Of the many shortfalls of Congress’s pushed-through-too-fast CARES Act, one has seemed particularly misguided: denying economic assistance to people who are U.S. citizens because they’re married to someone who isn’t.
Under the original $2 trillion stimulus package passed March 27, citizens are excluded from receiving aid if they file taxes jointly with someone who lacks a Social Security number. This includes 4.3 million immigrants who pay taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).
Hurry and worry make for bad policy, and in this case, lawmakers looked for broad strokes and sweeping categories to allow them to fast-track aid without worry that it might benefit illegal immigrants. That produced a stimulus package that left out an estimated 2 million citizens such as Christina Segundo of Fort Worth and her four children, who are also U.S. citizens.
Had Segundo not filed her taxes jointly (and early) with her husband, who isn’t a citizen but who pays taxes using an ITIN, her family would have received $3,200. Now, they’ll get nothing.
But if the CARES criteria was misguided, so has been the response from opponents.
Segundo has joined a class-action lawsuit filed last week by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund against Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the IRS and others. The suit claims that CARES is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment’s freedom of expression clause and the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. Neither seems a particularly strong argument to us, though we can see that there might be a case on the grounds of equal protection.
At the same time, California lawmakers have introduced a bill called the Leave No Taxpayer Behind Act, which would not only ensure stimulus payments to citizens in these situations but also to the noncitizens they married.
Let’s be clear: CARES was wrong to exclude U.S. citizens from its stimulus package because of their marital status. It’s a bad policy that needs to be fixed. The government does have a right (and obligation) to be prudent with our tax dollars — after all, even public debt has to be repaid — but it also has an obligation to be fair.
We recommend a middle path: The courts should reject the class-action lawsuit and Congress should not take up the No Taxpayer Behind Act, but it should fix its sloppy work on a CARES Act that excludes American citizens from help.
Four days before the CARES Act became law, we worried that Congress was choosing speed over effectiveness. We recommended breaking up the stimulus package into smaller, more finely tuned segments to roll out over time because, it turns out, it’s hard to spend $2 trillion well. Now, there is follow-in legislation and a lawsuit that prove the point.
• The Dallas Morning News