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Not a Threat: Immigrants Are on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Fight

Not a Threat: Immigrants Are on the Frontlines of the COVID-19 Fight

While many Americans are feeling fearful and vulnerable as COVID-19 continues to spread, one demographic finds themselves in a particularly frightening situation. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have spiked over the past month, and the FBI believes it will continue to rise in the coming months. I was particularly grieved to hear about two young Asian-American children being stabbed in Midland, Texas, because of their perceived connection to COVID-19. The victims survived, but the incident has sent shock waves through the Asian American community, leaving many fearful about going about their routine activities. 

These acts of violence result from a fear-based narrative that scapegoats immigrants, or those perceived to look like immigrants or foreigners, for the many problems facing our country. It triggered the Asian American Christian Collective to issue a statement speaking against such racist attacks and rhetoric which garnered over 7,000 signatures. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, immigrants were often framed as dangerous criminals who must be deported because they prey on taxpayers and make no contributions to the safety and prosperity of our country. Now, they’re often being framed as carriers of a deadly disease who threaten the health of our nation. And such attitudes are not just mere rhetoric but are being baked into policy as well- the President just yesterday issued further restrictions on immigration, inhibiting the ability for certain immigrants to reunite with their families, cutting off the social capital that immigrants need to continue to thrive and carry out many essential jobs that support the economy, even as our country is imminently opening itself back up for work.

A quick look at the numbers exposes just how false this narrative is. The very people some would like to get rid of are the ones risking their lives to save us. Research from the Migration Policy Institute found that 29 percent of America’s physicians are foreign-born, as are 38 percent of home health aides. Of the immigrants employed in the U.S. healthcare system, 42 percent are from Asia.

Far from threatening our safety, immigrant healthcare workers are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, doing everything they can to keep us healthy.

It’s not just in healthcare that immigrants are putting themselves at risk for the good of the country. Immigrants also play a major part in other key industries. Immigrant workers are a core part of America’s food supply chain, making up 48 percent of all farmworkers and 31 percent of chefs and cooks. In New York City alone, the hardest-hit metropolitan area in the United States, immigrants are 41 percent of all healthcare workers. The agricultural workers who make our food and the manufacturers who make soap and other products do not have the luxury of working from home – and more than a quarter of workers in these industries are immigrants. The same holds true for the immigrants who account for thirteen percent of postal workers and seventeen percent of transportation workers who deliver meals and packages to our front stoops. We also continue to rely on essential retail industries like grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations – and here, too, immigrant labor is essential. Eighteen percent of workers in these industries are not U.S.-born.

Some might protest that while immigrant families might contribute to the economy, they don’t contribute to tax revenue. But that’s not true either: in recent years, immigrants have contributed more than $300 billion in federal, state and local taxes. While most immigrants file and pay their taxes in the same ways as native-born U.S. citizens, roughly 4.35 million individuals file their taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) because they are ineligible for a Social Security Number (SSN).

That distinction is an important one in these times. The checks that the federal government is sending to families to help them make ends meet will only go to workers with SSNs – not families who file with ITINs. That means that many immigrant families will be left without the support they need to pay rent or keep the lights on. And given the fact that 37 percent of small restaurant owners and 22 percent of all food service workers are immigrants, the next few months look bleak for these members of our communities. In a society where at least half of all workers live paycheck to paycheck, eviction may be just around the corner.

In our work at World Relief, we interact with these immigrant heroes every day. I think of a young man like Saman, who was resettled to Spokane, Washington, as a refugee three years ago, after fleeing Iraq. With support from World Relief and the Spokane community, he learned English, studied medicine and found work as a certified nursing assistant at a hospital. Saman is one of many immigrants on the front lines in medical facilities, putting their own lives at risk to care for the most vulnerable in the midst of the deadliest pandemics we’ve seen in a century.

I think of Officer John Liom, who fled civil war in Sudan as a teenager and dreamed while living as a refugee in Egypt of one day serving as a police officer. He does so now in Memphis, Tennessee, where he gets up each day to protect and serve the community of Memphis, serving in an essential job even at a time when many other Americans are safely isolated from COVID-19 within our homes.

I’m thankful as I eat my meals for the farmworkers who are still on the job, doing work that is difficult at any time but with higher risks in the midst of a pandemic. The majority of the farming workforce in the U.S. is made up of undocumented immigrants. Without these individuals’ sustained work, even in the midst of a health crisis, supply chains would break down.

These immigrants continue to show up to work every day, risking their own lives to help care for America’s elderly and sick, to ensure public safety and to ensure that we still have food on our tables. As we recover from this pandemic, our elected officials should resume a robust refugee resettlement program as well as insist upon a functional process for more immigrants to come lawfully – or earn legal status within – the U.S. as they meet vital economic needs. Refugees and other immigrants help support our country through the very same resilience and determination that enabled them to leave their homes in the first place.

Some in our society are framing this virus as a foreign threat, and it’s likely that immigrants of Asian descent will sadly continue to face harassment. No doubt, many will use a virus with origins outside of the U.S. as a pretext to advocate new limits on immigration.

It may be easy to fall prey to stereotypes and caricatures to win political points. But what will help Americans in times of crises is to appeal to our common sense of humanity and publicly uphold the values that will help us get through this crisis together: generosity, sacrifice, compassion and empathy. My hope is that in the coming weeks and months we won’t overlook the immigrant heroes who have come to our country and are now risking their lives to save their neighbors. I can’t think of a more selfless – or more American – thing to do.

Jenny Yang is the Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy for World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization that serves refugees and other immigrants in the United States and the coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate.

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