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The Essential Workers America Treats as Disposable

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
A day laborer taking part in a protest to appeal to California Governor Gavin Newsom to ensure undocumented workers and their families receive relief during the Covid-19 outbreak, Los Angeles, April 14, 2020

It’s not every day that the shutters of a mansion fall away and a flood of light illuminates each dark room. Besides wreaking havoc on people’s lives and our economy, the Covid-19 pandemic has done that, ruthlessly exposing what’s been hiding in the cracks and corners. America was never designed to take care of the people who built it, or even given them their due, and that harsh truth has never been more apparent for the estimated 4.5 million immigrants who live, work, and pay taxes here without formal authorization. People who use individual taxpayer identification numbers (ITINs), which permit a person to pay taxes if they work without authorization, are the only taxpayers excluded from the coronavirus stimulus package, the congressional act mandating some $2 trillion of relief for businesses and workers that was signed into law at the end of March.

In the fields that feed the rest of the country, for example, fully one quarter of farmworkers are undocumented. Some of these, and some undocumented workers in other sectors, have now been deemed essential. But countless others are out of work, left to fend for themselves as the virus engulfs their communities. One such is Jesús, a thirty-eight-year-old father of two from Mexico who has worked in Chicago kitchens for twenty years. Without work authorization, he paid tax on his wages from his full-time jobs in two restaurants in the River North neighborhood until March 16, when both were ordered closed. Jesús supported both his family in Chicago and his parents back in Mexico City, but he struggles now with two things. The first is asking for help, the second, he told me, is “Just trying not to demonstrate any of the fear I am feeling to my wife and my children.” 

While corporations are going on life support thanks to this huge government bailout, undocumented immigrants and their families, among them US citizens, are being allowed to suffer, to starve, and, without access to health care, perhaps even to die. As things already stood, undocumented immigrants were ineligible for any federally funded public health insurance programs. On top of that, they are now denied help in the form of a stimulus check or unemployment benefits, even as it has emerged that the virus is twice as deadly for black and brown people than it is for white Americans.

Systemic inequality has been around far longer than Covid-19, and its deep fault lines are ripe for exploitation by this new menace. Deborah Axt, the co-executive director of Make the Road, New York’s largest immigrant welfare organization, noted that while the virus may not discriminate:

The system does discriminate. So people working from home now, bored and frustrated that they have to home-school their kids, they have no idea how much death and illness is rampant in the communities that we represent. And that is deeply disgusting.

Some states and cities are cobbling together funds for their undocumented population. California contributed $75 million to a $125 million disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants, with philanthropic groups providing the remainder. Approximately 150,000 undocumented Californians will receive a one-time cash benefit of $500, with a cap of $1,000 per household. These amounts are difficult to square with the estimated $3 billion in state and local taxes that undocumented Californians pay each year, but it is certainly better than the federal government’s response.

Advocates like Axt are lobbying for undocumented people to be included in future relief legislation, and some Democratic members of Congress have co-sponsored a measure called the Leave No Taxpayers Behind Act, which would ensure that ITIN users would qualify for any additional stimulus checks. Minnesota Congress Member Ilhan Omar’s office will introduce a bill to expand the eligibility for these rebates to all mixed-status joint filers. Some 16.7 million Americans live in a mixed-status family, meaning that one or more of them has a member paying taxes using an ITIN.

The original stimulus package, known as the CARES Act, blocked emergency cash payments not only to ITIN users, but also to anyone in the same household as a person with an ITIN. In other words, as Doug Rand, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said: “If a US citizen, permanent resident, or anyone else with a Social Security Number files their tax return along with anyone who doesn’t have a Social Security number, then nobody in that household will get an emergency cash payment.”

One San Diego family of five is feeling that exclusion deeply. I spoke to Miriam who told me that although she and her three children are citizens, because her husband uses an ITIN, none of them will receive stimulus checks:

We have been filing taxes every single year for fifteen years, we have paid our share and done everything we can. Our hope is that doing everything we can and showing we are upstanding citizens may help him one day if there is a path to citizenship. And now we’re in this position. It’s a nationwide crisis, we feel we’re being punished for doing the right thing.

Miriam is at pains to point out that the family has never used any type of government assistance, but with her husband, the main breadwinner of the family, unable to work for the past month, and a new baby due in August, she is devastated. “For my children and I, who are US citizens, who should be afforded the same rights as every other citizen, it’s really upsetting,” she said. “We’re being punished because of something completely separate, which is the immigration status of my husband. It wasn’t thought out completely, surely. We are being betrayed by our own government.” In fact, this was no accidental oversight of lawmakers: an exemption for families with a member serving in the military shows that they knew exactly what they were doing.

It should be obvious that when it comes to Covid-19, nobody is safe unless everybody is safe. A virus does not distinguish between bodies that have work authorization and those that don’t. Isn’t it a liability for all of us when sick workers, without any health care or government support, simply have to go out and work? Add to that the chilling effect on seeking medical help that has occurred following the Trump administration’s changes to the Public Charge Law, which have made some immigrants reluctant to seek medical attention for fear it will affect their future immigration status.

