President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order that puts a stop to most immigrants entering the U.S. for 60 days, right at a time when many states have begun a phased reopening of businesses and activities.
The order freezes green card approval but exempts farmworkers and other essential workers. The stated reasoning for this order was not to support stay-at-home requirements that aim to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but to help with the economic recovery.
In his statement, the president said: “By pausing immigration, we’ll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens. So important. It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad.”
Research has shown, however, that closing borders doesn’t benefit the American workforce or the economy. The reality is that immigrants drive economic progress and help create new jobs.
During the novel coronavirus pandemic, immigrant workers have been on the front lines as essential workers in hospitals, grocery stores and within the transportation sector. While first-generation immigrants make up about 14 percent of the United States population, they contribute much more than their share as essential workers.
Immigrants represent 17 percent of healthcare workers, including almost 30 percent of physicians, 16 percent of registered nurses and 37 percent of home health aides, according to ongoing reporting by the research and advocacy organization New American Economy (NAE).
Immigrants also make up 17 percent of grocery workers, 18 percent of food delivery workers and 22 percent of food-sector workers. Almost three-quarters of agricultural hand packers and packagers are immigrants.
According to NAE's research, immigrants aren’t taking jobs that U.S.-born individuals would have otherwise claimed. In many cases, these workers are filling industry-wide shortages. As an example, in 2018, more than 27 healthcare practitioner jobs were available for every unemployed healthcare worker.
In fact, research has shown that immigrants do more than essential work. A 2018 study by the National Foundation for American Policy showed that increasing the flow of eligible workers from other countries reduces the unemployment rate of U.S. natives in the same gender and education groups.
The American Civil Liberties Union also notes that it’s easy to point to the jobs immigrants fill, but it's more difficult to shine a light on the jobs they create. And if it’s a number you’re looking for, $90 billion is how much non-resident workers pay in taxes every year — contrast that with the $5 billion in welfare they accept from the system.
Business groups have pushed back at the shift in immigration policy. “If you really want to harm the U.S. economy, then shut immigration down,” Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, told the Seattle Times last month. “If [the president] wants to restart the economy, it’s not going to be by restricting access to the people that create jobs in the United States.”
While immigrant communities uplift the economy, they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, especially as many essential workers are asked to continue normal daily routines, in some cases without adequate support systems.
For undocumented immigrants, life during the crisis may be particularly challenging, especially as those individuals don’t qualify for government assistance, including the stimulus payment allocated via Internal Revenue Service channels. This is despite the fact that many undocumented immigrants choose to pay taxes every year, totaling billions in tax revenue.
A bill limiting immigration doesn’t only anchor economic recovery, but it also encourages the narrative that immigrants leech off society instead of buoying it up and does a disservice to communities that are already unfairly disadvantaged.
As Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, told Time magazine: “At a time of crisis, when America needs a certain segment of its society to keep functioning so that we can all be safe and healthy, a significant chunk of that indispensable workforce is not formally recognized as Americans. [They are] are risking their lives in order to serve the country they call home.” Immigrants deserve better; all of America deserves better as we attempt economic recovery after months of inertia.
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Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.