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Op-Ed: Undocumented Workers Are Essential and Deserve Stimulus, Too

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It was just about a year ago that we were hearing non-stop praise and appreciation for our essential workers who performed jobs necessary to keep the country functioning during a global pandemic. These individuals continued to work in public at great personal risk to themselves and their families, while many Americans were able to stay safe at home.

According to Pew Research Center estimates, in 2017 there were approximately 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, about 7.6 million of whom were in the workforce. Out of those 7.6 million undocumented working immigrants, it is estimated that 69 percent held jobs that are deemed essential. None of these essential workers were eligible to receive any aid from the stimulus due to their legal status in the United States. If the intention of the stimulus package is to help workers who are suffering economically from the pandemic, we must correct this negligence.

These immigrant workers, regardless of their legal status, are our neighbors and friends. We see them across many sectors of the workforce. Like us, they pay taxes and pay into a system of entitlements they will never be able to benefit from. The Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy reports that undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.64 billion in state and local taxes every year, with at least 50 percent of undocumented immigrant households filing tax returns using Individual Tax Identification Numbers. The $2 trillion pandemic-aid package most recently passed by Congress excludes over 7 million people who deserve our support.

Many immigrants have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic; we see immigrants overrepresented in categories of massive layoffs and in low-income communities. These communities have seen disproportionately high COVID infections and deaths due to working conditions and lack of health insurance. For example, the United States’ meat-processing industry has approximately 500,000 workers in an environment where there is no room for social distancing. A report by the Centers for Disease Control in April 2020 said that 4,913 meat and poultry plant workers in nineteen states had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and twenty people had died. That was barely even two months into the pandemic. It is now a year later, and COVID-related deaths have continued to rise.

The effectiveness of the stimulus checks on boosting the economy has been greatly debated and varies widely depending on the financial status of the individual receiving it. Kellogg School of Management researchers looked at how the first check was spent and discovered that people who had $3,000 or more in their checking accounts had no immediate response to stimulus payments, so no immediate boost to the economy. However, those who had $500 or less in their accounts spent all or half of their payments within the first ten days of deposit — those who needed it most getting the money resulted in cash being redistributed back into the economy almost immediately. This research also found that a large portion of recipients used the stimulus checks to pay for food, household items, bills, medicine and rent.

We pay into a system with every transaction we make and every hour we work. In turn, we trust that this system will come to our aid in times of need. We should also realize that any individual paying into this system deserves the same peace of mind. Whether the stimulus payments directly boost the economy or not is hardly what matters. People everywhere are suffering. We cannot sit in ignorance and ignore the facts. Americans, lawful immigrants and undocumented immigrants alike are restricted from working during lockdowns and government limitations that dictate how businesses can operate. They are people who want to work, but current regulations are not allowing them to. Including undocumented immigrants in a $1,400 payment is not them taking advantage of the system, but simply giving them some stability and safety to continue functioning until the lockdowns and restrictions are lifted.

Think back to March 2020, when we were starting to realize how grave the situation was really becoming: We were scared, but we were also brought together by shared sacrifice and purpose. One year and 550,000 American lives later, we have lost that unity. We are neglecting over 7 million people who are both undocumented and essential, praising their selflessness and sacrifice while failing to provide them with desperately needed relief because they lack a nine-digit Social Security number that says they are worthy.

Alison Tishman is an economics undergraduate student at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Westword frequently publishes op-eds and essays on matters of interest to the Denver community; the opinions expressed in them are those of the authors, not Westword. Have one you'd like to submit? Send it to editorial@westword.com, where you can also comment on this piece.

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