Discontinuity in How We Value Immigrant Labor

Emma Flores

June 29, 2021 | Racial Equity, Economic Justice

On June 1, President Biden proclaimed June National Immigrant Heritage Month stating, “...we honor the sacrifices made by immigrants who serve on the front lines of the pandemic as health care providers, first responders, teachers, grocers, farmworkers, and other essential workers. It was these same immigrant families and communities of color who were disproportionately struck by the virus.” Despite this acknowledgment, the Supreme Court ruled against immigrants with Temporary Protected Status seven days later, deciding that people living in the U.S for humanitarian reasons shouldn’t become permanent residents.

National Immigrant Heritage Month is an opportunity to recognize the exceptional historic contributions immigrants have made in this country, or perhaps for some, even grapple with anti-immigrant attitudes and rhetoric that continue to marginalize and scapegoat those communities. But as I reflect this month, I can’t grasp the notion that coming out of the pandemic immigrant workers are labeled “essential,” yet are dispensable at the same time. How? Essential and dispensable, a symbolic recognition lacking tangible benefits to truly honor immigrants.

Essential: of, relating to, or constituting of utmost importance: Indispensable, necessary.

Last year, immigrant workers in critical jobs, which includes 2.5 million undocumented women, were a vital component to navigating through this unprecedented pandemic. Immigrant workers were among those who quickly earned the title “essential workers” due to their representation in critical industries. Immigrant women represent about 15 percent of all women working in “critical infrastructure industries — jobs in food, agriculture, health care, and manufacturing.

Essential workers earn adequate pay, right?

Immigrant women working in critical industries — such as farming, health care, and direct care — are paid meager wages. One in four farmworkers are women and make around $3 an hour. Women farmworkers face the brunt of inadequate workplace protections that lead to sexual harassment, perpetuated by deficient reporting mechanisms that would otherwise embolden workers to come forward with workplace violations. For immigrants without work authorizations, these challenges are exacerbated as they are more vulnerable to egregious power dynamics resulting in wage theft and or coercion with threats of deportation. So, while immigrants in critical industries are deemed essential, prejudice and devaluing engrained in workplaces is blatantly on display.

OK, but at least they get some benefits and legal protections, right?

Our broken immigration system leads to stagnant economic mobility and occupational segregation for immigrant workers. Approximately,131,300 TPS holders from Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras are serving as essential workers throughout the pandemic. The average TPS holder has lived in the U.S. for twenty years and every couple of years their future in this country is determined by political environments that ebb and flow. This is true for “Dreamers” too. Aside from economic and legal issues, millions of immigrants don’t have access to health insurance — mostly because they are barred from coverage through Medicaid programs or the Affordable Care Act. Immigrants who are undocumented, DACA, TPS and/or visa holders face insurmountable obstacles accessing healthcare even during the pandemic antd even though the headlines continue to reference immigrants as essential workers.

There’s more. Here is a general profile of immigrant workers across critical industries:

Food

Immigrant farm and factory workers across the country work arduously to help feed us while contending with the culmination of years of inadequate workplace protections. During the pandemic, meatpacking factories became one of the invisible COVID-19 hotspots, a consequence of subpar protective personal equipment (PPE) protocols and social distancing measures.

Health Care

With approximately three million immigrant workers in healthcare services, immigrants provided medical attention and companionship to our family members in hospitals and community health centers. But while they were there for others, it was all too familiar for immigrant workers unable to say goodbye to loved ones in their countries of origin as a result of stop-gap measures that do not provide a pathway to citizenship.

Direct Care

Immigrants in direct care, whether it be in the informal or formal sector, showed up in our homes and at long-term care facilities assisting elderly and disabled individuals. They also showed up for each other as the deficiencies of our caregiving infrastructure hit its most critical point.

Numerous essential immigrant workers died from Covid-19 in 2020 while performing critical labor. If there was ever any reason to doubt the role immigrants play in our country, we would only need to reflect on last year's crisis to grasp the magnitude of what their presence as frontline workers and in the workforce equates to. The pandemic shed a light on the vital role immigrants have always played. Yet I wonder, how can anyone be deemed essential and lack healthcare benefits to obtain at a minimum preventive care at a time when health became arguably the most valuable commodity? How can one be labeled essential and lack adequate workplace protections when they undertake important functions to help keep the country running? How can someone be called essential one year, yet fear for the uncertainty of your future the next?

Essential status should equate to value and equity. It is past time we uplift essential frontline immigrant workers, regardless of authorization status, and evolve how we come to understand and value immigrant labor, particularly immigrant women of color.

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