The “Illegal” “Essential” Workforce
Immigration, and Equity & Justice
When the pandemic decimated the American economy, an indispensable undocumented workforce was left to risk contracting coronavirus on behalf of a country that remains fixated on deporting them.
The past several months have forced an uncomfortable, decades-old truth into the limelight: a silenced, often invisible, and always vulnerable population is indispensable to the American economy. When the pandemic hit, the workers we could not afford to lose—grocery staff, agricultural workers, health care workers, custodial staff, employees at meatpacking plants, and more—continued to risk exposure each day. Those workers are disproportionately immigrants, many of them undocumented, and they kept delivering for America without access to protective equipment, the promise of hazard pay, or a safety net in the event of catastrophe.
Much of our economy is built on an exploitable workforce the government labels as both essential and illegal. This hypocrisy was true long before the pandemic, but it has been repeatedly exposed by the president’s efforts to stoke xenophobia while simultaneously exploiting immigrant labor. This national stain cannot be part of the foundation we set to rebuild our economy.
For decades, important swaths of the American economy have been propped up by undocumented labor—
They fuel American industries, from agriculture to construction to hospitality. And employers repeatedly report that the undocumented people they hire are keeping their business afloat. Only 60 percent of the U.S.-born population are of working age (18 to 64), compared to 92 percent of undocumented immigrants. The young Americans who might otherwise compete for these positions are becoming increasingly educated and overqualified.
The common myth that immigrants take American jobs misses the mark. When immigrants fill a labor gap, they create additional opportunities for U.S. citizens. Millions of immigrants act as “complementary workers” who, for example, work as a cook or dishwasher and enable U.S. citizens to take positions as servers and managers. Immigrants aren’t taking jobs from blue collar Americans; they are contributing to the economic ecosystem that ensures those jobs continue to exist.
The real problem is not job stealing but industry-wide wage depression that can result from the exploitation of undocumented workers. When undocumented workers are forced to work for sub-market wages or in unsafe conditions, or are subjected to wage theft, the floor for all workers drops. Unscrupulous employers receive an unfair advantage over businesses playing by the rules and U.S. workers get deleveraged. The obvious solution is to level the playing field by enabling undocumented workers to earn the protections provided by legal status and citizenship.
The net economic impact of an earned path to citizenship would be huge:
within a decade, a newly legal workforce would generate an additional $68 billion in state and local taxes, $116 billion in federal tax revenue, and $1.4 trillion in GDP growth. But we’ve left that money on the table.
Instead, we’ve wasted billions of taxpayer dollars trying to deport a workforce we cannot survive without. The United States spends more on immigration enforcement than all other law enforcement combined: we have invested an estimated $381 billion on immigration and border enforcement since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. And the size of our undocumented population remains largely the same.
Even still, the immigration crackdown has thinned the labor supply for industries staffed primarily by undocumented workers. Outdated band-aid visa programs were never designed to fill systemic labor gaps and could never replace the millions already relied upon by employers forced to operate in a clandestine labor economy to meet their business needs. And when the U.S. economy was stripped to its bones in 2020 and undocumented workers continued to keep essential supply chains alive, the structural inequities were laid bare.
Much of our economy is built on an exploitable workforce the government labels as both essential and illegal.
Although an estimated 75 percent of farmworkers in America are undocumented, the H-2A visa program provides an additional supply of temporary workers. In a hypocritical nod to the nation’s profound reliance on this immigrant workforce, the president’s “immigration ban” in April exempted seasonal farmworkers on H-2A visas. Farmworkers—documented and not—are already subject to routine and egregious labor violations. Without the ability to enforce weak labor protections or earn a path to citizenship, immigrant farmworkers have always struggled to be treated fairly; now that they are being forced to work without adequate protective gear and assume a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, these essential workers are fighting to stay alive.
The same callous disregard for essential workers’ safety is rampant in meatpacking plants, which are largely staffed by undocumented immigrants and are among the nation’s leading coronavirus hotspots, rivaled only by prisons and nursing homes. In April, President Trump issued an executive order declaring meatpacking plants to be “critical infrastructure,” thereby prohibiting their closure by state health authorities. And the president provided company executives, many of whom are big donors to the Republican Party, with legal defense from the liability claims of their employees, thousands of whom have fallen ill, many of whom have died.
Because undocumented individuals are barred from both accessing state-subsidized health insurance and purchasing private plans, most cannot seek treatment for coronavirus without inviting bankruptcy. Yet quitting is not a realistic option since Congress has rendered them ineligible for unemployment insurance and stimulus checks despite the estimated $32 billion in taxes they pay per year. That abandonment is a reality for millions: while approximately six million immigrants are risking exposure in frontline jobs, another six million work in industries decimated by mass layoffs.
An inclusive and equitable economic recovery will heed the central lessons of this moment: that essential workers come from all walks of American society, that everyone’s contributions must be recognized, and that marginalization of some means unfairness for all. Undocumented immigrants cling to the lowest rung of our caste system—and a path to citizenship will start to reshape America’s social contract. The millions of undocumented immigrants facing sickness with no health insurance or unemployment with no social safety net must be included in our economic rebuild. Their recovery is inextricably linked to ours.
Because undocumented individuals are barred from both accessing state-subsidized health insurance and purchasing private plans, most cannot seek treatment for coronavirus without inviting bankruptcy.