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Maryland state delegates add immigrants to coronavirus aid bill, creating potential snag for emergency relief

Potentially disrupting a delicate alliance that was speeding a coronavirus pandemic aid measure to passage in the General Assembly, Democratic delegates added benefits for low-income immigrant taxpayers to the bill Thursday.

The RELIEF Act, proposed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and since amended by lawmakers, contains direct payments to taxpayers who receive the earned income tax credit, as well as a temporary expansion of the credit, the elimination of state and local taxes on most unemployment benefits for two years, and tax breaks for businesses. It also includes directives for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on food banks, nonprofit organizations, business assistance programs and education.

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However, the governor’s legislation didn’t include stimulus payments for workers who don’t have a Social Security number and instead pay taxes using an individual tax identification number. That group that includes legal immigrants and some immigrants who entered the U.S. without legal permission.

That omission concerned some Democrats and Maryland’s largest immigrants’ advocacy group, and they pushed to have those taxpayers brought into the bill.

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“I’m glad Maryland is going to be taking this step to stand up for all of our residents and all of our residents in need,” said Del. Jessica Feldmark, a Howard County Democrat who has been among those advocating for taxpayers who use the individual tax identification number, also known as an ITIN.

During a news conference Thursday on the state’s response to the pandemic, Hogan was asked about the possibility of adding immigrants to the RELIEF Act.

“Anything that they do to attempt to change the bill that’s been unanimously passed by the Senate … threatens the bill,” Hogan said.

The governor suggested that a separate bill could address the issue.

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“We’ve been working in good faith with the House and Senate on our shared priorities,” Hogan said.

He said he hopes to work with senators to “talk some sense” into members of the House of Delegates.

Hogan said proposed amendments to the bill “came out of nowhere” and suggested they’re “attempts at distractions and delay.”

The bill has been fast-tracked through the legislature. After Hogan proposed it, senators tweaked it before passing it unanimously. House committees made several changes Wednesday, setting the bill up for an expected debate and vote Thursday in the House.

But with the debate over immigrants emerging, the House vote was postponed.

Earlier in the week, Del. Eric Luedtke, the Democratic House majority leader and a key negotiator on the bill, assured delegates who were concerned about immigrants that there could be other avenues to help them.

But the pressure to aid immigrants increased, with the immigrants’ advocacy group CASA gathering about 20 members Thursday outside the State House in Annapolis to press their case.

By the afternoon, the House Ways and Means Committee agreed on a split vote to add the provision to the RELIEF Act that ITIN taxpayers who would otherwise eligible for the earned income tax credit — but are barred from receiving it under federal law — would receive the stimulus payments of $300 for individuals or $500 for joint filers.

That would make about 60,000 ITIN taxpayers eligible, at a cost of about $30 million. Last year, about 86,000 Marylanders paid income taxes using ITINs, according to the state comptroller’s office.

Cathryn Ann Paul, a policy analyst for CASA, issued a statement praising lawmakers for “rightfully” seeking to expand eligibility for the stimulus payments. She credited the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus for pressing the issue.

“From the dawn of the pandemic until present day, immigrants have risked their lives bringing food to our tables and care to our families ... Immigrant taxpayers have been cut from most forms of COVID relief and that discrimination impacts not just them but also their U.S. citizen children and spouses,” she said.

“We are doing the right thing, because they are taxpaying individuals here in the state of Maryland,” said Del. Darryl Barnes, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus. “We should not pit one group against another, especially when we are trying to do the right thing and that is trying to provide stimulus relief to Marylanders.”

Del. Julian Ivey, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said the governor’s team was “making threats” against Black caucus members if they were to support the immigrant provision.

“We will not allow ourselves to be divided,” said Ivey, a member of the Black caucus.

Asked at the news conference about lobbying by his senior adviser, Keiffer Mitchell, Hogan said Mitchell spoke with some Black caucus members about what would happen if the bill was scuttled due to disagreement over the immigrant aid provision.

“Keiffer very clearly said to them anything that jeopardizes this is going to harm all of the 400,000 low-income Marylanders that need the relief and threaten all of the small businesses that need help,” Hogan said.

The governor said he also spoke with the Black caucus but did not elaborate on that conversation.

Del. Stephanie Smith, a Baltimore Democrat, said many of the immigrant taxpayers work in front-line jobs in food service, delivery and cleaning that have become indispensable during the pandemic.

“They’re not getting the federal relief that other people are getting,” she said.

But Republican lawmakers who previously supported the RELIEF Act began dropping away Thursday afternoon. Del. Jason Buckel, a Western Maryland Republican, questioned the wisdom of making a significant policy change to a bill that all sides already agreed to.

“I have a real concern that the Hogan administration will say, ‘If you include this, it’s not going to be a bipartisan bill anymore,’” Buckel said.

Parts of the RELIEF Act plans, he noted, depend on the governor making changes to the state budget, which the immigrant provision might throw into jeopardy.

“Are we going to spill an awful lot of milk legislatively today?” Buckel asked.

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The House is now scheduled to take up the RELIEF Act Friday morning. If it passes, it would go to the Senate for final approval.

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Lawmakers had said they were working to get the bill passed in the next few days so that the comptroller can make changes necessary for the tax filing season. As emergency legislation, it would take effect immediately if Hogan signs it into law.

Baltimore Sun reporter Bryn Stole contributed to this article.

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