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.

Shannon Gleeson and Sofya Aptekar July 16, 2020

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

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.

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

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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