The Risk Of Being An Undocumented “Essential” Worker

Supermajority Education Fund

April 16, 2020

More than 20 million Americans have applied for unemployment insurance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As dangerous as this wave of unemployment is to so many people’s livelihoods, those who are working in jobs now deemed “essential”— food vendors, cooks, cleaners, janitors, and farmworkers — are also at risk. What’s more, they’re more likely to be undocumented.

Undocumented folks who are still working every day face not only the fear of getting sick but also an inability to see a doctor — due to both cost of treatment and fears of deportation, as The New Yorker reports. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has said it wouldn’t deport people who need to seek care at medical facilities, but ICE’s track record of separating families doesn’t exactly make it a source of undocumented workers can trust. 

“Although ICE says that it is limiting immigration enforcement, they’ve stopped short of the full stop communities need, and are still needlessly detaining thousands of people in detention centers which suffered from chronic fatal neglect even before the pandemic,” Mary Small, the legislative director at Indivisible, told Supermajority News. 

Per the Washington Post, as of March 28, ICE has detained about 35,600 people in more than 130 private and state-run facilities across the country. Some detainees have reported that they feel they have been kept in the dark by ICE officials about their chances of catching the virus. 

“Plus, immigrants have been systematically excluded from most of the support recently passed by congress—undocumented immigrants can’t access free testing and treatment and are excluded from the direct cash assistance,” Small added, referring to the first stimulus bill, which passed on March 28 and did not include benefits for all immigrant families

But there might be some hope for these workers in the future. As The New York Times reported on April 2, farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, have suddenly been declared “essential workers” and have been given letters from their employers that mark them as such. These letters aren’t a guarantee that workers won’t get deported, but the Times reports they might provide some sense of security right now. 

California also announced on Wednesday that it plans to give one-time payments of $500 per adult in an undocumented immigrant household (capped at $1,000 per household). This money will go toward approximately 15,000 undocumented California adults. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) have unveiled a proposal for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights that would protect frontline workers, including those working on America’s farms. The bill, which Warren and Khanna want to be included in the second stimulus bill, aims to protect immigrants who need care, regardless of whether they are documented U.S. citizens. 

“All essential workers should get the care they need during this crisis, including those who are uninsured or under-insured, regardless of their immigration status. We must use public programs to provide no-cost health care coverage for all, as quickly as possible,” the proposal reads.