Opinion: Unauthorized Workers In Essential Jobs Deserve Legal Immigration Status

“They have been working during this health emergency. And to imagine that we would leave them behind?”

By Jill Ament, Kristen Cabrera & Caroline CovingtonDecember 15, 2020 1:04 pm, ,

Millions of Americans received financial assistance earlier this year after Congress approved the CARES Act. But one group was intentionally left out of the stimulus plan: families with members who are living in the United States without authorization.

Ruth Wasem, a professor of policy practice at UT-Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, says it was a political decision to bar those families from stimulus money, despite many unauthorized workers performing essential jobs in health care, food production and more during the pandemic. In a recent opinion piece for The Hill, Wasem called on Congress to grant those workers lawful immigration status in recognition of their efforts.

These are positions deemed essential by the Department of Homeland Security. They have been working during this health emergency,” Wasem said. And to imagine that we would leave them behind? If anyone has has earned the right, I would say it’s these essential workers.”

In Wasem’s own writing, she has looked at how a disproportionate number of foreign-born workers are in essential jobs. Accurate data about unauthorized workers isn’t available, so Wasem uses estimates pulled from data about the entire foreign-born workforce. She says foreign-born workers make up about 17% of the American workforce, while they make up about 38% of all home health aides, for example.

So a lot of people providing direct care; people that are in health facilities are indeed foreign born,” she said. “These are larger numbers than … would normally be expected.

She acknowledges that a call to grant essential workers legal immigration status is controversial on many accounts. Some may argue that all unauthorized workers, not just those working essential jobs, deserve the opportunity for authorization. Others might say none of them should. Wasem is calling for something in between that she argues would be an important step in recognizing their contributions to the health care system and the economy during this crisis.

Expanding their access to stimulus money isn’t enough, she says.

“Including immigrant families with unauthorized family members in the stimulus relief is also a good idea, but I think as a separate piece of legislation, considering lawful immigration status for all of the essential workers who stood with us through COVID is a valuable thing for us to do,” Wasem said.

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