We must stop thinking about citizenship for immigrants in terms of who deserves it. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

All Undocumented Immigrants Deserve Citizenship—Not Just “Essential Workers”

The pandemic has made clear that we need to provide citizenship for all immigrants, and safe working conditions for all workers.

BY Shannon Gleeson and Sofya Aptekar

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Individuals should be granted citizenship simply because they are human and they are here.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought renewed attention to the large number of undocumented immigrants who work in “essential jobs,” ranging from agriculture to hospital workers. Many of them labor in workplaces like meatpacking where the virus is notoriously rampant, and few to no protections exist. Close to 11 million immigrants currently live in the United States without legal status. About eight million of these affected undocumented individuals (and at least hundreds of thousands more with DACA, TPS, or low-wage guestworker visas) are in the U.S. labor force.

As scholars of immigration and labor, we have examined the poverty wages and dangerous working conditions faced by immigrant workers even before the threat of Covid-19. Many of these workers are now held up as essential heroes who are feeding and caring for America. Meanwhile, they face a ramped up system of detention, deportation and surveillance under the Trump administration.

Many (well-meaning) observers at outlets such as the New York Times and The New Republic have called on the federal government to finally reward the essential work of undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship. It became a compelling rally cry at the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, when hospitals were overwhelmed, getting food became a herculean task and families  became hyper aware of the exhausting nature of domestic labor. Today, as states across the country reopen stores, restaurants and hair salons, all while facing a surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths, even more undocumented workers are being exposed to the risk of infection.

Undocumented workers laboring in essential industries should absolutely be provided a pathway to citizenship, which would undoubtedly bring them much needed relief. But we believe all undocumented people, regardless of where they work—or whether they work at all—should be eligible for the same path to citizenship. This call has been long debated, but it is the only way forward to a more equitable immigration policy.

The typical argument for citizenship is based on the utility of immigrants to Americans. If you are forced to expose your body to dangerous chemicals and brutal working conditions—and now Covid-19—to harvest food to feed Americans, the argument goes, you are an essential worker and should be spared deportation, and perhaps even get citizenship. But what if you are laboring at home to care for family members? What if you are disabled and unable to find work that pays? What if you are building a more just America by helping organize the Black Lives Matter uprisings? What if you are elderly? A child? 

Valuing immigrants for their utility to businesses and consumers has always been a mistake, and remains so during the pandemic. Linking citizenship to a narrow definition of productivity—wage work in exploited but essential jobs—expects one group of people to earn the right to exist by serving another. Tying political inclusion to labor production for some groups is uncomfortably close to the shameful American history of African American slavery (and the valuation of black bodies for their labor) and the expulsion of Native Americans from their lands (because of their ostensible lack of productivity). We should learn from the Black Lives Matter protests that people’s worth should not be based on their economic utility, or how they live their lives.

The Covid-19 crisis is a good time to put an end to these deeply unjust patterns—not replicate them.

Basing citizenship on essential (or any) work status values some people over others. It also solidifies the notion that the government’s ability to deport you, rip you from your family and community, and make you wait in abusive and dangerous detention centers without due process is based on your utility to the rest of us, and not your right to a dignified life. 

A pathway to citizenship within a deeply unequal and exploitative system leaves the system itself intact. All workers should enjoy a dignified and safe workplace, and a living wage, regardless of immigration status. They should also have access to a robust healthcare system and quality childcare and education for their children. Yet, these are fundamental rights that both immigrant and non-immigrant workers lack in America today. We call for citizenship for all immigrants and safe working conditions for all workers.

We must stop thinking about citizenship for immigrants in terms of who deserves it. Individuals should be granted citizenship simply because they are human and they are here. But perhaps more importantly, they are here because we were there. We must be honest about the American legacy of military invasions, economic exploitation, and political interference in other countries that has pushed people to migrate to the United States.

We owe immigrants not only because their backbreaking labor subsidizes our cheap food and undergirds our economy, but because often the reason why they have to leave their homes can be traced to the United States—its corporations, its government, its military and its enormous footprint in the climate crisis.

So, here’s another way to think about a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants: a small and long overdue first step towards justice.


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Shannon Gleeson is an Associate Professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Sofya Aptekar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

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