Undocumented immigrants, essential to the U.S. economy, deserve federal help too

By León Krauze | Washington Post

The novel coronavirus has been particularly harsh on immigrants. After facing years of harassment and persecution from the Trump administration, the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States have now been left unprotected, unable to receive aid from the government’s historic stimulus package, even though they pay billions of dollars in taxes every year.

Local and state officials, especially those in immigrant-friendly states such as California, are scrambling to find a way to help their undocumented communities, but it might not be enough. Without appropriate federal support, prompt access to more effective unemployment benefits or paid sick leave for those in need, many communities could be devastated. Left with the agonizing decision of going to work in the midst of a pandemic that requires strict limits on public movement or see their livelihood disappear, many undocumented people are already risking their health.

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This is a travesty. Undocumented immigrants are productive members of society who deserve all the care afforded to others.Even this administration has deemed workers who harvest and process the country’s food supply as essential, asking them to keep their “normal work schedule” during the crisis. “It’s like suddenly they realized we are here contributing,” Nancy Silva, an immigrant from Mexico who works in the fields of Southern California, told the New York Times. “Contributing” is an understatement. The immigrant workforce is critical for a significant number of industries in the United States.

In June, I interviewed John Rosenow, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who has relied on Mexican immigrants for years. “Our industry doesn’t exist without immigrant labor,” he told me. “Eighty percent of the milk in Wisconsin is harvested by immigrants. If you took the immigrants away, way over half of the farms would go out of business.” Wisconsin’s dairy industry is not alone in its dependence on immigrant labor. Indeed, almost 20 percent of food processing workers and more than 36 percent of agricultural workers are undocumented. The health-care industry relies heavily on immigrants as well, as do the country’s construction and service businesses.

Left to its own limited resources through the crisis, the country’s undocumented workforce will face an increasingly dire situation. But as state governments consider ways to offer concrete support, some immigrant entrepreneurs have begun taking matters into their own hands.

Javier Martínez heads an association of Mexican business owners in Los Angeles. The emergency has pushed many businesses against the wall, but it has also allowed for a renewed camaraderie among entrepreneurs and some local officials. “We have met regularly since this began, trying to find best practices going forward, for both clients and employees,” Martínez told me. “It has been an opportunity for great solidarity.” Companies in Martinez’s group have been trying to negotiate better terms with suppliers and reaching for credit lines to avoid unnecessary layoffs.

“We have been trying to protect people as much as possible,” Martínez told me. It hasn’t been easy. Many agreed to painful pay cuts to avoid losing their jobs, which could be particularly harmful for immigrants, who have no access to unemployment benefits.

Others have found more direct ways of helping. Mexican chef and restaurateur Enrique Olvera, who owns New York staples Cosme and Atla, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to help immigrants who are now unemployed and facing hardship. “For generations, Mexican migrant workers have provided for their families and buoyed Mexico through remittances,” Olvera writes. “It’s time to show our solidarity.”

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Olvera has been working to support not only his staff but also other immigrants working across the country. “The role of immigrants in the country’s kitchens is undeniable, as is the value of their work,” he told me. Olvera is also focusing on helping his suppliers, small farmers and producers who sell to his restaurants. “We need to keep them active and alive,” he says. His restaurants have begun selling take-out baskets with fresh fruit, vegetables, tortillas, honey and other produce. “We cannot turn our back on these people now. Anything we can do, helps. No matter how small,” he says. (Full disclosure: I helped organize this effort).

Still, it might not be enough. Immigrants who have worked for years to emerge from hardship are already experiencing painful setbacks. And yet, the immediate economic consequences could be the tip of the iceberg for immigrants, undocumented and documented alike.

Martínez worries that a protracted economic crisis could worsen the nativist backlash against immigration. “If things continue this way,” he said, “we could see further restrictions on work or entrepreneur visas, no matter the obvious contributions we all make to the economy.”

The United States will be worse for it, both morally and economically.

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