Helping Essential Workers, A Call To Action
To help restore the U.S. economy, America needs to help the millions of essential undocumented workers on the front lines of the pandemic, a new study says.
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The Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., is calling for legal and financial protections for millions of undocumented essential workers.
The center released a study last week noting that undocumented immigrants make up 3.2 percent of the U.S. population but 4.4 percent of the country’s workforce and have been vital in fighting the pandemic.
The study says that “providing a path to legal status for undocumented Americans is a key tool that the next administration and Congress should utilize as they work to fight the coronavirus and rebuild the country and its economy.”
According to “Protecting Undocumented Workers on the Pandemic’s Front Lines: Immigrants Are Essential to America’s Recovery,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has declared more than 5 million undocumented immigrants essential workers. This includes thousands of farmworkers, supermarket employees, and others who are keeping the nation’s food supply chain functioning, as well as thousands of nurses, home health aides, and others with similar jobs.
Center officials discussed the study during a virtual panel last week. Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, who joined the center’s board in October, gave the opening remarks calling for an approach to immigration reform that demonstrated “compassion” and “common sense.”
Castro noted that “we’ve been down this road before,” and previous attempts to protect undocumented workers have failed. Still, he hoped this time would be different because the pandemic had shined a light on the valuable work being done by undocumented workers.
Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the center, moderated the panel that also featured Mary Kay Henry, International President, Service Employees International Union; Guerline M. Jozef, President, Haitian Bridge Alliance; Ai-Jen Poo, Co-Founder and Executive Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance; and Vicente Reyes, dreamer, farmworker and a student member of the UFW Foundation.
Jawetz and Reyes also both testified on Sept 23. before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship which held a hearing on “Immigrants as Essential Workers During COVID-19.”
“Just as these folks are doing essential work now and have long done essential work, we know their work will be critical going forward, both as we continue to deal with the coronavirus—for who knows how long—and as we take steps to begin to rebuild and strengthen our economy,” Jawetz told the subcommittee.
A statement during the hearing by Congressman Ken Buck, a Republican from Windsor, representing Colorado's 4th Congressional District had a different message:
“I want to start by acknowledging the important role that legal immigrants and legal refugees play in my home state of Colorado and across this country,” Buck said. “These individuals work difficult jobs that are essential to keeping our state’s economy running, including serving vital sectors like health care, food services, the meatpacking industry, and on farms and ranches.”
He continued: “I think it’s important that we understand that as this country tries to regain its economic footing after this terrible disease we have a lot of Americans who are out of work, a lot of people who have spent their lifetime paying taxes and contributing to our country, that are the fabric of this country. And while we have to recognize those who are illegally in this country or who are assisting in fighting this terrible disease, and I have a great deal of respect for those people who are doing that, I also think we have to recognize that illegal immigrants have no role, should not be in this country. And we are making a serious mistake when we don’t allow Americans to fill jobs that are being filled now by illegal immigrants.”
California and Texas are home to the largest undocumented workforce, with 1.4 million and 1.2 million undocumented workers, respectively. The center’s study also listed examples of the financial impact of undocumented workers: They “pay $79.7 billion in federal tax contributions and $41 billion in state and local tax contributions,” and they “own 1.6 million homes, paying $20.6 billion in mortgage payments each year, while other undocumented workers pay $49.1 billion in rental payments annually.”
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