What in the World: The costs of cutting immigration
03:56 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Saket Soni is the director of Resilience Force, a national initiative to transform America’s response to disasters by strengthening and securing workers who make sustainable recovery from disasters possible. Marielena Hincapie is executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Here’s a rule of thumb for surviving this pandemic. Ask yourself: What would President Donald Trump do? Then do the opposite.

Saket Soni
Marielena Hincapie

Listen to public health experts. Wear a mask. Abide by social distancing measures in accordance with federal and local guidelines. Provide necessary protections for undocumented immigrants.

Last week, Trump once again attacked so-called sanctuary cities – localities that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities in order to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation – by suggesting he might withhold relief funding from states that continue to disregard his anti-immigration rhetoric. He claimed that “people are being protected that shouldn’t be protected,” essentially stating that undocumented immigrants – roughly 10.5 million people, according to Pew Research – should not be helped during this global pandemic.

Threats like this are not just wrong – they are dangerously wrong. Instead of sacrificing undocumented immigrants, we need to protect them. We can do that if Congress allows them to work legally in this country and then creates a path to citizenship.

The reason for Congress to take such action is simple enough. Offering legal status to those who serve our country during times of crisis, along with proper protections at work, will ensure that the supply chain remains unbroken, that health care remains strong and that all resilience workers – the millions of people who go to work in and after major disasters to drive recovery – on the front lines of the pandemic are celebrated and rewarded.

But let’s put a face to this – Joel, a Venezuelan undocumented immigrant living in Florida. As a member of the Resilience Force, he has been a resilience worker for years, repairing communities after natural disasters. Most recently, he and his mother helped rebuild the Florida Panhandle after Hurricane Michael in 2018. Now, while awaiting a decision on an asylum application, Joel is delivering food through several apps.

He likes the tips and pay, but he told us he worries about his safety. Joel says the apps do not supply him with gloves, masks or hand sanitizer, so he has had to use his own gear to protect himself.

Undocumented immigrants like Joel are a significant portion of this labor force. In fact, without undocumented workers, many industries would immediately collapse. According to the Agriculture Department, half of the nation’s crop hands on farms are undocumented, while the League of United Latin American Citizens estimates that 80% of the meat processing workforce is made up of undocumented workers or refugees.

These workers need what they also deserve: the right to stay and keep working. But at the bare minimum, they need more than what they have gotten – which is close to nothing. Undocumented immigrants and their mixed status families have been cut out of nearly all the federal economic response to date. And undocumented workers who would like to stay home and help flatten the curve are unable to do so without risking financial ruin.

There’s good reason to take action now. After the immediate crisis, businesses across the nation will need these workers to continue working in resilience industries. Under current law, this would be challenging. Employers who want to hire or continue to hire workers must meet the mandates of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, an outdated law from the 1980s. The law prohibits employers from hiring workers without valid work authorization documents – and applies even in times of national crisis.

And though some employers have flouted this law before, they may be reticent now. The Trump administration has increased surveillance in this area. In fact, according to The Wall Street Journal, enforcement has quadrupled during Trump’s time in office, making employers and employees fearful of facing steep fines or criminal prosecution.

There is some precedent for providing these workers with protections and a path to citizenship. Former President Ronald Reagan agreed to legalize some immigrant farmworkers in 1986, recognizing their importance to ensuring the country’s food supply. But 1986 wasn’t the only time America used the promise of immigration status (or expedited citizenship) to protect vital national interests and to meet national emergencies. People who serve in the military are eligible for expedited citizenship, while foreign nationals who serve as employees of the US government, such as the Peace Corps and embassy staff, can become permanent residents after 15 years of service.

Of course, you can already hear the denunciations of providing undocumented workers with this kind of relief.

Amnesty. It’s the dirtiest word to those who have demonized undocumented immigrants for a generation in Congress and in right-wing media – and for the past three years in the White House. And it’s a problematic word in our world of advocacy for immigrant justice, too. Why? It paints the undocumented as wrongdoers who need special forgiveness for their supposed sins, not as who they truly are: people fleeing poverty and violence who make unimaginable sacrifices so that their families can be healthy and safe.

Nobody needs to be forgiven for growing and picking and cooking and delivering your food; for bathing and feeding your babies and grandparents; for working hard and raising their own families – and for doing all the things citizens profess to value: striving to better their futures. And they certainly shouldn’t apologize for trying to survive in a country of unjust immigration laws, capricious enforcement and hatred stoked by the President himself.

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    The coronavirus has exposed a foundational falsehood in Trump’s thinking – that “we” in America are better off without “them” – the people who are stranded outside the law, but who are giving far more to the United States than they are taking.

    If we’ve failed in the past to appreciate the millions of workers like Joel, then this is our wake-up call. In normal times, the contribution of resilience workers is vital. In these times, it’s a matter of life and death.

    Let’s finally give these immigrant workers the protection they deserve.