We can’t wait: Essential workers need a path to citizenship

It’s been over a year since the start of the pandemic. In that time, UnidosUS has been at the vanguard of highlighting the indispensable contributions of Latinos to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as the nation grappled with its response. Our community has risen to the occasion, working on the frontlines and doing the essential work to help provide fellow Americans and their own communities with fresh food, quality health care, and other necessities like childcare. Today, 70.5% of Latinos in the workforce are considered essential workers. Those among us who are immigrants—documented or otherwise—also formed an integral part of this essential workforce. By some estimates, 5.5 million undocumented immigrants are essential workers.

By Nicole Chavez, Immigration Policy Analyst, UnidosUS

As UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía stated in a recent address at our annual UnidosUS Capital Awards, “while most Americans sheltered safely in place, [Latinos] stepped into the breach to keep the American economy going. Our first responders and caregivers helped keep our community safe. At that time… [,] no one asked about their immigration status.”

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Unfortunately, these contributions did not come without a cost. Given our overwhelming presence across essential industries, our community affronts disproportionate harm from the virus: Latinos are twice as likely to contract COVID-19, four times as likely to be hospitalized for it, and three times as likely to die from the virus. To understand these harmful direct and downstream impacts of the pandemic across measures like food security, health, and jobs, one need only look at our dashboard, By the Numbers: Latinos in the Time of Coronavirus.

Thus, our central thesis outlined at the start of the pandemic continues to resonate today: To achieve the inclusive pandemic recovery the nation wants and needs, we must deliver for everyone—regardless of immigration status. One of the key policy interventions to deliver on this inclusive response is a pathway to citizenship for essential workers who are undocumented.

At UnidosUS, we have worked tirelessly with our legislators, advocates, and our on-the-ground Affiliates to push for relief packages and legislative reform that embrace vulnerable populations—including undocumented essential workers—as keystones to the rebuilding of our nation’s economy and communities. Below are some of the ways that UnidosUS is advocating for this important population:

  1. Documenting Our Contributions. In a first of its kind hearing on May 12, 2021, California Senator Alex Padilla held a hearing in the United States Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety on the role of essential role of immigrant workers in America. In our statement for the record we offered a breakdown of the impact of the undocumented essential workforce and the barriers to aid that have contributed to disparities in the health and livelihood of these communities. First and foremost, an estimated five million people—amounting to approximately three in four undocumented people in the labor force—are essential workers. Our research found that, despite accounting for only 17.6% of the U.S. workforce, Latinos are disproportionately represented in essential occupations: we are 54% of agricultural workers, 29.7% of food manufacturing workers, and 29% of medical assistants. Despite the debt of gratitude we owe to these essential workers—many of whom have labored and laid roots in this country for years—there is an uncomfortable silence surrounding their legal status and the unfair conditions that are imposed upon them as a result. Similar analysis was provided in our statement for the record in a House Judiciary Committee hearing from April 2021 titled “Why Don’t They Just Get in Line? Barriers to Legal Immigration.”
  2. This Is a Moral Imperative. Janet Murguía drew attention to the irony of this rhetoric of vitalness and thankfulness in a recent commentary urging us to rethink America’s relationship with the Latino community. She pushed back on politicians’ attempt to “draw a line in the sand between immigrants with documentation and those without,” and argued that “for our community, there is no such line.” In her President’s Address at this year’s UnidosUS Capital Awards, she expanded on this idea.
  3. Snapshot of Latino Voters’ Take on this Issue. Just this month, in collaboration with The Immigration Hub, Barreto Segura Partners and EquisLab, UnidosUS published the results of a survey conducted to better understand the current priorities of the Latino electorate. This booming population, no longer a “sleeping giant,” is crucial to setting the foundation for major gains for Democrats across battleground states and congressional districts in 2022 and 2024. The survey found that immigration remains a top priority among Latino voters, standing second to the government’s COVID-19 response (27% vs. 36%). Moreover, the survey indicates that across the board, Democratic proposals to establish a pathway to citizenship hold more than 80% support among Latino voters, with 80% of Latinos also supporting the idea of earned legal status and a pathway to citizenship for essential workers. In a press conference, Janet Murguía discussed the implications of the survey results: “This polling also reveals that Latino voters will remember next November who took action on this very important issue, and who stood in the way of progress—regardless of party affiliation.”
  4. Joining Bush Institute to Build Broad-Base Support. In our coalition-building efforts, UnidosUS seeks to advocate alongside individuals across the political spectrum. We recognize that immigration reform is not solely top of mind with undocumented essential workers and their families, but also with individuals of diverse backgrounds and ideologies. UnidosUS joined more than 20 organizations in signing onto a letter to Congress issued by the George W. Bush Institute. In this letter, we all united around the principle that a holistic modernization of our nation’s immigration system is key not only to preserving access to the American Dream for immigrant communities, but also to ensuring the future prosperity of our nation altogether.
  5. Showing There Are Many Ways to Get to “Yes.” UnidosUS was proud to support the reintroduction of Senator Cortez-Masto’s “Fairness for Immigrant Families” legislation, which offers commonsense options to address shortfalls in our immigration system—like the reinstatement of Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, lifting barriers to accessing non-LPR cancellation, and others. Just days ago, we also backed Representative Adriano Espaillat’s reintroduction of the “Family Reunification Act.” As Carlos A. Guevara, UnidosUS Associate Director for Immigration Policy shared, this act is a “pro-family, pro-commonsense piece of legislation…. [that] would allow many longtime residents with qualifying family members the opportunity to come out of the shadows and get right with the law.” We also helped provide context for this Chicago Sun-Times editorial piece making the case for updating the immigration registry. If enacted, many of these options would help millions of essential workers and their families.
  6. A Sober Reminder of What’s at Stake. Last October, we launched our interactive dashboard, By the Numbers: Latinos in the Time of Coronavirus. The project builds upon our white paper, The Latino Community in the Time of Coronavirus: The Case for a Broad and Inclusive Government Response, by ensuring the transparency and accessibility of up-to-date data that paint an authentic picture of the toll of the pandemic on Latino communities. Through visualized statistics regarding Latino health, financial security, and other metrics, the tool shows the deadly and disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Latinos nationally as well as in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Texas. The dashboard shows that nationally, 57.8% of Latinos reported that, since March of last year, they or someone in their household had suffered a loss of income, compared to 41% of whites, the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Designed with journalists, researchers, and policymakers in mind, the dashboard is indispensable to holding legislators, businesses, and other parties accountable for ensuring the wellbeing of immigrants. The dashboard points to the importance of expanding eligibility criteria for future pandemic relief packages so that undocumented immigrants and their families can receive those benefits.

In an UnidosUS report issued just this month, Latinos on Biden’s First 100 Days, we applaud Biden for his active response to the pandemic and progress on equitable representation in government and racial equity. Nonetheless, these actions are only “a down payment on real progress,” that Biden—and Congress—must promptly actualize. We urge the White House and Congress to finish the job. One way to do that is to enact much needed immigration reforms, this year and by budget reconciliation if need be, to provide a pathway to citizenship the millions of essential workers who have put their lives on the line for this country during one of its darkest chapters.

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