Celebrating Immigrants’ Roles on the Frontlines of the Pandemic

By Katherine T. ’22

With a growing shortage of healthcare workers and the number of refugees admitted to the US each year at a historic low, the US is struggling to mitigate the devastating effects of the coronavirus outbreak on immigrants. The historically low refugee cap demonstrates how the Trump Administration has utilized the pandemic to further restrictive border policies, including denying entry to asylum seekers and turning away unaccompanied minors. Since the Administration implemented new border rules on March 21, US border officials have expelled nearly 7,000 migrants to Mexico and nearly 400 migrant children. Now more than ever, immigrants’ vast contributions to the workforce must be highlighted. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, immigrants continue to play a vital role on the frontlines of the pandemic.

According to a recent analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, immigrant workers account for 17% of the US civilian labor force. 6.3 million of them currently fill crucial jobs in fighting the coronavirus. These frontline jobs include health care and social services: grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations, manufacturing of food, medicine, soap and cleaning agents, agriculture, public transportation drivers, postal service workers, and scientific research and development. According to the MPI report, 29% of all US physicians are immigrants. 34% of home health-aides are immigrants, a job which is very much in demand for the aging US population. Immigrants also make up many of the custodians who clean hospital rooms and the scientists working to develop vaccines. Immigrants comprise 22% of scientific researchers, some of who may be working to find a vaccine for the coronavirus right now.

Not only are immigrants key players in health care, but they also play a major role in placing food on tables across America. 22% of all workers in the US food industry are immigrants, in addition to 37% of meat processing industry workers, who have suffered some of the worst workplace outbreaks of coronavirus, and 35% of crop production workers. According to 2010 census data, nearly a third of agriculture workers are foreign-born; however, this number is believed to be even bigger, as official data does not account for many of the undocumented immigrants in the food industry. Trump, recognizing the value of immigrants in this industry, has exempted agriculture workers from his new immigration restrictions.

Among other essential jobs, immigrants make up 34% of metro, bus and taxi drivers, providing vital transportation within urban centers. These workers make sure that other essential workers can get to their jobs, at the risk of their own lives. The truth is our country needs immigrants and refugees as much as they need us.

But these heroes are also some of the hardest hit by the fight against COVID-19.  Six million immigrants work in industries that are laying off large numbers of workers, due to stricter social distancing guidelines and cities’ stay-at-home orders. These jobs include positions in restaurants and hotels, office cleaning services, building services, travel assistance, and in-home child care. The Migration Policy Institute, in its recent study on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on immigrants, found that 3.3 million new unemployment claims were filed since the start of the pandemic, a rate unprecedented in US history. 

Ngozi Ogbue, mother of Uche Ogbue ’22, is a Nigerian immigrant who commented, “As an immigrant, the pandemic has affected my family in so many ways. Most immigrants that I know, like myself, are more likely to be at the forefront working, because of course, money is tight. More often than not [immigrants] are required to work, so no matter how bad it gets, we immigrants will still have to go to work, because not only are we taking care of families here, [but] some immigrants have families back in their countries that depend on them. So no matter what, they have to go to work. They are not able to stay at home and not work because a lot depends on them.”

As Ms. Ogbue noted, immigrant workers are more likely to have lower incomes, less healthcare coverage, and larger families than their US-born peers. An additional vulnerability that confronts immigrants is the limited access to safety-net systems (assistance provided by the government to vulnerable families and individuals) and to federal relief, which affects both documented and undocumented immigrants. For example, Trump has prevented US citizens who are spouses of undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus checks.

The MPI identified that collectively, 12 million immigrant workers are at the leading edge of the response to and impacts from the pandemic. 

While we’re all in quarantine, let’s take a moment to reflect on all the immigrant workers who make it possible for us to live so comfortably during a worldwide pandemic. Here are a few ways you can help:

  • Share on social media Amnesty’s latest reports on family separation and ICE detention
  • Tweet: #ICE must free all families from detention #RightsNow! No one should be locked up and at risk of COVID-19 for seeking safety @ICEgov @DHSgov @RealDonaldTrump bit.ly/FreeFamiliesNow@amnestyusa
  • Text RIGHTSNOW to 21333 and join us in the fight for basic human rights.

* If you would like to inform yourself more about the human rights violations being committed at the ICE detention centers, you can email me katherine.torres@winsor.edu for more information and resources.