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Editorial | Island Voices

Column: Hawaii’s invaluable immigrants need state aid, funding now

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As Hawaii reopens, the state Legislature must take immediate action to remedy the challenges, vulnerabilities and inequities faced by immigrant families.

As legal service providers and community advocates, we have the privilege of seeing the diversity of peoples that contributes to our state every day.

Hawaii ranks as the sixth-highest state for foreign-born residents, and families often consist of “mixed” immigration statuses — a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient with her elderly undocumented father; “COFA status” parents with U.S. citizen children; a mother seeking asylum with her U.S. citizen baby; or a legal permanent resident with an undocumented spouse.

Immigrants of all statuses are woven into our families, our churches, our schools and our day-to-day lives. Nearly one-quarter of Hawaii’s front-line workers are immigrants.

Government safety net programs fail to adequately include immigrants in both eligibility and practical access, and these three months have shone a spotlight on the devastating effects of those shortcomings. For immigrants, unemployment is even higher than the state average because over a third of Hawaii’s hotel and food service workers are immigrants.

Undocumented immigrants and their families have faced particular hardship. First, they are denied unemployment insurance (UI) — despite the fact that, contrary to popular myth, undocumented workers pay taxes and contribute to those very safety nets from which they are excluded. In fact, undocumented workers in Hawaii paid about $58 million into the state’s UI system over the past decade.

Second, the federal government has purposefully excluded not just undocumented immigrants but also their families from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act “stimulus checks.” For households filing taxes jointly, if one spouse is an undocumented immigrant (because, again, undocumented immigrants do file taxes) and the other is not, the federal government denies the entire household, including all children, any relief. As a result, an estimated 53,000 people in Hawaii are excluded from stimulus payments, including 18,000 children or spouses who otherwise qualify for payments.

Even for eligible immigrants, language and technology barriers have left many without access. For UI, almost all key application communications are in English and require the internet. Requesting language assistance requires sending an email in English. Phone services have been inaccessible. Many of our clients do not have computer access (especially with public libraries closed), do not have email and are unable to navigate the system, despite their tremendous efforts.

What is the solution? We ask our leaders to address both the federal government’s purposeful exclusion of immigrant families and our state’s technical barriers preventing immigrant access. We ask the state Legislature to:

>> Provide direct assistance to immigrant families who have been excluded from federal relief; and

>> Increase language and other access to state benefits programs.

Direct assistance to immigrant families purposefully forsaken by federal leadership is not a radical proposal. Other states have done this. California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, D.C., all created funds for immigrant residents.

And yes, there is money. Last month, the Hawaii Legislature placed $635 million of federal CARES Act funding into the state’s “rainy day” fund. But that rainy day is today. Lawmakers should move some of those funds to state agencies and nonprofits to administer direct assistance and ensure appropriate language and other access.

Not only does Hawaii have the funds, but they are designed for addressing a problem as dire as this one. We are only as strong, as safe, and as healthy as the most vulnerable person we pass on the sidewalk.

Hawaii legislators, we hope you choose to stand with your people when they need you the most and allocate the resources our immigrant families need right now.

Catherine Chen is an attorney/fellow with Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii; Hao Nguyen is interim executive director of Pacific Gateway Center; Bettina Mok is executive director of The Legal Clinic.

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