Remote work might solve the family care crisis for immigrants

Remote work might solve the family care crisis for immigrants
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In 2014, at the age of 23, I migrated to the U.S. from China to pursue my doctorate. I made it my priority to return home once or twice a year. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Because of the strict and potentially permanent quarantine policies for international travelers, it’s been almost two years since I’ve seen my parents. It was particularly painful for me when, earlier this year, my mother underwent surgery. My not being there for her was difficult for both of us.

It was during this time that I more seriously considered a deeper question, one that has nagged me but also one that I’ve avoided coming to terms with: How could I pursue my dream career here as a researcher and still take care of my parents in China? Is remote work the solution for immigrant workers caught between American careers and aging parents in their home countries? 

I know I’m far from alone. In 2017, there were 29 million immigrants in the U.S. labor force, accounting for approximately 17 percent of the total. When it comes to immigrants working in professional fields, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), there were approximately 1.8 million H-1B visa holders during 2001-2015, many of whom eventually became U.S. permanent residents or citizens. The challenge is even greater for women since daughters, rather than sons, tend to care for aging parents. It is not uncommon for a son to stay in the U.S. while his sister returns home to shoulder this burden.

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One solution that many immigrants have considered is bringing their parents to live in the U.S. But there are many obstacles to overcome: In my case, for example, are my parents willing to leave the life they know to settle in a place where they don’t know the language and are unfamiliar with the customs? Where would they live? Would they be able to establish a new social life?

This dilemma is also a failure of social policy. Even if our parents could come to the U.S., accessibility to affordable health care would be a major challenge. The process of getting older parents permanent residency is often severely delayed — on average, a delay of 10-13 months — and even after becoming permanent residents, most of them are not eligible for Medicare. Purchasing private insurance is costly, and even if older immigrants are eligible to purchase insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace, there are still numerous hurdles to enrollment

All of this can make immigrants feel hopeless at times. As a result, many skilled immigrants have returned to their home countries to care for their older parents, which partly has contributed to the challenge of U.S. tech companies to retain skilled workers.

Could working remotely be a solution to the dilemma we face? Possibly. With the advent of COVID-19, work structures have experienced a large-scale transition from in-person to remote work. For many businesses, including corporate standard-bearers such as Amazon — which recently announced that many office workers can continue remotely on a permanent basis — this transition appears to be here to stay. Prior to the pandemic, employers were hesitant to offer this option because of concerns about loss of productivity and the loss of control over employees. But the sheer scale and length of the pandemic has forced a mass transition to remote work and has also allowed both employers and employees to adapt to these new conditions.

For immigrant workers whose aging parents live abroad, the feasibility of working remotely will provide more opportunities to travel home, which, in turn, will allow them to more fully participate in the affairs of their family while maintaining their professional options. In fact, I know many fellow immigrants who have moved back to their native homes to be with family while continuing work in the U.S. We see this pattern within the U.S. as well: people moving back to smaller cities to reunite with family, thanks to remote work. This trend also has been happening worldwide — Eastern Europe, for example, has experienced an influx of returning workers, driven in great part by those telecommuting abroad.

It’s ironic: An important aspect of my research in the U.S. has been remote work. As an immigrant, it might be just what allows me to personally experience, not just continue research, on another area of my research interests: family caregiving issues. 

Emma Zang, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University, where her research interests include health and aging, marriage and family, and inequality. She is a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @DrEmmaZang.