Want to jumpstart economic recovery? Fuse COVID-19 relief and immigration reform

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services section chief leads immigrants as they recite the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony to become new US citizens on Feb. 24, 2021 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Getty)

Before the inauguration, President Biden pledged a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. Then, hours after he entered the Oval Office, he introduced an immigration bill, The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which aims to put millions of undocumented immigrants on a pathway to citizenship. At first glance, these initiatives seem unrelated; in fact, they are deeply connected. Combining them is the best way to help us battle the COVID-19 pandemic and recover from the recession. Here’s why. 

In the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States and the world over learned a lesson about who was truly essential to the economy: the home health aides and nurses who care for the sick, the grocery and delivery workers who keep our stores and kitchens stocked, and the workers at our farms and food processing plants who keep our food supply chain from collapsing. These and so many other overlooked jobs — classified as “essential and critical” by the Department of Homeland Security — hold our society together, protect us, and make our economy work.  

Large numbers of these essential workers are also undocumented immigrants. Over 78 percent of immigrants without legal status work in these fields, according to a report by UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. They’re not just risking their lives to keep American citizens safe and help rebuild our economy, but they do so without legal protections and under the constant fear of deportation. That’s inhumane. But it’s also dangerous for Americans. With hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients surpassing 52,000, Congress must follow the lead of countries like France and give these essential workers a fast track to the citizenship they deserve. 

It’s no secret that immigrants are helping to keep us all afloat. Despite being just 13 percent of the population, immigrants make up 37 percent of all home health aides and almost one third of all physicians and psychiatrists. With a very real threat of meat and poultry shortages at the beginning of the pandemic, immigrants filled more than a third of the tough food processing jobs and nearly half of all farm jobs picking our fruits and vegetables. And as parents across the country are placed in the impossible situation of balancing full-time work and parenting during a pandemic, once again immigrants help shoulder the burden, making up more than 20 percent of all childcare workers in day care centers.

And yet, despite all of this, our federal government acted as though we didn’t need these workers. As the pandemic raged, millions of immigrants were explicitly left out of the CARES Act relief efforts, as were millions of their U.S. born children and spouses who were penalized for having an unauthorized immigrant in the family. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration sought to shut the border to immigrant workers and students, all but stopped processing citizenship applications and ended asylum for people fleeing horrific violence. It also fought unsuccessfully all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to end protections for Dreamers, tens of thousands of whom are essential health care workers. 

So what would an effective federal response look like? 

First, we need to protect the workers protecting us. More than 280,000 frontline health care workers are undocumented immigrants, at constant risk of deportation and without access to government support if they fall victim to the virus they are fighting. Congress should immediately create a path to citizenship for all essential workers so that they can keep their jobs and continue to keep our hospitals clean, our patients healthy, our produce shelves stocked and our smallest children cared for. 

Second, COVID-19 has taught us stark lessons about the shortcomings of our health care system and how immigration reform can fill gaps, particularly in rural communities. The pandemic has exacerbated a widely recognized mental health crisis; more than 60 percent of all counties in the United — and 80 percent of all rural counties — lack a single psychiatrist. In 2018, there were also 27 open health care practitioner jobs — like doctors, surgeons, registered nurses — for every available unemployed health care practitioner. Congress could immediately help meet these needs with essential worker visas for health, mental health, and care professionals, building off of programs like the Conrad 30 waiver program that brings highly trained foreign doctors to underserved parts of the country and the expired H1-C nursing visa program

Immigration is not a vaccine, nor is it not a cure-all for our economic and health woes. But it’s clear that immigration policy and our nation’s health are deeply intertwined. If we’re going to defeat this virus, our political and economic approach should reflect that.

Jeremy Robbins is the Executive Director of New American Economya bipartisan research and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to bridging the political and cultural divide around immigration.

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