Immigrants Proving to be Invaluable During Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the globe, the United States recently reached an unfortunate milestone – it is now the major worldwide epicenter for confirmed cases of the deadly respiratory virus. As of this week, some 800,000 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with the virus, and tens of thousands have lost their lives. As millions of people across the nation continue to shelter in place and practice social distancing in an effort to flatten the curve of new infections, the crucial contributions of so called “essential workers” have come to light. [See the WHO website, Situation Report – 93, 22.Apr.2020.]

This of course includes the doctors, nurses, hospital staff, and home health aides who are working day and night to tend to the overwhelming influx of COVID-19 patients. But also important are the service workers who are helping us maintain the rhythm of daily life while we weather this unprecedented crisis – the grocery store employees, delivery and public transportation drivers, warehouse stockers, and farmworkers. And according to the New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization focused on immigration policies, a significant portion of Americans on the frontline of COVID-19 are immigrants.

The data gathered by New American Economy, which was presented last month and updated this week, reveals a detailed picture of the nearly six million immigrants who are part of the essential worker demographic. Nearly 17 percent of all healthcare workers in the U.S. are immigrants. Home health aides and psychiatrists are the careers most occupied by immigrants in this sector, at 36.5 percent and 32 percent, respectively. Over a quarter of all physicians are immigrants, as well as nearly 20 percent of surgeons. [See Immigration and COVID-19, New American Economy Research Fund, 26.Mar.2020 updated 23.Apr.2020.]

It’s not just immigrants in the medical field who are leading the battle against COVID-19. The crucial role of grocery store workers has been illuminated by the pandemic, as frightened Americans spent the last several weeks panic buying toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and canned food in bulk. The supermarkets to which they have flocked have an immigrant workforce of 16.7 percent, while over 18 percent of the drivers who deliver food to those sheltering in place are immigrants. Over half of all farmworkers who pick, pack, and ship the fruits and vegetables on our plates are immigrants. For those in the workforce who are still commuting to an office, they have immigrants to thank for that as well – over 10 percent of bus and truck mechanics are part of the immigrant community. [See Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic by Miriam Jordan, New York Times, 02.Apr.2020.]

For all the public appreciation of late for the role of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis also has unveiled some uncomfortable truths about many of these occupations; namely, that they involve low pay, grueling responsibilities, and little or no health benefits. For the immigrants who toil in these jobs, the virus has induced another layer of hardship. The recently passed CARES Act, which provided payments directly to people residing in the U.S. to assuage the economic upheaval caused by the pandemic, excluded both undocumented immigrants and many legal immigrants. This means that a large sector of immigrant essential workers, numbering potentially in the millions, have been shut out of any form of financial relief in the wake of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration’s newest executive order restricts certain categories of immigrants from entering the United States for at least 60 days, though our borders have effectively already been closed for weeks in order to contain the virus. Even in the midst of an unprecedented national health emergency that has highlighted their value, instead of gratitude, it is unwarranted vitriol that is heaped upon our immigrants. [See Essential Jobs, Disposable Workers by J.C. Pan, The New Republic, 17.Apr.2020.]


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