The Challenges of the Pandemic for Immigrant Communities

Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a serious threat to immigrant communities around the country. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, 6 million immigrants work frontline occupations, placing them at heightened risk of exposure. The United States Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the infection risk was almost double that of native-born citizens.

Before 2020, Trump’s policy set the stage for noncitizens being at higher risk for COVID-exposure and the severe consequences of COVID. In 2019, Trump changed decades-long policy regarding noncitizens ability to use public health benefits without fear of negative impact upon their immigration status. That is, Trump’s rule penalized noncitizens if they used certain public health benefits, considering it grounds for inadmissibility (ineligibility for “green cards” or visas). This policy change created great confusion and damaged trust in government among immigrant communities. Then, with the arrival of the COVID pandemic, many members of immigrant communities were fearful of seeking healthcare for COVID and later for vaccinations and boosters. Also, as COVID relief policies were established, many noncitizens were left out of benefits, despite their long and crucial contributions to the US workforce and economy. Without financial benefits available to citizens, many noncitizens were forced to continue working in unsafe conditions or were left without financial support if they lost or left their jobs due to the dangers of COVID.

As vaccines rolled out, undocumented immigrants faced identification barriers. Certain vaccination sites requested documentation such as licenses, healthcare cards, or social security numbers, even though such measures were not mandated by state or federal governments. While the government ensured that the request for documentation only applied to those who already possess it, few states communicated this clearly, leaving many immigrants with anxieties. Recently, we have learned that some noncitizens temporary visas were canceled if they obtained COVID vaccinations in the US that were fully or partially paid for by government subsidies.

Now, new problems have arisen with the Omicron variant. In immigrants in detention centers, vaccine access is limited, and sanitation measures are lacking. The infection rate within these centers is three times higher than the national average. Nondetained noncitizen are also at heightened risk for reasons including their overrepresentation in essential jobs that do not allow for remote work.

As they have been for centuries, immigrants are the backbones of our communities, our workforce, and our economy. Yet they face life-threatening discrimiation at all turns. The Biden Administration must take up the plight of noncitizens, create equal protections for them, and provide pathways for healthy, productive, and peaceful futures for them through major immigration law reform.