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UBI and Immigrants: Lessons from the Pandemic

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This article was written by Jennifer Gordon and originally published on 2/2/21 by LPE Blog.

This post is part of our symposium on universal basic income.

Does universal basic income have a role to play in a more just political economy?  It is by now fairly well appreciated that, on the level of individual countries, much depends on the framing and design of the program: a UBI that replaces social insurance is not the same as one that supplements it.

But comparatively little thought has gone into the global perspective. Even the most progressive nation-based approach to basic income faces a fundamental justice challenge in the reality of human mobility.   Almost all basic income proposals focus on the country as a unit. (Exceptions include Philippe Van Parijs and Juliana Bidadanure.) Responding to the assertion that nations with UBI programs open to all would be overrun by outsiders seeking to access the benefit, most make citizenship a prerequisite for a grant.  A number also call for increased restrictions on immigration (other than of temporary laborers) in order to make such programs politically feasible. 

Surely advocates of such programs do not envision Qatar as their model society.  And yet it is too easy to imagine a version of a Gulf state arising from a basic income initiative that provides cash support to citizens, who no longer need to take work that is unsatisfying, while denying it to noncitizens, who are brought in do the difficult and dangerous jobs that remain.

Even if UBI programs include immigrants, it is far from clear that UBI is the right response to concerns about the future of work.  The extent of automation and the reconfiguration of traditional employment are policy choices, not inevitabilities, and a critical question is how the exercise of countervailing power by workers and of the regulatory state might result in different outcomes than the replacement of work as we know it with a cash transfer program.  Nonetheless, especially in communities and countries where a majority of people are already under- and un-employed, a more universal vision of universal basic income is a demand worth making. 

On this front, cash transfer programs created in response to Covid-19 may have some insight to offer.  In the United States, many of the state and federal government Covid benefit programs restricted access by immigration status. Their implementation illustrated the problems with an exclusionary approach.  A few state and local initiatives, however, broke new ground in their incorporation of undocumented people. These suggest pathways to a reconstruction of UBI as an immigrant-inclusive intervention. 

Among U.S. pandemic relief programs, the federal CARES Act was closest to a traditional UBI proposal.  It authorized a one-time payment from the government of $1200 to each adult and $500 to each child, which resembled UBI in being non-needs-based and no-strings-attached.  It had something else in common with UBI as well: it excluded all undocumented people and many other noncitizens, as well as the citizen children of undocumented parents and citizens with  undocumented spouses.  (The exclusion of some citizens in mixed-status households was rectified in a new relief bill passed by Congress in late 2020, but others—including citizen children with two undocumented parents—remain outside the program, as do all undocumented individuals.)

In the heightened context of risk brought on by the pandemic, undocumented immigrants—unable to access this stipend, unemployment insurance, or the additional unemployment payments authorized by the CARES Act—have been forced to take on whatever work is available, no matter how great the exposure to infection or how exploitative the terms.  Immigrant activists have emphasized the injustice of the demand that undocumented people put themselves at risk for the good of the country during the pandemic while being denied access to the benefits created to address pandemic-related hardships.  Some have emblazoned the slogan “Essential and Excluded” on a medical mask.

At least four US states and a number of municipal pandemic benefits programs broke ranks with the federal government’s exclusion of undocumented individuals.  California, Connecticut, Illinois and Oregon created Covid-related cash benefits programs accessible to immigrants without legal status. Cities and counties, including Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montgomery County, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York City, and Tucson, did the same.  Grant amounts ranged from $250 to $4000. In addition, several private foundations launched local benefit funds for undocumented individuals in places like Washington, DC and Dallas, TX. (My thanks to Susu Zhao for her assistance in mapping these programs.)

Most of these initiatives were created following pressure from immigrants’ rights movements and organizations.  Their proponents emphasized the local rather than the national community as the relevant unit for assessing who “belongs,” and asserted that undocumented immigrants were full members in that community independent of their legal status.  Arguments ranged from the pragmatic (benefits were necessary to avoid the health risk to the broader community if undocumented people were not granted equal access to such programs, because they would show up to work sick or fail to seek necessary health care) to the normative (benefits were due to undocumented immigrants in recognition for their contributions to the community through their labor in “essential” jobs that others shunned, for the risks they were taking on behalf of the community as some continued to work through the pandemic, and for their equal humanity to others in the location).  The conceptions of membership based on geographic co-location that emerged from these campaigns resonate with scholarly notions of belonging based on “stakeholder citizenship,” physical proximity or co-location,and “city-zenship,”rather than legally-sanctioned national membership.  Together, these ideas help break the straightjacket of traditional citizenship as a measure of entitlement to UBI.

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