Opinion editorial: Why undocumented Immigrants MUST also receive economic and health assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, by Nadia Y. Flores-Yeffal, Ph.D.

As the world faces the COVID-19 Pandemic, the United States and many other countries around the world have asked their populations to practice social distancing in order to mitigate the fast spread of the disease. Only those deemed as performing essential jobs can work, but others have been asked to stay home and stop working. As a result, in the U.S., over 22 million workers have filed for unemployment within the first four weeks since stricter social distancing measures were implemented . Out of the almost 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently live in the United States, about 8 million currently participate in the labor force and most of them have been in the United States longer than 10 years.

I previously explained in a previous Op-Ed how the U.S. has a broken Immigration system which has prevented undocumented immigrants from obtaining a legal visa to come to the United States legally, or has kept them from fixing their legal status once they are in the U.S. It is not their fault they are undocumented, but the fault lies in an outdated broken Immigration system and to the tremendous demand for cheap labor in the United States.

Due to their lack of legal status, undocumented immigrants lack access to unemployment benefits or any other governmental services, such as food stamps, thus without a job, undocumented immigrants and their families don’t have a means to survive.  Despite the current health emergency and the economic shut down of the economy, undocumented immigrants were left out of the recent rescue/relief package as part of the CARES Act which consists of providing checks of $1,200 for every adult and $500 per for their child for those adults making $75K or less.  Legislators ignored the fact that many undocumented immigrants also pay taxes (i.e., many using the Tax Identification Number or ITIN).

In addition, most of these Immigrants lack healthcare benefits from their employers and would will not be able to afford medical care if they were to get sick with COVID-19. Most recently, we have learned that Hispanics are losing their lives at a higher rate in New York City and in other places in the United States. As many as 34% of the deaths in New York City have been Hispanics. The lack of health insurance has caused the health of these immigrants to deteriorate more easily through time, therefore, resulting in a higher rate of chronic illnesses (such as, hypertension and diabetes) which now makes them among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and they are more likely to die from the disease.

Neglecting the social, economic and health well-being of undocumented immigrants has a huge negative effect in the rest of the population in the U.S. Not only have undocumented immigrants interacted and built social ties with the rest of the population, but Americans have become socially and economically dependent on them. Undocumented immigrants are neighbors, friends, family members (through intermarriage), co-workers, and important consumers in American society. They shop in the stores, rent apartments, eat at restaurants, and use other services in which the rest of the population shops as well, and therefore, store owners (which include many Americans) also become economically dependent on them.

Furthermore, undocumented immigrants also perform essential jobs and provide important services for the rest of the U.S. society. Undocumented immigrants do the jobs that, “Americans don’t want to do.” For example, immigrant farmers pick up essential crops so all Americans can have food on the table; many work at restaurants as cooks preparing food, and others work in the construction industry building hospitals, homes, or roads. Other immigrants also work as domestic workers or janitors cleaning that protect us from getting sick.

Many of these undocumented immigrants were professionals in their own countries, such as, lawyers, doctors, scientists or teachers, but given their status, they have no choice but to perform menial jobs once they arrive in the U.S. Others, like the DACA (Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals) which are undocumented immigrant youth (about 800,000 of them) who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and were brought by their parents. Many of them have attended college in the United States and also perform important jobs as professionals to help support the U.S. economy.

Unfortunately, these talented youth who have grown in the U.S. also live in a legal limbo given that DACA is only a temporary status which has been terminated by President Donald Trump and is now being challenged in the Supreme Court. The truth is that a lot of the workers engage in essential jobs during this national emergency and they are undocumented workers or DACA youth. Many are in the front lines and they are the ones risking their lives so everyone else can survive.

Unfortunately, most Americans don’t realize that undocumented workers are an important engine to the U.S. economy given that this population has become invisible to them.  Political figures and the media have used them as scapegoats for political and/or economic gain by blaming them for all the ills of society through their criminalization. This criminalization has resulted in stereotypes, deep discrimination and anti-immigrant legislation which is taking a negative toll on the undocumented immigrant population residing in the United States; one example is how these undocumented immigrants are currently being neglected by legislators leaving them out of the CARES Act relief package which is supposed to help Americans survive the current economic crisis due to the current health emergency.

These undocumented immigrants are stuck in the U.S. due to the increased border security during the past two decades, and they can no longer able to go back and forth to their home country. Instead, they have become permanent undocumented residents of this country. In addition, they have become socially and economically embedded with the rest of the U.S. society, and thus neglecting them can also have a serious domino negative effect on the rest of the U.S. population and economy.

Undocumented immigrants will have no food on the table nor access to health care for themselves and their loved ones, but what is at the risk are the supply chains and essential services which may collapse in the United States as a result of the neglect of this invisible labor community.

If we continue to neglect this important and vulnerable sector of the U.S. population, undocumented immigrants and their families will experience serious issues like deeper poverty which will lead to serious malnutrition and/or other health related illnesses which will reduce their life expectancies, and those of their families and subsequent generations. By not providing them and their family members with health care assistance will devastate them and their family members given their high level of current exposure as they perform essential jobs for the well-being of the country.  

Not providing economic and health assistance to undocumented workers during this national emergency also makes the U.S. government look like they are dehumanizing this sector of the population and it appears morally wrong in the eyes of the rest of the world. This is not the time to play politics and worry about political support from constituents, this is a time to do the right thing for the well-being of the entire U.S. population where undocumented immigrants play very important roles. Everyone in the population, including undocumented immigrants and their family members, which also includes many American citizens, should be protected and helped by the U.S. government during this national emergency; not helping the immigrant community will have a detrimental and devastating health, social and economic effects for the well-being of undocumented immigrants, and their children.

Dr. Nadia Y. Flores-Yeffal is an Associate Professor of Sociology, at Texas Tech University and the director of the Texas Tech University Population Center. She is also the author of the book, Migration-Trust Networks: Social Cohesion in Mexican U.S.-Bound Emigration (Texas A&M University Press).