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Migrant Workers: Essential, Yet Sidelined

By Camila Gomez Wills

The US response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted at least three contradictions in our national immigration system: 1) undocumented immigrant workers are essential yet can still be deported, 2) our food supply depends on them but they don’t qualify for paid sick leave, health insurance, or unemployment benefits and 3) the staggering unemployment rates do not include undocumented workers.

Immigrant farm workers have made up a significant proportion of the United States’ agricultural sector for many years; many of them are here undocumented. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that half of farm workers today lack immigration status. Even though our national food security has relied on them for decades, it is only now, amidst a pandemic, that the Federal Government has been willing to recognize them as “essential”. In a memo issued on March 19, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security deemed those supplying food as critical workers that are allowed to work. This memo does not change their immigration status.

The fact that these workers have an official letter granting them permission to go to work and at the same time can be placed in removal proceedings is the latest manifestation of the inconsistencies of our national immigration policy. Additionally, just as they were deemed critical workers essential to our food supply, the President used his executive powers under the national emergency to issue a deferral of visa processing.

In early April reports began shedding light on the working conditions of immigrant farm workers across the US during the pandemic and how both farm workers and meat packers are at higher risk of exposure to the virus. Most recently, after cases of coronavirus were confirmed in 17 meat processing plants across nine states -including a plant in Iowa that had 177 positive cases out of a workforce of 500- the government ordered meatpacking plants to remain open during the pandemic. At both farms and meat processing plants social distancing measures are hard to implement in the worksite and workers often travel in vans and live in crowded conditions. Notwithstanding these risks, they lack access to paid sick leave and health insurance. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act mandates paid sick leave for reasons related to coronavirus for employers with more than 50 workers and less than 500 workers. Even if the workers happen to fall within that bracket, undocumented workers don’t qualify for neither sick leave nor unemployment benefits.

The absence of paid sick leave and health insurance can deter migrant workers from looking for testing or medical care. Furthermore, it can lead some workers to go to work even if sick because they can’t afford to forgo those wages. This, in turn, would cause the virus to spread even further.

At a national level, undocumented workers are about 5% of the workforce. Despite popular belief, millions of them pay taxes and none of them qualify for federal unemployment benefits. Fortunately, some states have provided funds specifically for undocumented workers. As of April 29, over 30 million people filed for unemployment benefits. These cases do not include any undocumented workers. Thus, the true number of unemployed adults in the US is likely to be much higher.

In order to further the goal of protecting public health and ensuring a stable food supply, policy makers need to: require all employers, regardless of size, to provide sick leave for workers; earmark federal funds for healthcare services for migrant workers; cover the cost of testing regardless of immigration status; issue a statement that prohibits immigration enforcement around healthcare facilities; and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to all workers in critical industries.

Continuing the anti-immigrant narrative and rhetoric on social media while declaring them essential is hypocritical. Nominally recognizing workers as essential and part of our critical infrastructure without granting them health insurance, paid sick leave, or unemployment benefits can actually put the food supply at risk as more workers fall ill and lack access to care. In order to truly understand the magnitude of the crisis, we need to accurately count our workers and acknowledge the role and proportion of undocumented workers that we all depend on. If we want a stable food supply, we need to make sure that the workers at its base, documented or not, stay healthy and have access to the same benefits as the rest of us.


Camila is a Colombian attorney focused on worker well-being in global supply chains, responsible sourcing, and modern slavery.

1 Comment

May 06, 2020

Excellent article.

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