Originally Published in The Hill
Opinion by Ruth Ellen Wassem - December 10, 2020
As the nation braces for a dark winter of COVID-19, we remain hopeful that vaccines will arrive with the spring thaw. In the meantime, foreign-born essential workers are playing a critical role during the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine surviving this crisis without their crucial contributions. Will we dismiss these essential workers who are foreign nationals when the COVID-19 health emergency is behind us?
Foreign-born workers in the United States are more likely than native-born workers to be employed in “essential critical infrastructure” sectors, as designated by the Department of Homeland Security. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, foreign-born workers in the United States made up 17.4 percent of the labor force in 2019. They are overrepresented in jobs deemed essential and critical: “Sixty-nine percent of all immigrants in the US labor force and 74 percent of undocumented workers are essential workers, compared to 65 percent of the native-born labor force.” They span the skill-levels of essential workers and are largely employed in two critical sectors — health care and the food supply chain.
In terms of health care workers, 38 percent of home health aides, 29 percent of physicians and 22 percent of nursing assistants are foreign born. Immigrants are also overrepresented in the biomedical sector that is vital to the coronavirus response. Most notably, they comprise 22 percent of scientific researchers in fields related to treatments and vaccines and many only have temporary visas. The eight major U.S. companies researching coronavirus cures and treatments gained approval from the U.S. Department of Labor for more than 11,000 temporary foreign workers from 2010 through 2019.
Approximately 2.1 million foreign-born workers also make up 22 percent of all workers in the U.S. food supply chain, including 37 percent of meat processing workers, 30 percent of workers in commercial bakeries and 30 percent of agricultural workers: “In some states, the majority of food workers are immigrants: 69 percent of the agricultural workers in California, 70 percent of the seafood processing workers in Alaska and 66 percent of the meat processing workers in Nebraska are foreign-born.”
Rather than rewarding foreign-born essential workers, the CARES Act of 2020 specifically barred immigrant families with an unauthorized family member for receiving a stimulus payment. An estimated 6.2 million essential workers, who have 3.8 million U.S. citizen children, were ineligible for relief payments under the CARES Act. Nonetheless, 5.5 million unauthorized residents work in jobs deemed essential.
This bar, coupled with regulations promulgated by the Trump administration, have had a chilling effect on immigrants seeking benefits for which they otherwise are eligible. In particular, research found that immigrants did not seek health services because of fears it will adversely affect the immigration status of family members.
Setting aside the moral and ethical arguments, the case for incorporating foreign-born essential workers is empirically in the national interest. The nation is more resilient because of the renewal immigration brings. Policies that support immigrant incorporation will strengthen the United States as we rebound from the pandemic and the ensuing economic recession.
Immigrant incorporation is key to U.S. resiliency, yielding positive outcomes for both native- and foreign-born residents. Overall, the impact of immigration is a net positive for job creation and economic growth, although wages may flatten in some instances. A substantial body of researchdocuments that immigrants have been revitalizing cities and towns for the past few decades. They have been repopulating neighborhoods that were emptying and reopening storefront businesses in dormant commercial areas. An estimated 25 percent of new U.S. businesses are started by them. The role immigrants play as consumers with spending power — estimated to be $930 billion in 2014 — further fuels aggregate demand and economic growth.
Only the federal government — in particular, Congress — has the power to remedy the issues faced by foreign-born essential workers pertaining to their legal status and eligibility for federal services. It is time for Congress to consider offering lawful immigration status to unauthorized foreign nationals who have been working in essential jobs during the national health emergency. Whether they toiled in the laboratories, fields, hospitals or food-processing plants, they have earned their right to stand alongside the rest of us as lawful residents of this nation.
In Texas, we say “dance with who brung you.” When we are dancing in the post-COVID celebration, let’s include all essential workers who brought us through the crisis.
Ruth Ellen Wasem is a professor of policy practice at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin, and a fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. She is the author of a chapter, “Increasing Community Resilience Through Immigrant Incorporation,” in “Resiliency in the Age of COVID-19: A Policy Tool Kit.” Follow her on Twitter @rewasem.