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Why undocumented essential workers need to be part of Biden’s massive infrastructure package

A number of Democratic lawmakers are lobbying the president for the inclusion of a path to citizenship in his massive infrastructure plans.

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On Tuesday, April 13, a bicameral group of Democratic lawmakers delivered a letter to President Joe Biden, urging him to prioritize legislation that would offer a simple and unobstructed pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers in the second round of his infrastructure package.

In the letter, the lawmakers are requesting Biden to include H.R 1909/S. 747, aka the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, as a top priority in the American Family Plan — the name of the second part of Biden’s potential infrastructure package.

The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act would offer a clear and much-needed pathway to American citizenship for more than 5 million undocumented essential workers. If passed, their status would be immediately adjusted to “legal permanent resident.”

The legislation would provide the option to apply for citizenship to any undocumented immigrant worker in the fields of child care, health care, construction, agriculture, emergency response, food, transportation, domestic work and more. 

"The upcoming legislative package on jobs and infrastructure is the best opportunity to recognize and reward the sacrifices and labor of essential workers," the lawmakers wrote. 

There are 5.2 million undocumented immigrants working in jobs that have been designated essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of their higher risks of exposure, immigrant essential workers are more likely to contract the coronavirus.

Of these 5 million undocumented workers, about 1 million of them would be defined as “Dreamers” under the American Dream and Promise Act, with many of them holding DACA status.

But for the remaining 4 million-plus workers, they don’t have protection from deportation. 

What it means is that a worker deemed essential and heroic today could be deported tomorrow.

In addition to serving Americans in terms of food, healthcare, childcare and other jobs throughout the pandemic, these undocumented workers also fuel the country’s economic health and prosperity. They contribute up to $79.7 billion in federal taxes and $41 billion in state and local taxes each year.

Lawmakers also added that essential workers significantly suffered throughout the pandemic due to unsafe working conditions that earn that poverty-level wages, no option to work from home, limited access to quality health care, and the often crowded living conditions at home. 

The crucial effort is led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Alex Padilla, and Reps. Joaquin Castro and Ted Lieu. It is the most recent pursuit on behalf of Democrats in both chambers to pass legislation in Congress that would finally offer undcoumented immigrants access to citizenship. 

Rep. Castro spoke to CNN, stating that these particular essential workers are “American heroes and they have earned American citizenship.” 

“As we seek to build back better, it is crucial that our economy and society be rebuilt on a fairer foundation that fully includes immigrant essential workers,” Castro said. 

“My parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico. My father worked as a short-order cook and my mom used to clean houses, jobs that would be considered essential today. Dignity, respect, and citizenship for essential workers is personal for me and in the best interest of our country,” said Senator Alex Padilla.

The first part of Biden’s infrastructure plan, named the American Jobs Plan, would improve the nation’s infrastructure and shift to more ecologically-sound forms of energy usage over the next eight years, adding up to about $2 trillion.

The second part of his plan, also aimed at helping the country recover from the pandemic, is expected to be unveiled in the next few weeks. It will focus on the “care economy,” with investments in education and childcare.

Congressional Republicans have said they won’t entertain or negotiate any legislation regarding undocumented immigrants unless it is accompanied by stringent border security provisions and restrictions on asylum seekers.

In a February press release announcing the introduction of the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, a few workers themselves shared their experiences and thoughts on the proposed legislation.

Ana, an undocumented domestic worker from Houston, Texas, said that before the pandemic, she was doing house cleaning work for three different families. But as the public health restrictions set in, she lost her jobs without any notice, found a job in a building being renovated and contracted the virus. 

“As an undocumented worker, you regularly find yourself working for employers who don't pay a fair wage and they try to exploit you —but because of fear of retaliation and deportation, many stay silent. Permanent status would mean ensuring getting paid and treated fairly at work — I would be able to live free from fear of deportation for demanding my rights and more freely contribute to my community,” Ana said. 

In addition to the House and Senate sponsors of the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, other lawmakers who signed include: Sens. Cory Booker, and Richard Blumenthal, and Reps. Paul Ruiz, Ruben Gallego, Nimeka Williams and Sara Jacobs. 

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