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Protecting America’s Health and Economic Security Relies on the Frontline Skill of Immigrant Workers

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The Immigrant Workforce is a Vital Part of the Essential Public Health & Safety Workforce and the Bulk of Agricultural and Food Security of the Nation

The public health crisis created by COVID-19 has exposed the critical nature of workers in certain industries that are on the front lines protecting all of us, from doctors, nurses and all of their support staff in the healthcare industry to workers in our food industry, including in grocery stores, agricultural fields, meat processing, trucking, restaurants and elsewhere. It also includes technology workers such as those ensuring access to video- and tele-conferencing for tele-health services, teleworking, and for millions of students connecting with teachers from home. There are construction workers needed to build more space to meet fast-growing health care needs and so many others in industries that have suddenly become critical to protecting us in this pandemic. At the very least, each of these workers requires appropriate gear, free testing and access to affordable health care if they become infected, and, for the many documented and undocumented immigrant workers in these industries, immigration protection so they can go on working for all of us without fear of falling out of status, threat of deportation, or financial ruin due to health care costs associated with a COVID-19 infection from being on the front lines of this pandemic.

Critical Public Health and Safety Industries Filled With Documented and Undocumented Immigrants in Need of Protection

Health Care Industry:  In the healthcare industry, approximately 17 percent of all workers are foreign  born, including more than one in four doctors.  In areas where the per capita income is less than $15,000, almost half of doctors are foreign nationals.  One in four home health aides, personal care aides, and nursing assistants is an immigrant and although more research is necessary to know the number of those that are undocumented, researchers say it is likely significant. Approximately 27,000 of DACA recipients are health care practitioners or in health support occupations. In addition, even before the COVID-19 health crisis, there was a shortage of nurses. Essential health care workers around the nation are busy caring for a growing number of patients, including foreign national health care workers who should not be worried about their legal status expiring because USCIS is closing offices or limiting immigration services in response to COVID-19.

Instead, USCIS should be utilizing their existing authority to automatically extend legal status. If a health care worker’s H-1B or J-1 visa is close to expiring, health care workers, particularly physicians who have medical skills in short supply, should be considered for automatic extended employment authorization so they can contribute to the health of the American public. The Department of Homeland Security should also be thinking outside the box in an effort to alleviate the well documented shortage of nurses. Legal mechanisms such as humanitarian and public interest parole should be considered in concert with efforts at the state level to expedite the licensing processes. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a more urgent reason to use the parole authority. And for all the undocumented workers supporting our health care industry in nursing homes, hospitals, and elsewhere, they should have ample access to appropriate protective gear, free testing and health care, as well as protection from being pulled over by ICE on the way to work or a raid by ICE in their workplace. DHS should use its existing authorities, including deferred action and parole, to grant them the protection they need so they can continue helping all of us without fear of deportation.

Food Industry: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of the food industry, from agriculture and grocery stores to restaurants. The demand for food will consequently fall on selected workers with notably less protections, yet more than half of hired labor on farms is undocumented and living in fear of ICE raids, detention and deportation, and, according to the United Farm Workers, many lack basic worker protections the rest of us enjoy. At a moment like this, documenting agricultural workers through the bipartisan House-passed Farmworker Modernization Act is critical so that workers may focus on their work without fear of ICE raids or deportation.

For those on H-2A visas which require interviews at U.S. consulates abroad, it is critical that the State Department in fact waive required interviews, as promised, given the closure of many consulates. Meat processors have also struggled to find workers which, according to Bloomberg News, “has been exacerbated by the Trump Administration’s tougher stance on immigration, which has specifically impacted meatpacking. Plants have been the target of raids, since immigrants make up a significant percentage of the meat processing industry’s workforce.” Ensuring our nation’s food supply during this critical time means protecting workers in the food industry, including with appropriate protective gear, testing, and health care, but also appropriate immigration protections, including parole and deferred action for those without legal status.

Tech IndustryNearly three-quarters of the Silicon Valley tech workforce is foreign born, so there is no doubt that many are currently supporting all of our needs for tele-health, telework, and distance learning for our children out of school. These essential workers should not have to worry about falling out of status because they are unable to jump through hoops to ensure renewal of expiring work permits due to USCIS closures and curtailment of services.

Construction Industry: Approximately 15 percent of workers in the construction industry are undocumented. Those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic that are building out hospitals and other health care spaces should have access to legal status, including through deferred action and parole,  so they can focus on their work rather than fear of deportation or separation from their families.

Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch and former USCIS Chief Counsel, said:

To secure the public health and safety of all Americans, we must ensure that workers on the frontlines — in health care, food, construction, tech, and many other industries — are fully protected. That includes not only extra protections for their health and safety, but also out-of-the-box immigration protections for documented and undocumented immigrants in these critical industries. The Department of Homeland Security has extensive authority, and it should use it, to ensure protection of critical immigrant workers on the front lines of this pandemic, from automatic extensions of status for many documented immigrants to deferred action and parole for undocumented workers.

David Leopold, Counsel to DHS Watch, Chair of Immigration at Ulmer & Berne and former President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said:

We need all hands on deck to fight COVID19. The federal government should be reaching out to all who can contribute to the war on COVID-19 and that includes immigrants whose skills are critical to ensuring the public health and safety of all Americans.