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Immigrants are playing a vital role in COVID-19 response and recovery | COMMENTARY

Immigrants are filling many vital jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, including front line medical staff. home caregivers and farming.
Immigrants are filling many vital jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, including front line medical staff. home caregivers and farming.(Mukhtar Khan/AP)

President Trump issued an executive order last week temporarily halting immigration to the U.S. Not only does this keep families apart during an already psychologically trying time, but it puts a stigma on America’s immigrant community, many of whom are putting their lives at risk as health care and other front-line workers.

As CEO of Baltimore-based World Relief, which has welcomed immigrants and refugees to the United States for over 40 years, I have seen firsthand how people come to this country not just eager to transform their own lives but eager to transform their new communities, to give, not to take. This is one of the reasons why World Relief — along with dozens of prominent faith, business, civic and immigration organizations — is participating as a founding member in the #AllofUS campaign to celebrate how immigrants and citizens are standing shoulder to shoulder in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.

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Born a British citizen and raised in Northern Ireland, I’m an immigrant myself. I worry that this ban on immigrants will create an “us versus them” mentality among Americans in a time when we should all be joining together, regardless of our birth places. It also stokes fear that immigrants are, according to the executive order, creating an “excess labor supply” and “at a time when we need to prioritize Americans.”

The reality is that immigrants are playing a critical role in front line efforts during this crisis, and all of our contributions to the economy and society are indispensable. Last year, Harvard Medical School found that immigrants make up 1 in 4 health care workers in the U.S. And a 2019 Health Affairs report found that care for America’s elderly and disabled people disproportionately relies on immigrant labor.

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Immigrant health care workers particularly fill roles as direct care workers, like home health and personal care aides. They fill shortages in rural areas, work nontraditional shifts, and provide critical language and cultural knowledge that other health care workers don’t have. And while the executive order gives an exception for green cards for medical professionals, it does not account for the other critical jobs that immigrants are filling right now.

A report by the New American Economy Research Fund found that “immigrant workers are essential” in securing the U.S. food supply chain, making up more than 1 in 5 workers in the total U.S. food sector. Foreign-born workers make up 1 in 6 grocery store workers in this country, more than a quarter of food processing workers and more than a quarter of agriculture workers.

A Bloomberg news story warned that possible additional restrictions “could complicate planning for businesses and workers looking to rebound from the coronavirus.” Additionally, a major category of people who are banned is those seeking to join their family member in the U.S. These are the parents, children and siblings of real people, with real stories, who desperately need their families during a time of unprecedented anxiety. It is simply unjust to penalize them — and their sponsoring U.S. citizen relatives who paid visa petition fees and have waited patiently for the years or even decades required by our backlogged family reunification system.

COVID-19, meanwhile, affects us all. It does not care what we have or don’t have, where we come from, or how long we’ve been here. As humans, we are all vulnerable to it. The best, and perhaps the only, way to conquer the coronavirus is for all of us to work together, remaining united as one nation. This is how we save as many lives as possible and get to the other side of the crisis.

Whether they’ve been in the U.S. for months or a lifetime — or their families have been here for generations — doctors, nurses, home health aides, cleaners or janitors, cashiers, childcare providers, delivery drivers and farmworkers are out there, responding to, helping contain and supporting us all through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a time of pandemic, we are reminded of what matters, and that all of us carry an inherent dignity, as people made in the image of God. We have enough to fear; we don’t need to fear each other.

Tim Breene (TBreene@wr.org) is CEO of World Relief.

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