WASHINGTON — Six million immigrant workers are at the frontlines of keeping U.S. residents healthy, safe and fed during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data issued today. While the foreign born represented 17 percent of the 156 million civilians working in 2018, they account for larger shares in pandemic-response frontline occupations: 29 percent of all physicians in the United States, 38 percent of home health aides and 23 percent of retail-store pharmacists, for example.
They also represent significant shares of workers cleaning hospital rooms, staffing grocery stores and producing and transporting food across the country, as detailed in MPI’s latest fact sheet, Immigrant Workers: Vital to the U.S. COVID-19 Response, Disproportionately Vulnerable. The immigrant population spans naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents (aka green card holders), those on temporary visas and the unauthorized.
Beyond working in frontline industries in significant numbers, immigrant workers are also over-represented in sectors that are being most immediately devastated by mass layoffs: Restaurants and hotels, cleaning services for now-shuttered office buildings and personal services such as in-home child care, among them. All told, another 6 million immigrants work in industries that MPI has identified as some of the hardest hit, meaning that collectively 12 million foreign-born workers are at the leading edge of the response to and impacts from the pandemic.
In just the first week of serious social distancing measures across the country, some 3.3 million new unemployment claims were filed by U.S. workers—a rate that while unprecedented is likely only the tip of the iceberg. As dramatic economic contraction brings hardship to tens of millions of Americans in the coming weeks and months, the difficulties will be exacerbated for many immigrant workers because of limited access to safety-net systems and to federal relief, both for those who are unauthorized and some who are legally present.
The estimated $2 trillion pandemic aid package that passed the Senate on Wednesday and the House earlier today makes many immigrants eligible for cash relief payments. But unauthorized immigrants without Social Security numbers and most U.S.-citizen or legal immigrant spouses who file taxes jointly with such unauthorized immigrants will not be eligible.
And noncitizens—who represent more than half of workers in the hardest-hit industries profiled by MPI—face restricted access to existing safety-net programs, ineligible for some, eligible for others. For example, a sizable number of noncitizen workers, including green-card holders, those on a temporary work visa and individuals with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), can access unemployment insurance. And U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has made clear that unemployment benefits do not count in a public-charge test. On the other hand, most noncitizens—including many of those who obtained green cards within the past five years, temporary workers and unauthorized immigrants—cannot access the federal, means-tested benefits that other workers turn to in times of need.
Beyond more limited access to new and existing safety-net programs, immigrant workers face additional vulnerabilities. Those in the hardest-hit industries profiled by MPI are more likely to have lower incomes than their U.S.-born peers, with 38 percent in households with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, compared to 30 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts. Twenty-eight percent lack health insurance coverage, which is twice the rate of similar U.S.-born workers. And 38 percent have a minor child at home, compared to 23 percent of the U.S.-born workers.
“The pandemic presents serious questions about the impacts of restricting public health insurance and safety-net programs to some of the most vulnerable immigrants, at a time when it is imperative to prevent all residents from becoming ill and transmitting the virus to others,” writes MPI Senior Policy Analyst Julia Gelatt. “How deeply the coronavirus hits communities and how quickly the United States can recover, medically and economically, will depend partly on how the country treats its most vulnerable families, immigrant and U.S. born alike, in this moment of peril.”
Read the fact sheet here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/immigrant-workers-us-covid-19-response.
And for all of MPI’s research, analysis and commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/coronavirus.