The Collegian
Thursday, February 29, 2024

OPINION: Immigrants are essential workers. But not just in the way you’re thinking.

<p>Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian</p>

Graphic by Annie Scalet/The Collegian

Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

“Essential.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, that word has determined the fate of workers across the United States, regulating who has to work and who has to stay at home. For the immigrant community — particularly immigrants living in the U.S. without documentation — the idea of essential work has defined who has to work and who has to leave work without benefits. 

The notion of essential labor is why President Donald Trump exempted farmworkers, healthcare professionals, members of the U.S. Army and all temporary laborers from his recent 60-day ban on immigration.

This distinction, though, masks the fact that immigrants’ work is essential in ways that stretch well beyond the borders of the U.S. economy to other countries.

COVID-19 is not a U.S. problem. It’s a human problem. Although the U.S. has the highest number of COVID-19 cases currently, case counts are growing around the world. Additionally, countries around the world are being impacted economically, particularly low and middle-income nations where poverty rates are already high and a majority of the labor force works in the informal sector. These jobs, such as street vending and microenterprises where people may work for family members, are not taxed and therefore often lack government support. The inability to find work to feed their families has pushed many people in Latin America to break quarantine, or face starvation.

These challenging economic conditions will only be exacerbated as foreign direct investment to low- and middle-income countries is expected to drop 35%. In addition, there is another concern: As of last year, the largest financial flow to low and middle-income countries was no longer foreign direct investment, but remittances, or money sent by immigrants to family and friends in their home country. Yet remittance sending worldwide is projected to fall more than 20% as immigrant workers lose wages they might otherwise send home to families. 

The majority of crop farmworkers, who are essential to our food production chain, are estimated to be foreign-born, and around half are estimated to be unauthorized to work in the U.S. As COVID-19 has led to stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders, immigrant workers have continued working in unsafe, crowded conditions in fields, grocery stores, and food production facilities across the country. 

Although Trump’s ban claims to protect the jobs of American workers, many immigrants work for employers who struggle to find American employees, such as farmers. 

On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused problems for immigrants who are working non-essential jobs as well. Although approximately 6.3 million immigrants work in areas that are considered essential, an estimated 6 million work in industries that are laying off workers. The top industries for immigrants besides agriculture and food production include private household work (cleaning, gardening and nannying), accommodation and food services and construction. Additionally, according to a 2012 report, immigrants own 18% of small businesses. These jobs have been hit hard by quarantine regulations, leaving many workers without sources of income

Irrespective of whether they have essential worker status, immigrants do not have the same protections as citizens. They are more than twice as likely to be uninsured, and undocumented immigrants do not qualify for unemployment aid or stimulus checks without a Social Security Number, even though many undocumented immigrants still pay taxes using individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers. In fact, some U.S. citizens are excluded from stimulus checks if they are married to someone without an SSN. 

I have a deep concern for the repercussions of COVID-19 in the immigrant community. During my four years at the University of Richmond, I engaged with Richmond’s immigrant community through internships and volunteering, particularly with UR’s Scholars Latino Initiative, which strives to prepare students of any documentation status for college. I focused my senior thesis on researching the impact of remittances on poverty in Guatemala. 

Without government support, many immigrants may not be able to take care of their families in the U.S., let alone those they may have been supporting abroad. The findings of my research suggest that a drop in remittances to Guatemala would have disastrous consequences for poverty in the country unless foreign aid or the local government could step in. The economic impacts of COVID-19 could be damaging to Central America and other remittance-dependent regions, potentially pushing more people to emigrate in the future.

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These times of isolation have only reminded me, as a global studies major, of how connected and globalized our world really is. We can no longer view these issues of immigration as U.S. issues and ignore the connections to other countries and the global economy. This pandemic has made it more clear than ever that immigrants make vital contributions to the economy both in the U.S. and beyond. 

Contact contributor Ellie Owen at

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