Immigrants have always been a vital part of the social and economic fabric of this country. They have always taken on an oversized share of the frontline work of caring for our sick, our young, and our elderly. So it may not be surprising that immigrant communities are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What should be surprising—and is absolutely unacceptable—is that our society continues to turn its back on the very people who put their lives on the line to ensure that our basic needs are met.
Approximately 6 million foreign-born workers are the foot soldiers in our frontline defense against COVID-19, employed in “essential” jobs in areas such as health care, grocery stores, agriculture, and the medical supply chain. Yet many people from immigrant communities struggle to meet their own basic needs—now more than ever:
- Their frontline work is in low-wage jobs that often do not offer paid sick leave or health insurance.
- The federal and state governments exclude some immigrants from the most fundamental features of our country’s social safety net, such as food and financial assistance.
- They face major barriers to accessing the education and training they will need to adapt to the post-COVID economic reality.
The economic and political fallout from the virus poses deep threats to the safety, livelihoods, and future contributions of immigrants to our country’s economic recovery.
The economic and political fallout from the virus poses deep threats to the safety, livelihoods, and future contributions of immigrants to our country’s economic recovery. All frontline workers who are risking their lives during this pandemic—including so many immigrants—deserve access to health care, fair wages, sick leave, and other basic rights. Now is the time to extend our society’s social contract to our most essential and most vulnerable members, regardless of their immigration status.
Our federal, state, and local leaders need a proactive and compassionate approach to meeting the immediate needs of all immigrant communities. We also must design long-term strategies for an inclusive recovery that values, builds on, and leverages the assets of all immigrant workers and learners.
Immediately Meet Immigrants’ Basic Needs
Many immigrants lack access to vital supports that would help ensure their safety, health, and financial stability. First, immigrants are overrepresented in low-paying jobs that don’t provide basic employer-sponsored benefits such as paid sick leave and health insurance. Further, many immigrants lack access to accurate public information in their native language. Without these protections, immigrants who are essential frontline workers have been falling victim to COVID-19 at alarmingly high rates, as evidenced by the outbreaks in meatpacking plants and communities like Chelsea, Massachusetts.
In addition, limited access to social safety-net programs and federal relief funds are challenges both to undocumented immigrants and those with legal status. Most noncitizens, whether authorized residents or undocumented, are ineligible for federal or state supports, such as food aid. The federal CARES Act, which Congress passed to ease the financial pain of the current economic shutdown, provides no relief for undocumented workers or their immediate family members—even those who are U.S. citizens. In all, it’s estimated that more than 15 million people in these groups are automatically excluded from stimulus relief.
Immigrants who are essential frontline workers have been falling victim to COVID-19 at alarmingly high rates.
Much more must be done for all immigrants, regardless of their legal status. Some states and cities are stepping up where the federal government has missed the mark. For example, California developed a public-private Immigrant Resilience Fund that includes $75 million in state disaster relief, plus $50 million from private philanthropies to support undocumented workers. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed an executive order to ensure that all benefits and services administered by the city will be accessible to all residents regardless of immigration status.
The philanthropic sector is also playing a pivotal role in bolstering the capacity of immigrant-serving community-based organizations to provide direct support. In some cases, they are also helping communities mobilize against racist attacks, such as those directed toward Asian Americans and other immigrant groups.
More states, cities, institutions, and organizations should enact similar solutions to meet the immediate financial needs and protect the immediate physical and mental health of immigrant communities.
Alleviate Dreamers’ Long-Term Concerns About
Being Able to Live and Work in This Country
Many immigrants live in constant fear about whether they’ll be able to continue raising their families in this country, advancing in their careers, and contributing to their communities.
Since its inception in 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has provided nearly 800,000 immigrants the ability to legally work in this country as well as temporary protections from deportation.
Today, more than 200,000 DACA beneficiaries are working directly to protect the health and safety of Americans during this time of crisis.
Ending DACA without a legislative fix to replace the program will result in talent loss for critical jobs, ultimately hurting the economy and hundreds of thousands of lives. Congress must resolve this issue for good by advancing comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
Ensure Immigrants’ Access to Lifelong Learning
While immigrant workers are heavily concentrated in the frontline industries fighting the pandemic, many others have lost jobs in industries that have been hard hit by the economic fallout and are unlikely to recover quickly.
In this environment, community colleges and adult education providers stand to play a vital role in helping immigrants and other affected workers pivot to gain new skills and access quality jobs. As colleges heed the call to design and implement new delivery models that accelerate completion of degrees and in-demand short-term credentials, it is critical that they build in the academic, social, and financial supports that many immigrants and English learners need to succeed in these programs. These include a remote learning infrastructure to bridge the digital divide between English learners and their peers at all ages and levels of the education system. The equity imperative has never been clearer; lack of access to technology threatens to irreparably widen these gaps.
Public funding for adult and family literacy for immigrants is also all the more critical today—in order to support multigenerational success, as many parents have been called on to play a larger role in ensuring their children’s learning stays on track amid school closures.
For immigrants who were already enrolled in higher education when the crisis hit—including the nation’s approximately 450,000 undocumented college students—financial and social support is absolutely critical to enable their persistence and completion. While the U.S. Department of Education has declared that undocumented students and those authorized by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are ineligible to receive student emergency grants provided under the CARES Act, these restrictions are under challenge from a lawsuit brought by the California Community Colleges.
Leaders at the federal, state, and institutional levels must prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable groups of college students, including those with the most limited set of options for financial aid.
Promote the Vitality of Immigrant-Owned Businesses
Small businesses are often referred to as the engines of economic recovery, and they have featured prominently in federal and state responses to the pandemic. Immigrant business owners—who collectively employ nearly 8 million people—need information in their native language as well as technical support to be able to access these resources.
Some states have developed microloan programs to help small business owners who do not qualify for federal loans, including undocumented immigrants. Ensuring that affected businesses have the support they need to reopen is not only necessary to preserve the cultural richness and history of our cities’ ethnic enclaves, it is vital to bringing our communities back to work.
As states and municipalities engage broad task forces to plan for reopening and recovery, the cross-sector leaders involved must ensure that immigrant workers, learners, and business owners are included in plans for an inclusive and equitable economy recovery.
Turning around the economy will require unprecedented collaboration and innovation—and we need the talents of immigrants to help our communities, states, and the country face the challenges ahead.
The authors are members of JFF’s Immigrant and English Learner Priority Population Working Group, which is composed of JFF staff with expertise, professional and lived experiences, and leadership in serving (and being) immigrants and English learners. The Working Group elevates and advances JFF’s work to support the education and career success of immigrants, refugees, English learners, and their communities. Supporting these populations is integral to JFF’s mission of promoting economic advancement for all.