There is reason for caution, though, in basing a demand for equal treatment and justice for undocumented people simply on the possible public health risk of excluding them from benefits. “I call this a ‘population health frame,’” said the sociologist and medical anthropologist Anahi Viladrich. “Rather than defending immigrants on the basis of human rights, with the access to health care a human right, we tend to fall into protecting immigrants on the basis of shielding Americans.”

It’s also troubling to single out immigrants because of the historic scapegoating of immigrants during other health crises. The historian Alan M. Kraut writes that in the 1830s, Irish immigrants were stigmatized as bearers of cholera, and at the end of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was dubbed the “Jewish disease.” Scapegoating also obscures a longer thread in a bigger pattern, regardless of which party or administration is in power. According to Professor Viladrich, the American government’s denying assistance to this group of working immigrants is the historic norm.

Brent Stirton/Getty Images
Immigrant agricultural workers, who have their own improvised face masks but otherwise work in the fields without other protection from the coronavirus, Oxnard, California, March 27, 2020

“A lot of this is related to a labor force that is disposable,” she said. “There is no contradiction here; it is very consistent with ACA, with welfare reform, all of that. The systematic exclusion of immigrants is parallel with the systematic exploitation of immigrants.”

Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, lobbied hard to ensure that people without work authorization would be excluded from the CARES Act. On the Senate floor, he spoke against child tax credit going to people without social security numbers:

If you want to apply for money from the government through the child tax credit program, then you have to be a legitimate person… It has nothing to do with not liking immigrants. It has to do with saying, taxpayer money shouldn’t go to non-people.

His office later said he was referring to people who fraudulently claimed a child in order to reap the federal benefit. Whatever he meant by “legitimate person” and “non-people,” the effect was the same: in the eyes of the law, undocumented immigrants would be non-people.

Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher, used the term “bare life” to describe a life reduced to plain biological facts, the robbing of a person’s political existence by those who have the power to define who is included as a worthy human being and who is excluded. While the labor of undocumented people is gladly accepted, their humanity has been tidily erased by lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

The immigration and legal historian Daniel Kanstroom reminds us that in times of trouble, like wars or national emergencies, immigrants are the first to get thrown overboard. It was in part due to the ban on Chinese immigrants back in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that the demand for Mexican workers increased dramatically. In his 2007 book Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History, Kanstroom explained how this ban combined with wartime labor needs in 1917 led to the US government’s systematic recruitment of Mexican workers: “From 1917 through 1921, an estimated 50,000–80,000 Mexican farm workers entered the United States under this program, establishing a legal model and cultural mindset that endured for decades to come.”

Kanstroom cites a line from the 1911 Dillingham Commission, an extensive bipartisan investigation into immigration, that “The Mexican… is less desirable as a citizen than as a laborer.” The precedent was set, and what followed was a cycle of recruitment, restriction, and expulsion. More than one million people of Mexican ancestry were forcibly removed from the United States during the Depression years. Some of the people deported by the government to Mexico were US citizens, but then as now, because of their undocumented relatives, they were subject to the same brutal treatment.

In 1942, as a wartime labor shortage loomed, the US worked out an agreement with Mexico for short-term, low-wage workers to fill in the gap. The Bracero Program, as it was known, continued until 1964, with some 4.5 million Mexican workers legally entering the country during those years. There were enormous contradictions in the way those workers were treated: ad hoc legalization programs designed to help big farmers took place at some times; then, at others, there were huge deportation drives when the demand for labor fell off—most notoriously, the terrifying round-ups of 1954’s so-called Operation Wetback.

According to the scholar of migration Nicholas De Genova, “It is precisely their distinctive legal vulnerability, their putative ‘illegality’ and official ‘exclusion,’ that inflames the irrepressible desire and demand for undocumented migrants as a highly exploitable workforce—and thus ensures their enthusiastic importation and subordinate incorporation.” It is no mistake that there remain millions of “illegal” workers of Latino ethnicity contributing their labor, taxes, and humanity to this country; it suits America very well in the good times, and always has.

“I talk to my six-year-old a lot about what’s happening. She understands,” said Griselda, a prep cook who worked alongside Jesús in the now closed River North restaurant. “She doesn’t insist on going outside. She listens and she understands.”

A single parent of two (her other child is fifteen), Griselda lives in a one-bedroom apartment. She has used most of her money to make rent and is concerned about food, though she’s reluctant as yet to resort to the food banks she’s seen advertising their locations on Facebook. “I prefer that that help would go to another person, who really needs it,” she said. “I can wait for a time when I’m extremely in need—and I am scared of that.”

How does she feel about paying taxes all this time, but not being entitled to the stimulus checks now, I asked. She went quiet for a moment when I mentioned the $1,200 for adults and $500 checks for children—she had not heard about that. And she was hesitant to speak when pressed on whether or not people like her deserve help like unemployment benefits or health insurance from the federal government. For Jesús, it’s all about the work. “Undocumented people do the heaviest jobs, and it would be fair to be helped in this situation by them (the federal government),” he said, but he would always rather work. “If there is no work, we cannot do anything.”

