The Vermont House on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would send stimulus checks to anyone who was denied federal relief payments this spring because of their immigration status.
Final action on the bill, which the chamber supported by a 129-15 vote, is expected Wednesday. It will then head to the Senate, where top lawmakers have signaled support for the concept.
"This proposal, I believe, is one of those moments in which we have a chance to make a clear declaration of our values," Rep. Chip Conquest (D-Wells River) said Tuesday while presenting the bill on the virtual House floor. "A belief that all Vermonters, regardless of their circumstances — whether we're talking about immigration status, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, or which town they live in — deserve to be treated equitably."
The bill, H.968, would set up a $5 million state program to compensate anyone who was living in Vermont on April 1, makes less than $99,000 and missed out on CARES Act stimulus checks due to their immigration status. The federal relief program only applied to those with Social Security numbers.
Applicants would receive $1,200 for adults and an additional $500 for each child — the same figures included in the federal payments.
State leaders estimate that up to 4,000 adults and 1,000 children would be eligible for the program. That includes some 1,250 undocumented dairy workers and 1,750 undocumented workers in other industries, as well as 500 U.S. citizens or green card holders who were excluded because they file their taxes jointly with a spouse who is neither. Another 500 noncitizens who are in the country legally but do not have a Social Security number would also be eligible, such as those with student visas and those seeking asylum.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott requested money for the relief program in a budget proposal earlier this month that would have spent up to $2 million out of the general fund. Lawmakers decided to pony up an additional $3 million from the state's tobacco litigation fund after learning that it would take roughly $5 million to cover all who are eligible. Any money not spent by June 30, 2021, would be set aside for use in court cases involving youth in need of supervision.
Advocates acknowledge that some undocumented workers may not participate in the program out of fear of interacting with the government. One such worker told Seven Days last month that she is unsure if she would apply for the money if she had to interact with the state directly.
Pati, a migrant worker who would be eligible for the program
With that in mind, the bill requires the Scott administration to consult with its executive director on racial equity, Xusana Davis, on how to administer the program in a way that captures the most applicants. The administration would also be permitted to partner with outside groups who have built up trust with migrant communities, thus creating a buffer between the state and the applicants, though that is not a requirement.
Lawmakers supportive of the bill say the more money these people have to spend, the more they can contribute to the local economy. Supporters have also painted it as a moral prerogative, noting that the exclusion of undocumented workers from the federal relief checks came even as they were deemed "essential" amid the state's shutdown this spring.
"If we believe that their work is so essential to the state's well-being that we have asked them from the beginning of the pandemic not to quarantine, but to leave their homes and go to their place of work, it would be unjust to deny them the same financial support that all other Vermonters got," Conquest said.
But some lawmakers said they believe the money would be better spent elsewhere.
Rep. Brian Smith (R-Derby) voiced support for giving money to "green card workers" but said he has a problem with asking taxpayers to contribute money to "people that are not here legally."
"I'd rather see that money go to our own struggling families, our own struggling veterans, our own struggling seniors, rather than someone that takes their paycheck and sends it back to their own country," Smith said. He later added, "I'd like to see any kind of stimulus money sent to Vermonters."
Rep. Terry Norris (I-Shoreham) had a similar take. Whereas the bill seeks to aid migrant workers, who often send money "back to their homeland," it does nothing for college students such as his son, who also did not receive the federal stimulus checks, Norris said.
"They should be getting that $1,200 — and trust me, they know how to spend it in the United States," he said.
But Conquest said that the federal government made no rules about how people were supposed to spend their stimulus checks, so the state shouldn't, either.
"This is really aimed at Vermonters — people who make Vermont their home," he said.