Regardless of one’s opinion on migration, it is impossible to deny the influence that the foreign-born population has had on the United States (U.S.) The United States Census Bureau (USCB) estimated 44,728,721 foreign-born people are living in the US as of 2018, making up 13.7% of the total population and accounting for one-fifth of the world’s migrants. Migrants have always played an important role in U.S. economic success as well. As labor force participation rates in foreign-born have long been higher than those of native-born, the U.S. is dependent on migrants for both “skilled” and “unskilled” labor. The present-day U.S. was conceived through migration, and continues to function because of it. 

The U.S. has been hit particularly  hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are more than 5.32 million confirmed cases and 168,000 deaths. As the country continues to see cases rising, its reliance on migrant labour has arguably never been more important.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has identified certain jobs as “essential critical infrastructure” during the pandemic. Based on these categories, it has been found that migrants are working disproportionately across all fields. Compared to the 13.7% that migrants comprise of the U.S. population, they are estimated to make up 18% of essential workers during the Coronavirus pandemic. These categories include professions such as health, manufacturing, services, food, and safety, among others. An estimated 69% of all immigrants in labor force, (and even more noteworthy 74% of undocumented workers) are considered essential workers during the pandemic, as compared to 65% of native-born workers. Migrants have been on the frontlines of the fight against coronavirus since the beginning and are vital in both health and non-health related categories. This makes them essential in both the health and economic response to the pandemic. 

While making up such a significant proportion of essential employment, migrants in the U.S. also make up a disproportionate percentage of U.S. residents who have been impacted by unemployment due to the Covid-19 outbreak. Although these impacts have been notable for both native and foreign-born alike, due to the precarious working conditions of many migrants, unemployment has risen 30% within the immigrant population as compared to 17% in U.S. born workers since the start of the pandemic. Their presence in essential, frontline industries, in combination with their presence in other industries that have been impacted  by the crisis has created a unique double economic and health burden for migrants in the US.

Given both the severity of the pandemic in the U.S. and migrants’ contribution to both the health and economic response, how the U.S. chooses to include them in relief policies will be critical in their recovery from the pandemic. Unfortunately, and regardless of their contribution, the anti-migration narrative in the U.S. has carried over into this crisis, and whereas some countries are taking more inclusive steps for migrants, migration policy in the US has become even stricter. 

With the suspension of asylum hearings, the continuation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) activities,  suspension of immigrants who “present a risk to the U.S. labor market”, and failure of coronavirus legislature to include and meet the needs of the migrant community, migration status continues to be a key determinant of health. Migrant living and working conditions, xenophobia, exclusion from host communities, and lack of consideration in policy making already made them more susceptible to health and social vulnerabilities, and this crisis has been no different. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) stated early on in the pandemic that including migrants in outbreak response and readiness is necessary to successfully control the outbreak. GIven both the severity of the outbreak in the U.S., and the high numbers of migrants living there, this inclusion is all the more crucial for recovery.  

Migrants have been deemed essential to the coronavirus response in the U.S., but despite this, their perceived social capital remains so low that they still do not qualify for health or welfare benefits as do the rest of citizens.  Until these exclusions are addressed, the U.S. will simply not see success in their recovery efforts. 

Sarah Williams
Sarah Williams

Sarah Williams is a health scientist from the United States and has a background in sports medicine. She is currently studying a MSc in Global Health at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal). Her main areas of interest are focused in social determinants of health and Human Rights and Advocacy, with special interest in the Right to Health of migrant and indigenous populations.

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