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CARES Act Leaves Out U.S. Citizens Married To Immigrants

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Two million U.S. citizens are not receiving federal pandemic aid. The reason are new rules put in place by the Trump administration that target the immigration status of their spouses. Tim Padgett of member station WLRN in Miami reports that those affected are now beginning to speak out.

TIM PADGETT, BYLINE: Clara Discua is a U.S. citizen - born in the U.S. - and she needs the federal stimulus check. She's a medical assistant in Coral Springs, Fla., but she has not been able to work much this year because she would be at high risk if she got infected with COVID-19.

CLARA DISCUA: Extremely high risk, per my doctor, because I'm only two years out of my cancer treatment. The $1,200 may be able to pay my bills.

PADGETT: Discua says she was penalized for filing her taxes jointly with her husband, Roberto. He's a construction subcontractor and an immigrant from Honduras. That joint tax return exposed Discua's marriage to a noncitizen who doesn't have a Social Security number. The CARES Act denies the stimulus aid not just to that non-U.S. citizen spouse but the U.S. citizen, too.

DISCUA: Which makes zero sense because that is effectively punishing a U.S. citizen for who they married.

PADGETT: Discua says that rule is doubly insulting to her because her U.S.-born son is a National Guard veteran who was disabled during the War in Afghanistan.

DISCUA: It represents to me that they don't think that all citizens are equal.

PADGETT: That impression - that Americans married to immigrants are somehow lesser U.S. citizens - also bothers Florida Senator Marco Rubio. He said as much during a recent conference hosted by the Immigration Partnership and Coalition Fund, or IMPAC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCO RUBIO: I think it's actually illegal. It's unconstitutional. U.S. citizens are all entitled to the same protections. It's one of those things that you can probably win in court one day, but it would be a lot easier to just fix it with a law that makes it clear. And that's what we intend to do.

PADGETT: Rubio, a Republican, often supports President Trump. But this summer, he introduced a bill that would get rid of the marriage punishment rule the Trump administration worked into the CARES Act. Immigration advocates like IMPAC say they fear the rule was really meant to appeal to Trump's anti-immigrant political base because it further stigmatizes immigrants, especially people from Latin America. Clara Discua met and married her husband, Roberto, in Honduras, and they moved to the U.S. after his brother was killed by a street gang.

ROBERTO: (Speaking Spanish).

PADGETT: "But I feel very guilty now because I'm the one who's keeping my wife from getting the benefits she needs after surviving cancer," Roberto said.

Other immigrants married to U.S. citizens say the rule seems more in line with the authoritarian governments they left behind. Mariem Martos is an electrical engineer from Venezuela who recently married a U.S. citizen in South Florida.

MARIEM MARTOS: (Through interpreter) It feels a lot like the kind of spiteful measures that we see the socialist dictatorship in Venezuela take against its opponents.

PADGETT: Martos's wife, Kim Liu, came here 16 years ago from the Dominican Republic. Today, Liu is a U.S. citizen. The pandemic forced her, for now, to close her acupuncture clinic. Like so many Floridians, Liu has had trouble getting state unemployment aid. Then she found out she can't get the federal stimulus check because her immigrant wife doesn't have a Social Security number.

KIM LIU: I was shocked, offended. I was upset. I've been paying taxes since 2004. I thought, you know, once I became citizen, you know, in case of an emergency, which this is, I could probably use some of what I've been paying for all these years. And I feel helpless.

PADGETT: She and almost 2 million other U.S. citizens hope Senator Rubio's bill will deliver them something helpful for a change during this crisis. For NPR News, I'm Tim Padgett in Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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