Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Krista is a 35-year-old U.S. citizen married to Roberto, an immigrant from El Salvador. Krista, a preschool teacher, and Roberto, a cook, live in New Jersey with their three children, ages 6, 9, and 17. Under the federal government’s CARES Act, Krista is one of the many thousands of Americans ineligible for the coronavirus stimulus checks—$1,200 per person making under $75,000, plus $500 for each child—because she files joint tax returns with a spouse without a Social Security number. This as-told-to essay has been transcribed and edited for clarity from a conversation with Molly Olmstead.
Last week, when I noticed that people were talking online about receiving their stimulus checks. I got excited to check my bank account. And when I did, I saw that I didn’t receive anything. I thought that was a little bit weird, because it was my understanding that the first round of deposits were being made to people that were on the lower income scale. And I was surprised that, being in that category with children, I hadn’t received the deposit along with those 80 million other people. The first couple days, I felt really defeated and upset. So I started to do some research. And that’s when I stumbled across a Facebook group called “Mixed-Status Families United.” We’re denied these checks systematically. As much as it hurt to see that there were so many other people in my situation, it made me feel a little bit stronger because I felt like I deserve this payment. And my kids deserve this. And I have a right to fight for what I believe in.
Roberto has lived here for about 14 years. Life is extremely rough where he is from. They don’t have much opportunity for advancement. It’s not safe. There’s a lot of gang activity. And he came here with a mindset of most people in his situation—to build himself a better life and hopefully be able to help out the rest of his family in the future.
He has been employed with the same company for 12 years. We met approximately nine years ago, working together at the time in the restaurant industry. We’re currently going through the process to get him a green card and, hopefully, eventually citizenship, but it’s a very long and expensive process.
With the potential prospect of finalizing his citizenship in the future, we were told to get an ITIN number so that we can file jointly together on our taxes. That is the way that you’re supposed to do it in a situation like ours, trying to do the right thing. And unfortunately, it has backfired.
Before the COVID pandemic, we both were full-time workers. He actually works closer to 50 hours a week. We have three school-aged children. And with all their sports, we’re constantly on the go. We definitely fall into a lower income bracket because of his situation. I’d say that we were bringing in under $45,000 together.
My preschool closed two weeks ago. He’s been out of work since March 15. There’s just nothing coming in now. He’s unable to apply for unemployment in his situation, and my unemployment has not moved past the “pending” status in the past few weeks; New Jersey is very behind on unemployment payments. So we have zero income coming in at this point.
This stimulus money would have been a huge stress reliever. It would have been enough for us to pay a month’s worth of rent and all of our necessary bills and large trips to the grocery store. The internet is very important right now, because we have three kids doing remote schooling from home. We’re using double the amount of everything. And now we’re basically depleting any savings that we had put aside and worrying about how we’re going to pay everything in the next few weeks. We had about $3,000 in savings—that was before. We’re working through that.
Unfortunately, I kind of have to swallow my pride in the situation and ask for help when I need it. Whether it be from family or friends or taking out a loan or asking the state for assistance. We’re pretty much always pushed aside or unable to apply for certain benefits because of a spouse with an ITIN. So you get a lot of rejection, and you get the least amount of benefit when you try to apply for any type of assistance with the state. But at this point, we’re just trying to do what we can to stay afloat until something changes. We really were counting on this stimulus money.
The people that are in this situation are not upset because our spouses are not going to receive the stimulus package. The majority of us were not expecting a check for our spouse. But we never in a million years were expecting for ourselves not to receive it and for our children to not receive it. We were all born here in America. We’re all U.S. citizens. And to think that my children are less than somebody else’s children—it’s what we’re trying to fight here.
Honestly, Roberto feels horrible. It makes him feel like he’s worthless, or like we’re better off without him in our lives, because his situation makes ours harder. All I can do is basically tell him that it’s not his fault. And, you know, we’re in this together at the end of the day.
But it’s the United States citizens having the hardest time swallowing this. You’re telling me that my family means less because of who I’m married to—I’m being punished because of who I’m married to. And, you know, I can’t think of anything much more unfair than that.
I think that this starts to deter people from doing the right thing. A lot of people are asking if they should go back and amend their taxes so they can get this money. But at the end of the day it’s definitely not worth it. Because if you do plan on trying to get your spouse legal presence here, then the only way that you should be filing is “married filing jointly.” It just shows a good faith marriage. It’s how you’re supposed to do it. But a lot of people do feel like they’re being brought down. Filing for citizenship or a green card or whatever you’re filing for is a very, very mentally and financially exhausting procedure. And then when you get pushed down for things like this, it makes it that much worse.
My husband still wants me to keep doing things the right way. I still will file my taxes the proper way next year. I still have that same mind frame that we have to do the right thing no matter what. It’s just hard, you know, getting screwed over.