By Barbara Franz
Undocumented but essential!
Some 526,000 people living in New Jersey are undocumented immigrants. Eighty-eight percent of them are under the age of 55.
The majority of these 462,000 who are under 55 are working in the health care, agricultural, food production and delivery service industries. These workers have become pivotal to maintain food production, supply chains, and public health for our communities and our state.
In the midst of a pandemic, the protection of these essential workers should be at the forefront of our minds.
It is these workers who will pick our food, process our milk, cheese and meat, and deliver it. And should we get sick, there is a good chance that we might be nursed and helped by one of these workers.
Nationwide, about 7.4 million immigrants work without authorization, and make up over 4 percent of the USA’s work force. But they account for much higher percentages of workers in construction, restaurant and food production, and health care industries.
More than 1 million crop hands — about half the total in the United States– are undocumented immigrants, according to the Agriculture Department. Growers and labor contractors estimate the share is closer to 75 percent.
According to the New York Times, immigrant field workers in most states have been told to keep working despite stay-at-home directives. Many received letters from their employers attesting to their “critical” role in feeding the country, following the Department of Homeland Security’s position that suddenly considers these workers as “critical to the food supply chain.”
Thousands of undocumented farm workers are about to come to New Jersey to work during the local harvests of fruits and vegetables. In Idaho, where a statewide stay-at-home order began on March 25, dairy owners are scrambling to ensure that the industry’s 7,200 undocumented workers, can keep working.
According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), there are1.5 million immigrants employed in the U.S. health care system as doctors, registered nurses, pharmacists, EMTs, and so forth.
At the same time, the MPI analysis suggests that another 263,000 immigrants and refugees with undergraduate degrees in health-related fields are either relegated to low-paying jobs that require significantly less education, or are out of work.
Of these underutilized workers, 14,000 live in New Jersey and 22,000 in New York.
In all these industries—agriculture, meat packing, delivery service, restaurants and health care—vulnerable, low-wage workers are functioning in fear without proper protections and information about the risks involved in their essential jobs, and without hope of any share in expanded unemployment benefits should they fall ill or lose work.
While we are self-isolating at home, waiting for our unemployment benefits from the state, and our $1,200 cash payments from the federal government, undocumented migrants cannot rely on any social safety net.
If they get sick, they have no health insurance or access to paid sick leave. They are not eligible for unemployment benefits or the $1,200 cash that we are waiting for; they will receive no aid from the $2 trillion relief package Congress passed last month — even if they pay taxes or their children are U.S. citizens.
What will these workers do if they wake up sick but know they have to go to work in order to feed their families? I want you to ask yourself, what would you do in their shoes?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the extreme vulnerabilities of millions of undocumented workers who are disproportionately employed in high-risk jobs that keep food production, supply chains, delivery services, and health services running.
According to Brian Lozano and Adam McGovern of the Wind of the Spirit Immigration Resource Center in Morristown, in New Jersey alone there are 128,000 people who have no access to financial relief, in spite of the fact that their families pay some $600 million annually in New Jersey taxes.
This is irresponsible and stupid. Not to provide undocumented workers and their families with a basic safety net, including paid sick leave and free health care, is not in our own self-interest.
It forces these workers if sick to continue working or, if unemployed, to go out and seek work. In times of a pandemic, this makes every single New Jersey resident less safe.
Barbara Franz, Ph.D., chairs the political science department at Rider University, and is a Morristown resident.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.