Undocumented workers: Essential but ineligible for help

Last weekend, my church in Minneapolis set up tables to distribute boxes of food to 700 hungry families. Most of the people driving through the parking lot were immigrant workers who’ve lost jobs due to COVID-19.  In better times, they watch our children, clean our homes and offices and prepare our meals.

They pay taxes on their wages but do not qualify for Social Security numbers. Instead they use Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN) issued by the IRS. Without Social Security numbers, they are not eligible for the unemployment benefits or federal emergency checks that are keeping so many Americans afloat.

So they use up meager savings and stop sending remittances to families in Mexico and Somalia, El Salvador and Vietnam. They rely on charity, friends and family members who still have jobs. They collect food boxes.

Even if they qualify for benefits like disaster-related food stamps, many don’t apply, wanting instead to remain invisible.  For the undocumented, becoming visible means risking deportation or being judged to be a public charge, which could cost a family member a chance ever to become a permanent resident. Given that two-thirds of undocumented residents have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years and that many have American-born children and spouses, every deportation or lost chance at permanent residency is a tragedy, not just for those families but for our society.

In the midst of a virus that doesn’t discriminate, it’s time to recognize the enormous contributions of immigrant workers and create a safety net that doesn’t distinguish between the documented and undocumented.

President Trump often refers to COVID-19 as a “foreign virus.” Yet the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that six million immigrants work at the frontlines of keeping U.S. residents healthy and fed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, the conservative Cato Institute points out that foreign-born workers were 35.2 percent of home health care aides, 28.5 percent of physicians and 20.9 percent of nursing assistants in 2018, far more than their 13.7 percent share of the population.

Immigrants also do such risky and essential work as cleaning our airports and hospitals and processing and delivering our food. Half of our maids, a quarter of our janitors, 37 percent of folks working in meat processing, 35 percent of crop production workers and 18 percent of industrial truck and tractor operators are immigrants.

Meanwhile, the immigrants like those coming to my church for food boxes are overrepresented in the sectors already devastated by mass layoffs: Restaurants and hotels, office cleaning services and in-home child care. In addition to the six million immigrants working on the pandemic’s frontlines, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that another six million work in the hardest-hit industries.

Minnesota foundations and the city of Minneapolis are dedicating millions of dollars to help. Immigrant advocates are pushing for state action as well. Giving $500 to each of the estimated 95,000 undocumented immigrants living in Minnesota would cost $47.5 million. But a safety net big enough to catch all immigrant workers, regardless of legal status, must come from the federal government.

There are things each of us can do to help make that happens. Start by calling your members of Congress and urging them to provide no-cost COVID-19 testing and treatment for all, regardless of immigration status. Ask them to expand immigrant access to federal tax rebates by removing the Social Security number requirement. Meanwhile, ask them to halt implementation of public charge rule and release people from immigration detention to prevent the spread of COVID-19

This crisis can’t be solved by food boxes.



2 thoughts on “Undocumented workers: Essential but ineligible for help

    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Chuck. I hope the pandemic builds sympathy for those living on the margin but who knows? Compassion and the hunt for someone to blame are both in generous supply


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