by Dolly Mecham
“Out of many, one.” This is the motto that appears on the great seal of the United States of America. It is also the running theme in a discussion of panelists at the Center For American Progress. America’s motto is often accompanied by a declaration that we are a nation of immigrants. But what happens when we say to our nations immigrants that we accept their contributions but reject their needs?
To answer that question, moderator Tom Jawetz, Vice President of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress, brought together Mary Kay Henry, President of Service Employees International Union, Guerline M. Jozef, President, Haitian Bridge Alliance, Ai-jen Poo, Executive Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance and Vicente Reyes, Dreamer, Farmworker and Student Member, UFW Foundation.
These advocates and activists convened to shine a light on the contributions and sacrifices that undocumented immigrants make to the American economy. They also came together to expel the myth that these workers suddenly became essential at the onset of this pandemic. Immigrants have been essential, they argue, each and every one of them, long before this nation focused on who was going to work and who was going to stay home.
Of the 10.4 million undocumented immigrants living in America, 3 out of 4 are considered essential workers.
This is not a metaphorical assertion, but instead, an undeniable fact. Of the 10.4 million undocumented immigrants living in America, 3 out of 4 are considered essential workers. They work in agriculture, healthcare, transportation, food production, food supply, and more. More specifically, jobs in the care economy such as childcare, elder care, long-term and disability care are roles that Ai-jen Poo refers to as “job-enabling jobs.” These are the positions that allow the rest of America to get back to work. She says, “When we think of the economy coming out of a recession we tend to focus on investments and infrastructure. Think of the care economy as that which enables commerce and economic growth. These are critical foundational services.” Without them, economic recession and eventual collapse would be certain.
Mary Kay Henry, President of one of the largest unions in America, points to our health, climate change, economic downturn, and racial injustice, as some of the worst crises Americans are facing right now. And bearing the brunt of most of these issues are undocumented immigrants who find themselves essential at work, but completely discounted from the conversation at large.
They were not allowed to shelter in place and were expected to make it to work every day.
Vicente Reyes, who started working in the fields and harvesting onions with his undocumented parents before he entered eighth grade, gives a first-hand account of the many overlapping fears and concerns that immigrants face, both before, and during this pandemic. A current college student, he continues to work in the fields even now. He and his parents, farmhands who live in California, were designated as essential infrastructure workers when the pandemic began. They were not allowed to shelter in place and were expected to make it to work every day. As the state went into a strict lockdown that saw police monitoring for those who broke quarantine, his family wondered how they could travel to and from work without being detained and potentially sent to an ICE detention center. This concern extended throughout their workday as the Trump administration ordered ICE raids on agriculture workers.
Beyond the fear of being detained and locked up for being exactly where they are told to be, he describes the complete lack of safety measures that he and other essential workers have experienced. He says, “Being an essential worker has not meant that we get any protections from Covid. Everything at work runs as if the pandemic doesn’t exist.” No masks are provided and no distancing, sanitization, or testing takes place. This continues even though his home county has had over 42,000 cases of the virus. Essential workers like Reyes’ family do not receive any sick time, or additional benefits outside of pay.
Even more recently, undocumented workers in California’s fields were told to stay and work through deadly wildfires and unbreathable air quality.
He also describes a fear amongst his work peers that should anyone exhibit symptoms, they will be sent home without pay, possibly indefinitely, which can lead to families losing everything. For this reason, some workers choose not to disclose symptoms or take tests. Even more recently, undocumented workers in California’s fields were told to stay and work through deadly wildfires and unbreathable air quality.
From vegetable pickers in California to poultry workers in Pennsylvania to cab drivers in New York City, undocumented immigrants play a critical role in everyone’s livelihood. But that does not change the fact that they are not afforded a clear, concise path to citizenship. Mary Kay Henry’s observation of intertwining crises plaguing Americans speaks to a bigger issue that advocates have been trying to address for years: systemic racism and disparity in this country. This is something that undocumented immigrants are the most vulnerable to because they are afforded the least amount of protections and assurances.
Guerline Jozef, President of the Haitian Bridge Alliance says, “The fact that we have to continue to say Black Lives Matter, that we have to continue to say we are essential, proves that we have to dismantle the system that was created by racism and build something better. Until we affirm the life of Black folks, we cannot affirm the life of us together. Some undocumented essential workers fall under Temporary Protected Status (due to the pandemic) but it is up to us to make sure their lives are not temporary.”
She paints a picture of a fractured nation, trying to deny its pieces, but present its wholeness. She says, “As the body itself, we need the head, the hands, the feet, in order for us to function properly. So it is time as a nation, as a society, that we not only embrace, but we empower every single part of that body. In order for us to have proper policies, we need to understand the needs of the community. Make a speech, get the word out. But at the end of the day we must be able to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
When we have healthcare workers, but they themselves do not have access to healthcare, that shows us that this system has failed.
When we have farmworkers providing produce for millions of Americans in a pandemic, but they themselves cannot afford to eat because they were excluded from the CARES Act. When we have childcare workers and nannies who do not have a safe place for their own children to go. When we have healthcare workers, but they themselves do not have access to healthcare, that shows us that this system has failed. All of these shortcomings show us that this system is broken.
Each participant described perspectives and lived experience that vary from job sector, to race, to country of origin, but the same needs weave their way through each narrative. Undocumented immigrants want the same things that everyone else wants. Safety, security, the opportunity for prosperity. They don’t want to just be told they are essential, they want to be treated as such. To be made to feel like we are not a nation that merely accepts immigrants, but that we are a nation of immigrants. While the former doesn’t really ring true, and our acceptance of immigrants has been called into question these last few years, these organizations are working to fix that. To clear the first hurdle, we must first ensure that there is a way to arrive in this country safely and be given a clear path to legal citizenship. We must advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that reflects our nations principles.
The only people who benefit from denying that the system is steeped in racism are those that benefit from its very existence.
The second, and perhaps most important issue that several panelists touched on included addressing and naming the problem for what it is. The only people who benefit from denying that the system is steeped in racism are those that benefit from its very existence. For Americans to overcome this, we must give immigrants a seat at the table to advocate for themselves. To allow them each to say this is what I need, and this is what my family needs, not just to survive but to thrive. To do this, as Guerline Jozef pointed out, we must roll up our sleeves and get to work. We must do that work for those who work for us. This is what we owe to each other.
For ways to get involved -
Visit Freedom For Immigrants at https://www.freedomforimmigrants.org/
Visit the Center For American Progress at https://www.americanprogress.org/
Use the hashtag #immigrantsareessential to connect on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram
Dolly Mecham has a B.A. in G.S. Political Science with a focus in the capitalization of the for-profit prison system in the U.S., including ICE detention centers. She is an advocate for undocumented immigrants, immigration reform and justice system reform.