The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light a ton of issues that have long been ignored, both globally and in the United States; economic and racial divides have become deeper than ever, and unemployment continues to rise at a frightening rate. While conversations around such topics have begun, there is one group of people left out, at least in the coverage that I most commonly see: undocumented individuals living in the United States. For years this population has been mistreated and subject to harmful (and incorrect) rhetoric that hurts their public image and makes them a taboo topic to be avoided for fear of backlash, an injustice that has only been exacerbated under the current administration. Now in our state of crisis, this incredibly diverse and vast population is hurting and in need of help more than ever.
Currently, the US is home to an estimated 10.5-12 million undocumented individuals, meaning that they comprise almost 4% of the total population. That is already a substantial number of people, but the true number is likely greater due to the difficulties of sampling such a vulnerable population. Despite the common accusations voiced against them, the undocumented actually pay billions of dollars annually in taxes, both through sales tax and income taxes that they file using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, an identifier used by individuals who are not eligible for a Social Security number. Also contrary to popular rhetoric, both the total number of undocumented individuals and the number of undocumented individuals from Mexico has declined in recent years. The most common mode of entry is actually overstaying a visa, with two-thirds entering the US this way in comparison to one-third crossing the border. Due to their lack of legal status, these individuals are vulnerable to exploitation. They are often paid low wages and receive no benefits, and they may be afraid to organize or demand adequate compensation for fear of deportation. Adding insult to injury, undocumented immigrants are also depicted as criminals and used as scapegoats for any and all problems.
The current pandemic is no exception. In April, Trump made the decision to block immigration into the United States for 60 days, arguing that unemployed Americans shouldn’t have to compete with immigrants for jobs. However, he didn’t halt guest worker programs because companies that rely on these programs for labor argued that this was more detrimental to the US than beneficial, but still banned other eligible individuals from receiving green cards. Such policies don’t actually help combat unemployment, because American citizens aren’t losing jobs because of immigrants; they’re losing their jobs because of the pandemic. Rather than once again blaming immigrants for unemployment, the government should be doing more to protect and support businesses.
In addition, the administration had been slowing visa processing and quickly turning away asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants that arrived at the border for weeks, citing health concerns. This is yet another example of shifting the blame onto immigrants. They do not pose a uniquely severe health threat to the US; any individual entering the country, citizen or not, could transmit the virus across our borders, but citizens have been allowed to enter, even when there was a sweeping ban on Europe at the height of the pandemic there. In my opinion, this ban was a way for the Trump administration to tighten immigration policies as they had been itching to do for months. This is further evidenced by Trump threatening to withhold federal funding from states in need unless they amend their sanctuary city policies.
Whether these policies stick or not, they implicitly portray immigrants as dirty and disease-ridden, a belief epitomized in Trump’s despicable and problematic labeling of the coronavirus as “the China Virus.” It creates an image of immigrants as threats to public health and serves to advance Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Furthermore, it draws attention away from the government’s failings by providing angry Americans with someone else to blame; it is easier for some to blame immigrants, a faceless group, for bringing the virus and taking away jobs than to blame the Trump administration for being slow to grow the country’s testing capacity and for being more interested in protecting billionaires than America's workers.
This depiction of immigrants is not new. In the 1880s, when individuals were trying to enter the US, they faced dehumanizing medical examinations. Those stereotyped to be poor, like Mexican and Chinese laborers, were subject to even harsher scrutiny, while the wealthy were able to avoid these examinations, making it clear that this was never actually about health concerns. Even in the 1880s, government officials turned away those who they felt would become a public charge. Once immigration changed to being by air travel in the early 1900s, medical examinations were not able to be done in the manner that they once were, but quota systems and racist media depictions remained. The focus also switched to the fiscal burden of immigrants needing medical care.
The fiscal burden of the undocumented is still a major talking point. The undocumented are denied welfare benefits and are immensely under-insured due to eligibility restrictions. They may delay or avoid seeking care because of the resultant cost. This is dangerous for the individuals themselves and for communities overall. Even in circumstances where individuals may qualify for benefits, such as for their citizen children, they may be reluctant to apply because of fear that it could lead to their subsequent deportation. All of this is problematic and harmful in the best of times, but in the middle of a chaotic and dangerous global pandemic, these policies put the undocumented in dangerous situations, all while they are left out of aid bills. The CARES Act doesn’t just exclude undocumented immigrants, even if they paid taxes, but also their children and spouses, regardless of their own legal status. How can an administration call for “America first,” and then leave their own citizens out to dry because of the legal status of someone else in their household? And, even more importantly, how can we just leave millions of people struggling purely because of an arbitrary distinction of legality?
Just like citizens, many undocumented individuals are losing their jobs; unlike citizens, they are unable to collect unemployment or receive other benefits. As the economy begins to reopen, they may have an even harder time finding employment because they must be paid “under the table” due to restrictions barring employers from hiring individuals without a social security number. As a result, many work jobs like nannying, but such jobs are the first to be eliminated when people suddenly find themselves without much disposable income. Other undocumented individuals have been working throughout this pandemic, such as those employed on farms, at food establishments, or in maintenance work, putting themselves and their families at risk. Without health insurance, this puts them in even more danger, as they may avoid seeking care if they get sick. Despite being on the front lines as essential workers, they are still not eligible for help from the government. While states like California have been trying to fill the gap and support the undocumented in their state, this is not enough. The federal government should not be ignoring millions of people living in this country simply to further their anti-immigration agenda.
No matter what your opinion on unauthorized immigration is (although I beg you to actually do research to understand who the undocumented are, why they are here, and how infuriatingly difficult it is to immigrate legally to the United States, not just believe what ignorant politicians or Facebook posts feed to you), I truly do not understand how anyone can be okay with letting millions of people suffer, whether they are losing their jobs and running out of money or putting themselves at risk for minimal compensation, just because they lack a piece of paper saying that they are legally a resident of the US. About two-thirds of undocumented individuals have lived in the US for over 10 years, likely paying taxes and just trying to get by. They deserve to be treated as human beings with respect and care. Even if they weren’t paying taxes, they’re humans in need of help. And if you still disagree, ask yourself why someone has to be contributing to the economy in order to be a “good” immigrant or person worthy of help. We must do more for the undocumented living in the United States, not because they pay taxes or provide services, but because they are people and deserve a lot better than what they are currently given.