This week up to 35 million families across the U.S. will receive a government check of up to $300 per child in their family. It’s the final 2021 expanded child tax credit (CTC) monthly payment of the year and it could be the last if Democrats in Congress don't win enough votes to pass the Build Back Better bill. If the current version of the bill goes through, the payments would continue through next year, AND could expand to include families with undocumented children. That would mean over 15,000 undocumented children in GA would also be eligible to receive the payments.
The expansion of eligibility and extension of payments into 2022 would be significant for millions of families. And yet - immigrant advocates in metro Atlanta say that many families who were actually eligible for the CTC in 2021 didn’t even know about it.
“We rolled out a campaign both online and in person at the events we were participating in this last quarter to educate the folks in our community about the CTC. Many were not aware they were eligible or believed they were ineligible. Lots of folks did not know that it was even available,” said Stephanie Corea, Executive Director of Los Vecinos de Buford Highway, a grassroots group representing Spanish speaking communities living in apartment complexes along Buford Highway.
If families filed their taxes and had a joint income of under $150,000, accessing the child tax credit didn’t require any extra paperwork. They would have simply started to see government payments pop up in their bank accounts starting July 2021.
For those who didn’t file taxes - there is a non tax filer portal (in both English and Spanish) that families could fill out to access the payments.
The Biden Administration had authorized the payments in March to alleviate some of the pressure families have been under since the start of the pandemic. For many immigrant communities - that pressure has been even more intense. Nationwide, immigrants, people of color, and women are overrepresented in what are considered essential jobs, such as food production, sanitation and home care. And at the same time, in Georgia, 26 percent of immigrants surveyed said they had lost a job during the pandemic, as compared to around 15 percent of non immigrants. 41 percent of immigrants said they were worried about having enough food, compared to 24 percent of non immigrants.
The extra cash from the child tax credit would have been more than welcome. But there were barriers to getting that cash.
Not everyone files a tax return. Nationally, around 50 to 75 percent of undocumented residents file taxes. Crystal Munoz, immigration policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute says, “In the undocumented community…there are certain segments of the community [that] don't always register their taxes or use ITINS...If you haven't filed before…I would imagine, it’s a daunting task.”
And, assistance for filling out tax forms has been limited because of the pandemic. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA), a program designed to help low income communities fill out their tax returns, switched to virtual and limited in person appointments.
Another issue - if you didn’t file, you could still access the payments, but you would have had to know about the portal for non filers. Community organizations often fill in those gaps - providing their members with information about public benefits and government aid, and assisting them through the enrollment process.
“A lot of people don't have access to the internet or to computers. So being able to have that reliable resource in the community that does have the access, and the language access as well, to go through all those steps and be able to explain it clearly. And the competence and the reliability from the community is something that's super important,” said Munoz.
But many of those organizations have been stretched throughout the pandemic. The Center for Pan Asian Community Services (cpacs), among the metro area’s largest and longest serving immigrant centered community organizations, has been busy responding to a host of needs that have arisen since the pandemic, like providing in language COVID testing and vaccinations. They haven’t had anyone dedicated to ensuring people were enrolling for the tax credit through the non-filer portal.
“There are a few, trusted resources out there in the community, but…they're already stretched incredibly thin. So, for them to be able to do this heavy lifting … taxes, filing, social security numbers and ITINs…it's understandable…they don't have the capacity to do that. And they often don't have the funding to do that as well,” said Munoz.
Yet another barrier - fear and misinformation carried over from the previous administration - that accessing any type of government benefits could hurt your chances at long term legal residency. "Since the new administration has come in, organizations have been trying to get people to reapply for certain benefits in order for them to be able to take care of their families…but people are still worried that it might affect their status in the future,” said Munoz.
Top photo: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks at a press conference on the expanded Child Tax Credit at the Barrio Action Youth and Family Center on July 15, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)