Even before the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread in the US, many immigrant families were reluctant to access safety net programs, including housing assistance. Fears around the expansion of both the public charge rule and immigration enforcement efforts dissuaded many families from seeking support, even those with eligible family members.
For the quarter of all children nationwide with an immigrant parent in 2019, with that share even higher in many communities and states such as California, barriers to accessing limited public resources for housing assistance, combined with the financial and other hardships brought on by the pandemic, are likely to have long-term effects. Ensuring housing policies address the unique challenges these children and their families face is critical for the success of safety net programs and communities working to recover from the pandemic.
We spoke with Urban Institute housing policy experts Martha Galvez and Sara McTarnaghan to understand how children of immigrants are currently served in housing policy, how they’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how policymakers can help alleviate barriers to support. Galvez and McTarnaghan offer three takeaways.
Structural barriers and misinformation often lead immigrant families to avoid what assistance is available to low-income renters
The US is currently facing a rental affordability crisis; both rents and the number of renters in need of affordable housing have increased since 2000. Existing housing assistance is insufficient to meet the need of people experiencing housing insecurity, McTarnaghan said, a problem that’s more acute for immigrant families.
For many immigrant families, there are both structural and information barriers to accessing the scarce housing assistance available. Some existing federally-funded rental or emergency shelter assistance programs are accessible to all people, regardless of immigration status. But real or perceived eligibility barriers to housing assistance exclude many immigrant families and can be compounded by structural factors such as lack of information in languages other than English, lack of help navigating the system, and limited availability of affordable housing in neighborhoods where immigrants live or work.
Some perceived barriers can produce a gap between eligibility and uptake. Misinformation or misunderstanding around eligibility, especially for mixed-status families, who housing authorities have flexibility to serve, can prevent immigrant families from participating in available programs. And fears of repercussions because of policies like the expanded public charge rule, which was amended to include federal housing assistance, proposed changes in HUD regulations, or fears of data being shared with immigration authorities act as deterrents to seeking assistance.
“In this recent climate, there is a lot of misunderstanding, lack of understanding, or concerns about what is feasible and what is allowable under different rules,” Galvez said. “There’s a general climate of hostility where people feel a lot of fear around what their use of services might mean for themselves, for their kids, for other people in their families.”
Many immigrant families have been excluded from previous COVID-19 relief efforts
As the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting economic effects drag into a new year, there are few good tools to help families maintain stable housing. Previously enacted federal relief measures barred many immigrant families from financial supports. Many of these families were excluded from receiving stimulus checks and expanded unemployment insurance in last spring’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. More recent actions and the new administration’s stimulus proposal have extended support to some previously excluded families, but many immigrant families remain ineligible for federal relief or reluctant to apply because of barriers that systemically deter immigrant families from program participation.
Few states or localities have the resources to target sufficient financial or housing relief toward immigrant families, who have also been reluctant to seek state and local aid when they are eligible. A few exemplars, like California, Chicago, and Seattle, have launched programs specifically providing direct cash assistance for immigrant residents excluded from federal relief, McTarnaghan said, but even in a best case scenario, that has entailed only a $1,500 cash payment, which pales in comparison to these families’ housing costs and back rent that is still owed, even with the eviction moratorium.
With potentially months of back rent owed and the eviction moratorium set to expire this year even with recent extensions, and without access to supports, many of these families face the prospect of losing access to safe and stable housing. “The scale of need is well beyond what current assistance can address,” Galvez said.
Beyond shifting federal priorities, policymakers can remove barriers, use cash assistance, and work across siloes to better help these families
The new Biden administration has signaled support for immigrant families will be a major priority, by rolling back the prior administration’s policies and by pushing new legislation. Removing eligibility barriers to housing assistance, shifting the climate around immigration, and providing increased resources from the federal level could have a substantial positive impact.
Policymakers in states and localities can also contribute by pursuing efforts to work across siloes, provide better information, build trust, and consider more direct support, such as cash assistance to address the full set of needs facing families with housing challenges. For many immigrant families, existing assistance programs create barriers through intricate eligibility processes. “In the current environment, and potentially for immigrant families in particular who might be really threatened by a lot of government process, cash assistance could be really effective,” Galvez said.
In Baltimore, a cash assistance fund for immigrants has had some success but has also led organizers to realize that people who reach out for assistance also have other needs. To best serve immigrant families, assistance providers can also provide referrals and connect families to other programs they may need, according to McTarnaghan and Galvez.
Supporting children of immigrants requires better data and trust building
With children of immigrants being such a large share of the next generation, understanding their specific needs and challenges will be critical for the success of the country. To do so, policymakers should invest in more targeted, localized, and disaggregated data and research to understand how many immigrant families are interacting with the current systems of housing assistance, what barriers they face, and how they are currently finding, accessing, and paying for housing through the market. Building trust with the community and ensuring this sort of information is not misused is key.
Research shows that stable housing can decrease families’ economic stress and food insecurity but that housing instability can adversely affect children’s educational and health outcomes. Without intentional engagement to support children in immigrant families, the economic future and well-being of the next generation could be in jeopardy.