New Stimulus Must Include Benefits for Immigrant Essential Workers

As soon as it passed, Congressional lawmakers realized the $2.2 trillion CARES stimulus package to help the country through the COVID-19 pandemic would not suffice. Yes, U.S.-born workers would eventually get $1,200 checks and significantly expanded unemployment insurance. But some essential workers have been left out in the cold.

The Trump administration’s refusal to put systems in place to distribute the aid has also bred confusion and wasted CARES Act resources. Now, legislators must haggle for more money.

Meanwhile, immigrant workers show up every day for their shifts in ICUs, long-term care centers, grocery stores, office buildings and warehouses, battling COVID-19 in the front lines as others shelter in place to flatten the curve. Yet let’s be clear: undocumented workers, the people whom I represent, get nothing.

In some states, naturalized citizens and those with an undocumented spouse are left out, even though they work shoulder-to-shoulder with people born on this soil–for lack of a piece of paper. This exclusion is more than morally wrong. It bodes badly for the nation’s recovery. The next legislation to move us past COVID-19 must include relief for all of us immigrants, including the undocumented.

What if this country gave all workers fair access to unemployment insurance, regardless of their origin? Immigrant workers who face the same struggles as their U.S.-born counterparts could focus on crafting a recovery. Even in the short term, this could be groundbreaking economic development.

Take Jonathan Magdaleno, 29, a registered nurse at LAC+USC Hospital in downtown Los Angeles. Jonathan arrived from Mexico at age 13 and signed up for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) in 2012. Because it allowed him financial aid, he became first a certified nurse assistant then an RN, and about six months ago, began working in the ICU–his dream job.

“What we see every day is COVID-19 patients,” he said. “Last week I extubated a patient that had been really struggling. Now he is breathing 100 percent on his own. It is amazing to see that whole process.”

Jonathan doesn’t qualify for unemployment insurance under CARES. Moreover, if the Supreme Court invalidates DACA, he loses work authorization and access to all benefits–despite his nonstop dedication, since the crisis began, to saving lives.
About 16.5 percent of U.S. health workers are immigrants, from home health aides to doctors. More than 234,000 of physicians are immigrants, as are 461,409 of the nation’s registered nurses. They are nearly 10,000 of our surgeons and more than 266,000 of our nurse assistants. For any of them, access to CARES depends on legal status.

Then there are food delivery workers, grocery stockers, cooks and field laborers who ensure our food security. Large percentages are immigrants without papers. After the crisis began, many kept working in close quarters and risking their health despite national social distancing guidelines. Some walked out and struck in protest. And yet, these immigrant workers don’t get the relief check or unemployment insurance for which other Americans now are registering.

The next stimulus will likely focus on helping small businesses shut out of the $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program. It ran out of funds last week, and there’s evidence those who most needed it could not get access. In California, about 220,000 of those entrepreneurs are undocumented immigrants. But because they were born in another country, they couldn’t apply.

Supporters of the Trump administration call immigrants takers and accuse them of robbing Americans of jobs and benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic blew the lid off that lie, as immigrants stay on the front lines with no government help.

This country must protect every worker, including immigrants. We shouldn’t have to worry about feeding our families while going above and beyond to battle this pandemic. Undocumented immigrants especially will suffer from the COVID-19 economic crisis. At 15-19 percent of the country’s population, their suffering will affect all of us. We must now do right by them, if only to ensure our own survival.

Angelica Salas was born in Durango, Mexico and is executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) the largest immigrant rights organization in California.