Julissa Arce, the author of the 2016 best-selling memoir My (Underground) American Dream, knows well what it’s like to be measured only in economic output and to feel the stigma of working without authorization. “It’s crazy; it’s such a trauma that goes deeply into the core of your being and it gets stuck there,” she told me. “It is so much work to untangle yourself from all of it and unlearn all of the shame that you learn when you are undocumented.”

Even today, a decade after receiving her Green Card and after six years of US citizenship, even with her successful career as a writer and speaker, she has to fight for her sense of belonging and a modicum of entitlement. “You always have to think of creative ways to survive and you learn that the people that are going to help are your family and community—not the government,” she said. “Whether it’s your neighbor who can watch the kids or whether it’s a tanda.” Tanda is a Mexican term for a revolving loan within a community, useful here in the US when credit is denied because of immigration status.

In Chicago, before the pandemic, Griselda could rely on her friends and her colleagues from the restaurant, her community, but that has changed. “I think most of us are living day by day,” she said. “I feel like I’m not going to go and ask them for something that I know that they don’t have.”

Julissa Arce learned the American ethos young. “Beyond the immigration debate, there is a belief about America that people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that the people who work the hardest are the people that become the most successful.” Today, she knows that isn’t true, as Griselda and Jesús must, too, since they’ve each spent many years working two full-time jobs yet that has not rewarded them with anything close to safety.

Perhaps this nation, founded on the unpaid labor of generations of enslaved people, can never quite give up that ghost. To this day, there has been an exploitable, frightened workforce of millions in this country, easily pitted against other workers as a threat. President Trump himself subscribes to America’s founding myth of self-made prosperity, trumpeting his own achievements without ever acknowledging the endless train of workers that have made his livelihood possible throughout the years, including undocumented housekeepers making his bed and grape pickers at his organization’s vineyards.

“It might be good not to think of it only in terms of the fundamental abuse of brown people,” said Chioke l’Anson, an assistant professor of African-American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It might now be useful to think of this as a fundamental problem recognizing that laborers matter, that the people doing this basic stuff at the bottom of the world, they are holding up the world.”

Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
Part of the “Caravan for Essential and Excluded Workers” protest, Los Angeles, California, April 14, 2020

An additional grim irony of this systemic abuse is that, even now, amid the Covid-19 crisis, so many of the workers on whom Americans vitally depend are precisely immigrants, many of whom do not have work authorization: the agricultural workers picking our food, the construction workers building crucial infrastructure, the delivery workers bringing our home essentials, the nursing home workers looking after our elderly relatives, with all the risks entailed. “This is just one coin dropped in the bucket of injustice,” said Viladrich, the sociologist. “To be in a country where you are socially and culturally stigmatized by the mainstream and deprived of any rights, what you do is you develop a social and emotional shield.”

The resilience necessary to survive in America as an undocumented person, let alone to flourish, seems extraordinary. Viladrich explains a way of thinking among vulnerable immigrants that she calls “the here and the there.” A way of bearing all the indignities heaped on one for being “here” in America is to focus on the hope that, however unlikely it may seem, it will all be worth it when you get “there”—to a place where you’re respected and secure, most likely another country, where you’re seen as fully human.

But what, fundamentally, is the obstacle that lies between “here” and “there”—is it simply the profit motive of American capitalism? I put the question to Darrick Hamilton, an economist and the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University.

“To argue that this is economic efficiency is a lie,” he said. “These are political choices that you make to render this person sub-human, frankly.”

One telling indicator of American priorities is the absence of such penny-pinching when it comes to saving business and industry. Overall, for example, the CARES Act provides approximately $48.9 billion for United States Department of Agriculture programs, including $14 billion for a Depression-era financial institution created to stabilize the farm economy. Some $9.5 billion has been set aside for emergency aid for the agriculture sector, including cattle ranchers and fruit and vegetable growers. The restaurant owner in Chicago where Griselda and Jesús used to work is applying for a federal relief loan for his business, the American-born or naturalized chefs and cooks who worked there are applying for unemployment benefits.

As Professor Hamilton noted: “We demonstrate over and over again that when we desire something politically we have the capacity to raise and spend large sums of money, so that refutes that scarcity frame.” And yet, for the workers without authorization, nothing but a loud message to keep working, whatever the conditions, whatever the risks.

With at least 26 million newly unemployed, this will be a recession the like of which has not been seen since the early 1930s. Yet the US can only function even now on the labor of this subterranean stream of super-exploited workers. And it would be naïve to think that the cruelty of denying ITIN payers any help does not have consequences for all. “By not offering the lowest wage workers resources, you’re suppressing wages in general across the economy, particularly for other low-wage workers,” said Professor Hamilton. But there is another way, he said: “Inequality is not our destiny. Despair and marginalization, that is not natural… These are political choices and we can make different political choices.”

We cannot help what the virus does; all we can control is our reaction to it, and what we do next. This pandemic has shone a light on the ugliness of our “here.” Until the US treats all its immigrants as human beings, with full equal rights, we will still be far from “there.”