National Immigrant Heritage Month – The American Dream is Still Alive

Michael Chan Lok

Immigrants are a pillar of American society and have played an enormous role in shaping the United States—economically, culturally, politically, and more. The U.S. has more than 45 million immigrants – about 13.6% of the country’s total population – making it home to more immigrants than any other country in the world. Every June, National Immigrant Heritage Month is marked with celebrations that honor the unique cultures, perspectives, experiences, and invaluable contributions of our nation’s diverse immigrant communities.

As the son of two Mauritian immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1981, I know well why my parents chose to come to the United States: to make a better life for themselves and their children—and to achieve what so many immigrants aspire to: their version of the American dream.

Unfortunately, the obstacles many immigrants encounter in the quest for the American dream can feel insurmountable. Some of these challenges include limited access to services like health care and legal advice, language barriers, cultural differences, prejudice, fear of deportation and family separation, and a dearth of employment opportunities. Notably, undocumented immigrants face numerous difficulties qualifying for some federal tax credits that would put cash back in their pockets—including the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—making access to state tax credits and the federal Child Tax Credit (CTC) that much more crucial for many immigrant households.

Limited Access to Federal Benefits Necessitates Greater Access to State Resources

Topping the list of difficulties for immigrants are economic inequities and the lack of access to financial resources and benefits. About 10.5 million undocumented immigrants have been accounted for in the United States in 2023 despite contributing $216.5 billion to the economy but paying nearly $29 billion in taxes in 2019 and nearly $31 billion in 2021.

Many immigrants are ineligible for most of the federal public benefits that so many low- and middle-income households rely on. This includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This is made worse by the fact that undocumented immigrants typically file taxes using an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) because they are unable to obtain a Social Security Number (SSN), which is needed to receive federal assistance.

Luckily, some state tax credits are available to ITIN filers. Eight states and Washington, D.C. allow ITIN filers to claim the state EITC, opening the door to financial assistance for up to four million undocumented people residing in those states. Although seeking benefits won’t put their immigration status at risk, the fact is that many immigrants without documentation are weary of claiming benefits because they fear deportation or other legal problems.

Nearly 14.8 million immigrants were classified as low-income in 2019 and were eligible to receive federal aid. While it’s true that immigrants who file with an SSN can access federal aid programs, the reality is that they must have resided in the U.S. for five years’ time before they can access those benefits. As they wait to become eligible for federal benefits, it remains critically important to empower individuals to take advantage of state resources for which they quality, such as the state EITC.

Leveraging Child Tax Credits

The American Dream also often hinges on making sure children have the chance to thrive and succeed in ways that their parents never had the opportunity to. Luckily, despite the federal EITC being off the table for ITIN filers, the IRS does allow ITIN filers to claim the federal CTC, providing eligible filers up to $2,000 for each qualifying child as long as they meet certain criteria.

When the American Rescue Plan temporarily expanded the CTC in 2021, a survey indicated that immigrant parents were more likely than non-immigrant parents to use the CTC for educational investments, such as building a college fund for their child (nearly half of immigrant parents versus only one-third of non-immigrant parents), as well as for offsetting the costs of childcare and healthcare.

Unfortunately, the fear of claiming benefits due to immigration status continues to make eligible recipients hesitant to claim the credit. More than one in six adults in immigrant families in 2020 reported avoiding a noncash government benefit program or seeking help to meet other basic needs due to concerns over immigration status and enforcement.

Building a life from the ground up is no small feat that requires great sacrifice. I’m grateful for the sacrifice, dedication, and commitment my parents made to give our family the best life possible. If my parents had access to information about tax credits and benefits when they came to the U.S., it would have eased their worries about how to provide for our family.

The availability of the federal and state CTCs and the state EITC also remains critical to ensuring our immigrant communities can meet basic household costs. Just as important is for all invested parties – state and federal elected officials, community groups, and advocates—to assuage fears of getting in trouble for accessing these resources, including by reaching out to offer resources and information about what state and federal tax credits are available to them and to instill confidence that filing for these benefits will not put them or their families at risk of deportation or separation.

Immigrants have played and continue to play an integral role in building our nation and advancing our democratic values and ideals. Only by continuing to sustain and expand state tax credits programs, the federal CTC, and exploring making the federal EITC available to undocumented immigrants can we truly support those who have chosen to make this country home.