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Marriage Punishment: U.S. Citizens Wed To Immigrants Fight For Federal Benefits Trump Denied Them

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Courtesy Kim Liu
TAX-PAYING CITIZEN South Florida couple Kim Liu (left) and Mariem Martos in New York last year celebrating Liu's birthday

The White House created a rule that denies pandemic economic relief to U.S. citizens married to non-citizens. They're now hoping Sen. Marco Rubio can break it.

Back in the spring, the federal government started mailing stimulus checks to Americans through the CARES Act. The $1,200 payments were meant to help people get through the economic crisis caused by the new coronavirus pandemic — but the Trump Administration was able to insert a rule in the CARES Act that makes sure about 2 million U.S. citizens do not get that aid.

The reason: they’re married to non-U.S. citizens who still lack Social Security numbers.

“Which makes zero sense because that is effectively punishing a U.S. citizen for who they married,” says Clara Discua, a native-born U.S. citizen who needs the stimulus check.

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Discua is a medical assistant who resides in Coral Springs, 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.

“Extremely high risk per my doctor because I’m only two years out of my cancer treatment,” she says. “The $1,200 meant me being able to pay my bills.”

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Discua says she was penalized for paying her taxes — that is, paying them jointly with her husband Roberto, a construction subcontractor and an immigrant from Honduras. Their joint tax return exposed Discua’s marriage to a non-citizen who doesn't have a Social Security number; and the CARES Act denies the stimulus aid not just to that non-U.S. citizen spouse but the U.S. citizen spouse too.

It represents to me that they don't think all citizens are equal. – Clara Discua

Discua says that rule is doubly insulting to her because her son is a National Guard veteran who was disabled during the war in Afghanistan.

“It represents to me,” she says, “that they don’t think that all citizens are equal.”

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 Zoom conference hosted by the Immigration Partnership and Coalition Fund (IMPAC) in Coral Gables.

“I think it’s actually illegal, it’s unconstitutional,” Rubio said. “U.S. citizens are all entitled to the same protections … It’s one of those things that you could probably win in court one day. But it’d be a lot easier to just fix it with a law that makes it clear, and that’s what we intend to do.”

ANTI-IMMIGRANT BASE

Rubio is a Republican who often supports President Trump. But this summer he introduced a bill, the American Citizen Coronavirus Relief Act, that would get rid of the marriage punishment rule Trump worked into the CARES Act.

Discua and others are pushing more senators to support the bill — including Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who has expressed his concerns about the marriage punishment but has not yet publicly backed Rubio’s legislation.

“Not only does U.S. citizens being punished not make sense morally or economically, but also politically,” says IMPAC Executive Director Kathy Bird Carvajal. “In polling that was recently done by Hart Associates, 91 percent of all voters — and 84 percent of Republicans — support all U.S. citizens receiving a stimulus payment regardless of who they’re married to.”

But Bird Carvajal says she fears the rule was really meant to appeal to Trump’s anti-immigrant political base — because it further stigmatizes immigrants. Especially Latin American immigrants like Discua’s husband Roberto. Latin Americans are thought to make up the majority of immigrants married to U.S. citizens.

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Carolyn Kaster
Florida Senator Marco Rubio on Capitol Hill in March.

Roberto asked that is last name not be used because he is still adjusting his immigration status after marrying Discua in his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras — where she was living at the time. They moved to the U.S. to escape San Pedro Sula’s horrific gang violence. Roberto’s brother was murdered there because he refused to comply with a street gang’s extortion orders.

“But now I feel very guilty because I’m the one who’s keeping my wife from getting the benefits she needs after surviving cancer,” Roberto said. “I don’t think that’s fair of any government.”

Aside from the feelings of guilt, other immigrants married to U.S. citizens say the rule seems more in line with the authoritarian governments they left behind.

“It feels a lot like the kind of spiteful measures we see the socialist dictatorship in Venezuela take against its opponents,” says Mariem Martos, an electrical engineer from San Cristóbal, Venezuela, who married a U.S. citizen here in South Florida after escaping her country’s epic humanitarian disaster.

Martos’ wife, Kim Liu, came here 16 years ago from the Dominican Republic and today is a U.S. citizen. She and Martos live in Doral and the pandemic forced her for now to close her acupuncture clinic in Coral Gables. 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 she’s married to a non-citizen.

“I was shocked and offended,” Liu says. “I’ve been paying U.S. taxes since 2004. I thought, y'know, once I became a U.S. citizen in case of an emergency I could probably use some of what I’ve been paying all these years. And I feel helpless.”

She and almost 2 million other U.S. citizens hope Sen. Rubio’s bill will bring them something helpful for a change to get them through this pandemic.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.