Are Immigrants Eligible for Coronavirus Stimulus Checks?

In order to qualify for the payments, you must be either a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident (green card holder), or a qualifying resident alien, and have a Social Security number.

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, has disrupted life across the United States and around the world. In order to alleviate the economic burden on Americans, Congress authorized stimulus payments, also known as recovery rebate checks. However, not all immigrants are eligible for these payments.

What Are the Stimulus Payments?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) authorized Economic Impact Payments (payments) to Americans in varying amounts, which depend on income and other criteria described below.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) distributes the payments to people who qualify without their having to apply. Under the CARES Act, Americans can receive up to $1,200 per individual, $2,400 per married couples who file joint tax returns, and $500 per qualifying minor child.

Who Qualifies for CARES Payments?

To qualify for a stimulus payment, you must:

  • be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or qualifying resident alien
  • not be a dependent on someone else's return
  • have a valid Social Security number, and
  • meet the income requirements. Payments begin to be phased out for individuals earning more than $75,000 per year, married couples filing jointly who earn more than $150,000 per year, and head of household filers earning more than $112,5000. No payments at all will be made to individuals who earn more than $99,000 per year, $198,000 for married couples filing jointly, and $136,500 for head of household filers.

Beyond the income and dependency restrictions, which apply across the board regardless of immigration status, the other two requirements involving immigration status and Social Security numbers can heavily impact the outcome for immigrants and their families.

How Immigration Status Affects Stimulus Payment

In order to qualify for the payments, you must be either a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident (green card holder), or a qualifying resident alien. The first two categories are self explanatory. However, who is and is not a qualifying resident alien can get tricky.

The IRS defines a resident alien as someone who either is a green card holder or meets the substantial presence test for the calendar year (January 1 to December 31).

In order to pass the substantial presence test, you must be present in the U.S. for 31 days during the current year, and 183 total days in the past three years. Certain immigrant categories by statute cannot establish substantial presence. These include F student visa holders, J visa students, and other rare visa categories.

What It Means to Have a Valid Social Security Number

In order to receive the payment, you must have a valid Social Security number. If you have a Social Security card that says "authorized to work with DHS authorization only," that still qualifies as a valid number for stimulus payment purposes.

Many undocumented immigrants do not have Social Security numbers, but still file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Unfortunately, anyone who uses an ITIN instead of a Social Security number is categorically denied the stimulus payment.

Examples of Qualifying and Nonqualifying Immigrants

Immigrants who would qualify for the stimulus payment under the above rules include: any lawful permanent resident, DACA and TPS recipients, H-1B visa holders, H-1B visa holders with H-4 spouses who have Social Security numbers, TN visa holders, O-1 visa holders, E-2 visa holders, and others ASSUMING they have Social Security numbers and substantial presence in the U.S.

Immigrants who would not qualify include undocumented immigrants, anyone who files a tax return using an ITIN, F-1 student visa holders or anyone on a student/trainee visa (including J, M, and Q visas), F-1 visa holders with Optional Practical Training (OPT), B-1 or B-2 visa holders, H-1B visa holders, H-1B visa holders with H-4 spouses who have only an ITIN, and anyone without a Social Security number.

This is not an exhaustive list. To be sure whether you do or do not qualify for the stimulus payment, apply the IRS guidelines above.

Situation for Mixed-Status Families

Mixed-status families, where one spouse has a Social Security number and the other has an ITIN, might wonder whether they will get stimulus payments. Unfortunately, due to a quirk of the law, not only will the ITIN holder not receive a payment, their spouse won't either, if they are married filing jointly. The same is true if both spouses have Social Security numbers but claim a dependent with an ITIN.

There is one exception to this rule: If either spouse is a member of the U.S. military at any time during the taxable year, then only one spouse needs to have a valid Social Security number to receive the stimulus payments.

This means that many U.S. citizens will not receive stimulus payments, if they jointly file with an undocumented spouse who uses an ITIN. Nor will they receive payments for their dependent children. One ITIN filer on a tax return could prevent stimulus payments for an entire family, even if the other spouse and all children are U.S. citizens.

There has been some concern that families with legal immigrant spouses are unable to receive the stimulus payment. However, so long as the legal immigrant spouse meets the IRS qualifications discussed above (valid Social Security number, lawful permanent resident or qualifying resident alien, meets the income requirements), that family should be able to receive the stimulus check.

There could also be a workaround for families with ITIN filers that want to receive their stimulus payment. If this disqualification applies to your family and you have not yet filed a 2019 tax return (the filing deadline has been extended to July 15, 2020), you might want to do your taxes as "married filing separately" instead of joint filing. The spouse who has the valid Social Security number should list the children as dependents on his or her own tax return. The other spouse, with an ITIN, will not qualify. Your stimulus payment will likely be delayed, compared to those who have already filed, and you might need to file a dispute with the IRS, if it uses your 2018 married filing jointly information instead of your 2019 married filing separately tax information.

Alternatively, you might need to wait until filing your 2020 to get your payment. You can check the status of your stimulus payment on the IRS website. Since the situation is still evolving, you should contact an accountant or tax preparer if you believe you qualify for a payment and do not receive one.

Public Charge Considerations

The stimulus payments are considered tax credits and do not have any negative public charge consequences for those concerned about this ground of immigration inadmissibility or becoming deportable.

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