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“A Grateful Nation” Should Protect and Recognize Undocumented Workers

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Tyson betting scandal another tragic legacy of the Trump Era

This week brings more evidence that the treatment of “essential workers” during the Trump era has been dangerous and dehumanizing, and that it’s time for America to show its gratitude to those who put their lives on the line for all of us by strengthening workplace protections and extending permanent status to those who are undocumented. 

During the spring, President Trump issued an executive order to force meat processing workers back to unsafe jobs without proper protections. A subsequent story found that Tyson Foods managers at an Iowa pork plant were actually betting on how many workers would end up contracting the coronavirus. Tyson, who has already faced scrutiny for its mistreatment of workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, was the center of an outbreak where at least six employees died and 1,000 were infected. As Nicole Narea of Vox tweeted, managers were “literally playing games with people’s lives.”

A new report from FWD.us is out this week and they find that more than 5 million of those designated as “essential workers” are undocumented workers — a remarkable percentage given that the total undocumented population is estimated to be 11 million. As Wall Street Journal columnist (and former Reagan speechwriter) Peggy Noonan wrote in the spring, “you have seen who’s delivering the food, stocking the shelves, running the hospital ward, holding your hand when you’re on the ventilator. It is the newest Americans, immigrants, and some are here illegally. They worked through an epidemic and kept America going.” Noonan says we should extend an offer of citizenship to these workers, “With a note printed on top: ‘With thanks from a grateful nation.’”

According to Douglas Rivlin, Director of Communication for America’s Voice:

Trump has not only mishandled the COVID-19 crisis from start to finish, he gambled with the lives of millions of essential, frontline workers — many who are immigrants and many undocumented. He applied his own twisted values to the pandemic, nowhere more clear than his decree to keep open big corporate meat production facilities at the expense of the health and lives of the workers who worked there — unprotected Being friendly to his buddies in business, that’s important to Trump. The people doing the work, risking their lives and sacrificing themselves to keep the economy going are not important to him. While demanding that production lines for meat and poultry stay open, the immigrants, refugees and working class men and women who work the production lines were lives the President was willing to gamble. And in fact, Tyson executives and managers turned it into an actual wager and the Congress has so far failed to include most of these same immigrants in national relief efforts.

America has a great deal of work ahead to recover from the Trump era and voting out the President and his regime was only the start. Over the course of four years – and especially during the pandemic –  Americans have responded to Trump’s cruel dehumanization of immigrants by becoming significantly more pro-immigrant and aware of the key roles immigrants play in essential jobs to feed, care for, and protect America. This broad movement in public opinion away from Trump and Trumpism presents an opportunity to the incoming Biden-Harris administration.

Our nation cannot continue to deem workers essential and deportable at the same time. We cannot continue with the status quo with a working, tax-paying underclass who is locked out of legal status, the protections of our labor laws and the ability to ever participate in our democracy through voting. Addressing these issues is a key element to moving the country forward after Trump has left or been dragged out of office. 

Maligning, devaluing, dehumanizing and exploiting immigrants for political gain are the original sins of Trumpism and any effort to heal the nation must make legalizing and incorporating immigrants into the fabric of America a top priority.

Several stories today offer reminders that immigrant workers have been fighting for our lives and livelihood while risking theirs:

  • Julia Ainsley of NBC News highlights a new study from FWD.us finding that 69% of undocumented immigrant workers have jobs deemed “essential” to fighting COVID. According to the reporting, “Undocumented immigrants make up 11 percent of agriculture workers, 2 percent of healthcare workers and 6 percent of food services and production workers, the study estimated… The study also highlights that 70% of immigrants working in essential jobs have lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years and 60 percent speak English.”
  • In a separate segment for NBC News, Julia Ainsley speaks to immigrant essential workers, like DACA recipient Jonathan Rodas and TPS holder Elizabeth Valencia, who faced the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic while risking deportation to save lives.
  • Luis Feliz Leon at The American Prospect reports that contracted-undocumented workers hired by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to clean and disinfect New York City’s subways during the COVID-19 pandemic were repeatedly exploited and harassed while on the job. From not receiving appropriate cleaning equipment to outright threats with retaliation, these essential workers have risked it all.