanent expanded child tax credit could help build their savings so that when the next emergency comes, they can have a nest egg that doesn’t upend all of their life’s plans. And welcoming a new child brings nothing but joy.