Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes Injustice of US Immigration System

Kevin Appleby

Credit: El Nariz /

Coronavirus Pandemic Exposes Injustice of US Immigration System

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged many commonly-held perceptions about the United States.  We have learned we are not invincible, for one, and are not always the best prepared in responding to crises.  We also have an inequitable health-care system, as we lack the medical resources to care for everyone and too many in our country remain without health-care coverage.

The other inconvenient truth that the pandemic has revealed is the injustice of our immigration system; we depend upon the labor of immigrants but scapegoat them as the cause of our problems.


Foreign-born workers—those with permanent residency, time-limited legal status and the undocumented—have worked on the front lines of this pandemic as health-care workers, food producers, transportation providers, and agricultural workers, among other occupations, at great risk to their own health.  Although foreign-born workers represent 14 percent of the national labor force, in the United States, according to the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS), they make up 31 percent of agricultural workers, 26 percent of workers in food and beverage manufacturing and processing, and 16 percent of health-care workers. In New York—the center of the pandemic in the US—they represent 33 percent of health-care workers and 30 percent of workers in the food industry.

Despite their contributions, the Trump administration has used the guise of the pandemic to adopt a host of policies to hurt immigrants and to slow immigration, including shutting down the asylum system at the southern border, detaining and deporting immigrants and exposing them and others to COVID-19, implementing the public charge rule, and implementing a green card ban.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) Recipients

DACA recipients, popularly known as Dreamers, have worked in essential jobs throughout the country during the crisis.  According to a CMS study, 43,500 DACA recipients have worked in the health care and social assistance sectors, with 10,300 in hospitals and 2,000 in nursing homes.  76,600 have toiled in food services—grocery stores, restaurants, and food delivery—while 14,500 labor in the manufacturing sector, which includes the production of essential items like food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, cleaning products, and medical equipment.

Nevertheless, DACA recipients anxiously await a Supreme Court decision which could leave them vulnerable to deportation.  The administration has also denied them access to emergency educational support and they are unable to renew their work authorizations because of a halt in in-person interviews by DHS until at least June 4.  Despite being at high risk for contracting COVID-19, they are ineligible for Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Over 31,000 TPS recipients are essential workers in the United States, with 11,600 of them working in health care and 76,100 in the food industry. They also live in legal limbo, as the courts are considering whether they can be deported.  They are ineligible for federal health-care programs and educational support, and, like DACA recipients, are at risk of losing their work permits.


Refugees and asylum-seekers also toil in essential worker positions, as numerous stories have revealed. Regardless, refugees with green cards have been temporarily blocked from petitioning for their immediate family members, while certain refugees and asylum-seekers have been unable to adjust to legal permanent residency.  While Congress allocated $350 million for Migration and Refugee Assistance in the US State Department in the CARES Act, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has received minimal funding to help refugees through the crisis.

On March 18, the administration shut down the refugee resettlement program, prohibiting any family reunification cases from being resettled.  Asylum hearings have been temporarily suspended as well, with asylum-seekers being turned back at US borders.

Undocumented Workers

Undocumented workers labor in a variety of essential sectors, from health-care to agriculture to caregivers for children and the elderly.  They also have cleaned houses, office buildings, hospitals, and nursing homes during the pandemic.  In New York State—the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States—CMS estimates that 70 percent of the undocumented work in essential jobs.

Nationally, over one-half of farmworkers and one-third of workers in meatpacking plants are undocumented.   They are indispensable in ensuring the security of the food supply and they work in difficult conditions.  The Trump administration has tacitly acknowledged their importance by exempting agricultural workers from the green-card ban and ordering meatpacking plants to remain open, at great risk to the employees.  To date, 20 meatpacking employees have died from and 5,000 been impacted by COVID-19.

Despite their importance, undocumented workers have not received financial or health-care support to protect themselves or their families.  Even though they pay a variety of taxes, US-citizen families with undocumented family members were excluded from direct payments in the CARES Act.

Although the administration has stated that the undocumented can be tested for COVID-19, they are ineligible for any kind of health-care coverage and are fearful of seeking care.  Of course, as with DACA students, the administration declared that undocumented students are ineligible not just for educational assistance, but for food or housing support as well.

Next Steps

With the administration excluding the undocumented population from any assistance, state governments and local communities have raised funds to help them with health-care and basic support needs.

Moving forward, advocates are seeking the inclusion of several policies in a potential fourth COVID-19 legislative package, including, among other items, 1) giving all immigrant communities access to Medicaid coverage for COVID-19 testing and treatment, at a minimum; 2) providing direct cash payments to all immigrant families and to all who file taxes with an ITIN; 3) extending work authorization for special populations, including DACA and TPS recipients; 4) funding ORR to provide COVID-19 support to refugees and unaccompanied children populations; 5) a resumption of refugee resettlement and a reallocation of refugee admissions to meet the FY 2020 refugee goal of 18,000; and 6) clarify that all refugees, including those who arrived in 2019 and 2020, are eligible for direct cash payments. Congressional Democrats have already signaled an intent to work for support to be included for DACA, TPS, undocumented immigrants, and other vulnerable populations in the next coronavirus bill.

Over the long-term, Congress must return to the pursuit of immigration reform and provide a path to citizenship for US immigrants. As the current pandemic shows, immigrant workers are vital to our nation and have earned the opportunity to become full members of our society.

May 4, 2020


Research Area: