Immigrant Texans Are Essential, Especially During a Global Pandemic

A new report from The Immigrant Learning Center shows exactly how important immigrant Texans are to the state’s ability to function, especially when it faces catastrophic events such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The study, Immigrant Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic, describes how immigrants shouldered much of the weight of the pandemic and have received little to no support from policymakers in return.   

Not everyone was able to shelter themselves from the specter of contagion by “social distancing” in the spring of 2020. As the state and world shut down in response to a pandemic that has, to date, killed more than 76,000 Texans, people deemed “essential workers” continued to show up to work. Nurses, bus drivers, grocery workers, farmworkers, teachers, and truck drivers are some of the people whose jobs could not be done remotely and required people to endanger themselves, their families, and their communities to keep society functioning.   

In 2019, foreign-born workers accounted for more than 17% of the overall labor force in the United States. Non-U.S.-born workers were “essential” before the pandemic and more-so during the pandemic. The Immigrant Learning Center’s study shows that almost 1 in 5 essential workers is an immigrant, with 69% of all immigrants and 74% of all undocumented immigrants doing “essential” jobs. The Texans privileged enough to survive the economic and medical disasters of 2020 did so, in large part, because immigrants—documented or not—showed up to harvest, pack, and deliver the food that kept them fed.   

Immigrants kept key industries, such as food supply and health care, in operation as other market sectors struggled. Despite immigrant Texans stepping up in a collective time of need, federal and state policies largely left non-citizen workers, especially undocumented workers, exposed to sickness and exploitation, without financial support. An estimated 6.2 million immigrant workers, for example, were excluded from the direct cash payments authorized by the CARES Act. It took grassroots initiatives at the local level, like the Austin City Council resolution, to ensure some of the most essential among us got the support they needed. Those efforts still left millions struggling on their own.  

The Immigrant Learning Center’s report reaffirms what we have long known: Texas needs immigrants, especially in times of adversity. Anti-immigrant policy choices and scapegoating, however, exacerbated the dangerous conditions essential workers faced. According to the report, 31% of immigrant families said they or someone they know did not accept non-cash benefits because of fear it might negatively influence their legal status. Even worse, half of those families refused Medicaid, SNAP, or CHIP services, and a third avoided housing support. The report shows how Texas’s anti-immigrant policy choices and rhetoric contributed to an environment of fear that prevented non-citizen Texans from basic protections like testing and vaccines.   

Immigrant Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic is the most recent report showing the importance of immigrants to the Texas economy and how policies that do or do not support them affect the state as a whole. As Every Texan looks to the new year, let us be reminded of the contributions our immigrant neighbors and family make in good times and bad. We should be grateful to those who step up for us when times are tough. Our state and federal policies should reflect that gratitude. From Drive Texas Adelante to our efforts to ensure more Texans have access to health care, our work in 2022 will continue to champion stories like those found in the Immigrant Learning Center’s report because the more Texas supports immigrants, the more it supports itself. We can start by urging the Senate to take up and pass the Build Back Better Act with a pathway to citizenship as soon as possible.   

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