Since the declaration of a national emergency concerning the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the United States on March 13, 2020, the accumulated numbers of COVID-19 confirmed cases and related death starkly reveal the disproportionate health disparities that racial and ethnic minorities experience. Blacks, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian populations are more likely to contract COVID-19 and die from it compared to whites. However, less visible are the different experiences within these groups, particularly for Latinx and Asian populations that include larger proportions of immigrants. COVID-19 has exacerbated vulnerabilities for many immigrant communities, especially as immigrant workers in jobs considered essential and in sectors of the economy that are difficult or impossible to follow social distancing guidelines. In addition, six million foreign-born workers who are not designated as essential are unemployed and excluded from unemployment benefits, and other COVID-19 assistance programs. Uninsured immigrants also experience many barriers to COVID-19 testing and treatment.
Work circumstances for many immigrants place them at greater risks. Both documented and undocumented foreign-born workers are overrepresented in essential occupations, which include workers employed in health care, food production, landscaping, construction, and other infrastructure workforce identified as critical. For example, among the largest groups of foreign-born health care workers are from Asia (40%), 16% from the Caribbean, 14 % from Mexico and Central America, and 12% from Africa.
For immigrant health workers, the situation is even more dire. The risk of contracting COVID-19 is higher for health workers as they face a greater chance of getting infected from frequent interaction with infected patients, further amplified by lack of Personal Protection Equipment. Immigrant health workers also face precarious situations when becoming ill. In some cases, becoming sick or dying can mean possible deportation for self and family members because of visa regulations. Skilled care workers, such as doctors and registered nurses, work with H-1B visas and their dependent family members have H-4 visas. H1B visas are tied to their employment and the H-4 visa depends on H-1B visa holders’ ability to work. Therefore, if they become ill or die, they and their family members are no longer in the U.S. legally and are subject to deportation. Furthermore, many immigrant care workers of color report experiencing racist and xenophobic stressors from their work environment contributing to worse mental and social health. In addition, over 200,000 DACA recipients are working on the frontline of coronavirus response as “essential critical infrastructure workers.”
Besides health care, immigrant workers in other essential occupations also are disproportionately exposed to COVID-19. While Mexican workers are the largest group receiving temporary work visas or H2A and H2B, many essential migrant workers are undocumented. Not long ago, immigration raids had focused on undocumented migrant workers employed in low wage industries. These same workers now are classified as essential workers. Those qualifying as essential are allowed to travel to work instead of following stay-at-home directives. Regardless of immigration status, farmworkers and meat/poultry workers are covered by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act; but have not received adequate protection nor had their work sites inspected for Covid-19 regulation compliance. Consequently, workers are experiencing high rates of Covid-19 cases. Many migrants do not have health insurance and continue working after becoming ill because they fear being fired, inadvertently contributing to the safety of the work environment. Adding insult to injury, while being forced to work, rather than receiving hazard pay as offered to other essential workers, the Trump administration is moving to lower farmworkers’ wages. In addition to exploitation of immigrants during the pandemic, Trump has used the pandemic as an excuse for his anti-immigration agenda by refusing to admit refugees, deporting unaccompanied children, suspending some categories of legal immigration and creating additional obstacles for legal immigration.
Pre-existing family circumstances and economic inequalities such as living conditions and characteristics of their neighborhoods exacerbate difficulties immigrants face during the pandemic. For example, children of immigrants are significantly more likely to live with horizontally extended family households (e.g., living with aunts, uncles, fictive kin), which translates to potentially multiple adults working outside of home during the pandemic. Immigrant families, especially undocumented and mixed status families, tend to live in crowded conditions due to low-income and housing segregation – a challenge to social distancing.
In general, social networks and access to material and social support are beneficial for immigrant families and marginalized communities already experiencing overlapping layers of vulnerability. In the time of COVID-19, it may be difficult to maintain these networks and support. For example, stay at home orders means that while immigrant workers (and others) might be exposed to infection in their “essential” jobs, they are unable to visit relatives/friends/others in person, thereby losing personal contact. The order to shut down non-essential travel between Mexico and the United States, means that cross-border travel among friends and relatives is limited or impossible. Although many maintain connections online, there is a digital divide in terms of access to high-speed wireless internet, web conferencing, and sufficient devices available for household members. This may make it more challenging for families to maintain consistent contact across long distances, at times when they really need it. Technological divides, coupled with language issues also are affecting many children’s remote learning during the pandemic.
There are, however, numerous examples of extensive online and digital support for immigrant resiliency in the COVID-19 era. For instance, a DACA- and immigrant-youth led organization, Aliento in Arizona successfully raised more $25,000 in a fundraising campaign over one week to provide $500 in aid to nearly 200 families with undocumented immigrant members. This fundraising is significant for mixed status households, because if one member files taxes with an Individual Tax Identification Number even if jointly filing with someone with a social security number, they are ineligible for the $2.2 trillion dollar aid package. These organizations also emphasize the importance of celebrating accomplishments of immigrant youth, such as Aliento’s virtual 2020 graduation ceremony held in May 2020. Other efforts demonstrating the resilience around immigrant communities are GoFundMe campaigns to help one another, such as the Long Beach Covid-19 Undocumented Community Relief Fund in California, the African Bureau of Immigration & Social Affairs in Detroit, and mutual aid societies like those run by immigrants in New York City.
Immigrant rights advocates and others are protesting unsafe conditions in detention centers that are exacerbating the spread of COVID-19. Recently, they achieved the release of dreamer youths who were unlawfully arrested while serving as protest legal observers. Larger national organizations, such as United We Dream, provide links to bilingual informational resources to inform immigrants about access to free clinics. These organizations also help explain the implications of immigration law relevant to many immigrants, such as how to get tested for COVID-19 (though hundreds of dollars if uninsured); or ensuring that getting treatment for it will not be used to determine the qualification for change in legal status.
In summary, immigrants are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 due to many factors, including but not limited to their race, class, gender, countries of origin, legal status, types of employment and local areas they reside in. Understanding how immigrants and their families are differentially impacted during and after this pandemic; and amplifying their experiences are crucial first steps in eliminating these inequalities. Calls have been made to enact structural changes for immigrants in light of COVID-19 including creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant workers, especially those in essential occupations. Immigrants have strengthened the nation before, during, and after the pandemic, whether categorized as “essential” workers or not. Reorganizing the priorities and activities of Trump-era immigration policy and enforcement activities to align with these realities and public opinion would also be important to improving immigrants’ wellbeing.
Aggie J. Yellow Horse is a sociologist and a faculty in Asian Pacific American Studies and Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University (ASU). Dr. Yellow Horse is committed to generating empirical “evidence” to eliminate the racial and ethnic health inequalities.
Eileen Díaz McConnell is an ASU Professor in the School of Transborder Studies. A sociologist, Dr. McConnell’s research includes the implications of lacking legal status for the wellbeing of immigrants and their families, and media representations of the Latinx population and contemporary.
Mary Romero is an ASU Professor of Justice Studies and Social Inquiry and the 110th President of the American Sociological Association. Dr. Romero’s pioneering research focuses on caregiving embedded in intersectionality and feminist legal scholarship.
 The H-2A program and the H-2B program allow employers who meet requirements to hire foreign nations to fill temporary agricultural jobs and nonagricultural jobs, respectively.