Thousands of Essential Workers Are at Risk of Deportation

Maurizio Guerrero May 15, 2020

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa maintain a safe distance as a machine is moved on April 27, 2020 in Greenfield, California. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

Legions of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants in the Unit­ed States car­ry let­ters signed by their employ­ers stat­ing that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s admin­is­tra­tion con­sid­ers them essen­tial work­ers amid the pan­dem­ic. While these let­ters exempt them from being arrest­ed by local agents for vio­lat­ing stay-at-home orders, these work­ers could still be detained and deport­ed by fed­er­al authorities.

José (a pseu­do­nym to pro­tect his iden­ti­ty as an undoc­u­ment­ed work­er), a land­scap­er in Con­necti­cut, has had such a let­ter since the begin­ning of the stay-at-home exec­u­tive orders in March. His job, though, could hard­ly be con­sid­ered essential.

We are sent in to main­tain malls, apart­ment build­ings, cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ment offices,” says José, who has worked for Mid­dle­town, Con­necti­cut-based Bra­vo Land­scap­ing, for over a decade. We first pick up all the dead leaves, then mark the edges of the green areas and cut the grass.”

Although he’s been deemed essen­tial,” José is not enti­tled to pro­tec­tive gear, com­pen­sa­tion, fed­er­al finan­cial aid or safe­guards from immi­gra­tion agents. For sev­er­al weeks, José actu­al­ly worked with­out pro­tec­tive equipment.

Two work­ers already con­tract­ed Covid-19, and their whole teams were sent home to quar­an­tine with just 60 per­cent of their wages,” says José. As for the sick co-work­ers, I don’t know if the com­pa­ny is pay­ing for their treatment.”

Con­necti­cut has qual­i­fied land­scap­ing as an essen­tial indus­try since March. Under this cov­er, com­pa­nies such as Bra­vo Land­scap­ing can deter­mine how to man­age their undoc­u­ment­ed work­force through a dead­ly pandemic.

The Covid cri­sis is real­ly high­light­ing the con­tra­dic­tions that have always exist­ed in the Unit­ed States,” says Tania Unzue­ta, polit­i­cal direc­tor of Mijente, a grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion advo­cat­ing for social jus­tice. Whether immi­grants or U.S.-born, essen­tial work­ers are not giv­en a liv­able wage, health insur­ance or a social net­work of support.”

Undoc­u­ment­ed essen­tial work­ers were not even con­sid­ered in the $2.5 tril­lion relief pack­age approved by Con­gress and, except in Cal­i­for­nia, have not received finan­cial aid from state or local gov­ern­ments. Addi­tion­al­ly, they are being detained and deported.

Though the Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment Agency (ICE) has sus­pend­ed large-scale raids since mid-April, it still arrests immi­grants that pose a crim­i­nal or pub­lic safe­ty threat” — a vague and arbi­trar­i­ly enforced mandate.

In the midst of the pan­dem­ic, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has focused its anti-immi­grant zeal in remov­ing from the Unit­ed States thou­sands of immi­grants already in deten­tion cen­ters and in reduc­ing the num­ber of work per­mits issued to for­eign­ers.

With a Supreme Court rul­ing impend­ing, the debate over mas­sive ICE raids and depor­ta­tions, how­ev­er, will be back in the spotlight.

This rul­ing, which might put hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple at risk, will assess whether the Trump administration’s deci­sion to ter­mi­nate DACA (Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals) is con­sti­tu­tion­al or if it flout­ed fed­er­al gov­ern­ment regulations.

Good” or bad” immigrant?

Ini­ti­at­ed by a 2014 exec­u­tive order of Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma, DACA grants two-year renew­able work per­mits and depor­ta­tions defer­rals to 690,000 migrants that arrived in the Unit­ed States as minors before 2007. Trump’s admin­is­tra­tion argued in 2017 that the pro­gram is uncon­sti­tu­tion­al and should be terminated.

The low­er courts con­clud­ed, nonethe­less, that the admin­is­tra­tion’s deci­sion to end the pro­gram was arbi­trary and capri­cious.” Hav­ing heard oral argu­ments last Novem­ber, the Supreme Court has yet to issue an opin­ion, expect­ed before June 20.

Whichev­er way the Supreme Court rules — whether it ter­mi­nates DACA imme­di­ate­ly, phas­es it out or sides with the low­er courts — immi­grants advo­cates expect that Trump will try to exploit the issue to boost his chances for reelec­tion in November.

Repub­li­cans have used the same play­book since 2016 — to crim­i­nal­ize immi­grants and blame them for any­body else’s mis­for­tunes. And to do any­thing and every­thing in their pow­er to fear mon­ger and scare every­body,” says Pili Tobar, deputy direc­tor of Amer­i­ca’s Voice, an advo­ca­cy group for immi­gra­tion reform. The upcom­ing elec­tion won’t be any different.”

Pres­i­dent Trump has pro­posed in the past to keep DACA in exchange for accel­er­at­ing depor­ta­tions and dras­ti­cal­ly reduc­ing immi­gra­tion. In prac­ti­cal terms, he offered Democ­rats to save some immi­grants from depor­ta­tion while remov­ing the vast major­i­ty of them. Repub­li­cans are always going to try to pit immi­grants against each oth­er,” says Tobar.

Trump’s pre­vi­ous strat­e­gy cer­tain­ly sug­gests that once the Supreme Court rules, he will try again to pit DACA recip­i­ents, U.S. cit­i­zens save for their papers, against hard-work­ing immi­grants like José, essen­tial work­ers too but lack­ing any legal or polit­i­cal recognition.

For peo­ple, it’s eas­i­er to argue for the undoc­u­ment­ed young per­son or the kids locked in cages, but I think it’s impor­tant to talk about how to roll back the sys­tem,” says Unzue­ta. When chil­dren are detained at the bor­der and placed in deten­tion cen­ters, at the same time, their par­ents are being crim­i­nal­ized, charged with felonies and put in fed­er­al prison.”

The Unit­ed States needs to fig­ure out how to bring immi­grants into the cit­i­zen­ry, says Tobar, rather than demo­nize, exploit and dis­pose of them dur­ing a cri­sis. All of the 11 mil­lion undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple in this coun­try are essen­tial work­ers, con­tribut­ing, one way or anoth­er, to their coun­tries and communities.”

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