Protecting Undocumented Workers on times of Pandemic


Immigrants Are Essential to America’s Recovery

Across the United States, Americans continue to face the harsh reality of life amid a global pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout. More than 7 million people have lost their jobs since February 2020.1 Americans are worrying about whether and when their children can safely return to school; they have watched their favorite restaurants close, first temporarily and then permanently; and they have been forced to spend holidays without their families and loved ones. And with cases continuing to rise, this public health crisis is far from over.


Among those Americans bearing the brunt of the pandemic and its economic fallout are 10.4 million undocumented immigrants.2 At the same time, over the past nine months, millions of these immigrants have worked alongside their neighbors to keep the country functioning and safe. They have worked as doctors and nurses caring for loved ones and fighting this pandemic, but these unique times have also highlighted their crucial work as agricultural workers harvesting Americans’ food; clerks stocking grocery shelves; and delivery drivers bringing food to the safety of people’s homes. After decades of taking these jobs for granted, the country has come to realize just how essential these individuals and their contributions are.

The Biden administration and Congress must take decisive action to control the coronavirus pandemic and provide a path for the country to recover economically from the pandemic-induced recession. This will not be an easy task, and any approach must give special consideration to the communities hit hardest by the coronavirus crisis, including undocumented immigrants. Lack of access to health care, ineligibility for many government relief payments, and job instability leave undocumented immigrants especially vulnerable amid the pandemic.3 Providing a path to legal status for undocumented Americans is a key tool that the next administration and Congress should utilize as they work to fight the coronavirus and rebuild the country and its economy.

For years, all Americans have relied on the outsize impacts that undocumented immigrants’ contributions bring to the economy. But the reality is that the U.S. immigration system has not seen meaningful reform for 30 years. For undocumented immigrants—who on average have lived in the country for 15 years—and their 10.2 million family members, the future is tenuous.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Undocumented immigrants and their families are a part of the social fabric of the country. Recognizing that value first and foremost, this report looks at the role of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. workforce, their fiscal and economic contributions to the country, and how an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants—nearly 3 in 4 undocumented immigrants in the workforce—are keeping the country moving forward as essential workers in the face of the pandemic. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is not only the right way to honor these members of the American family, but it would ensure these contributions are not lost for all in the United States. It would also grow those contributions and help to ensure that the nation’s recovery is as bold, dynamic, and equitable as it must be to meet the challenge that the country collectively faces.

Undocumented immigrants in the U.S. workforce

Undocumented immigrants make up approximately 3.2 percent of the U.S. population, but 4.4 percent of the country’s workforce. There are more than 7 million undocumented immigrants working in the United States.

The same is generally true when looking at the states. In every state, undocumented immigrants make up a larger share of the workforce than they do the total population. California and Texas are home to the largest undocumented workforce, with 1.4 million and 1.2 million undocumented workers, respectively. But every state relies on undocumented workers. In 41 states and Washington, D.C., there are more than 10,000 undocumented workers, and in 16 states that total is greater than 100,000.

It is important to recognize that undocumented workers do not take jobs from U.S.-born workers, a myth that has been consistently debunked through years of economics research.4 The reality is that undocumented immigrants fill crucial gaps in the workforce, largely not competing with U.S.-born workers but complimenting them and creating greater economic activity—activity and productivity that can help the country grow out of this pandemic-induced downturn.5

The next sections of this report discuss the sectors in which undocumented immigrants play a particularly large role and which of those occupations are likely to see the most growth in the future.

JUCHITAN DE ZARAGOZA, MEXICO – OCTOBER 30: Members of the Central American caravan wait in line for food, water and clothing at an evening camp on October 30, 2018 in Juchitan, de Zaragoza, Mexico. Following a break on Sunday, the migrants, many of them fleeing violence in their home countries, resumed their march towards the United States border. As fatigue from the heat distance and poor sanitary conditions has set in, the numbers of people participating in the march has slowly dwindled but a significant group are determined to get to the United Sates. On Monday an official said that the Pentagon will deploy up to 5,000 active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to prevent members of the migrant caravan from illegally entering the country. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Looking at undocumented workers by industry and occupation

When considering the workforce, there are two frames that are used to discuss workers: industry and occupation. Simply put, the industry represents where someone goes to work, and an occupation represents what someone does while they are at work. For example, someone who works at a hospital works in the “health care and social assistance” industry, while someone who works in a school works in the “educational services” industry.6 A registered nurse falls under the “healthcare practitioners and technical occupations,” while a teacher is considered among “educational instruction and library occupations.”7

This report categorizes industries based on the 2017 North American Industry Classification System and occupations based on the 2018 Standard Occupational Classification system.8

First, consider the data at the broad industry level—groups of workers in different settings who fit into similar categories. More than 1.4 million undocumented immigrants work in construction, accounting for 13 percent of all construction workers. Nearly 1 million immigrants work in accommodation and food services, approximately 8.4 percent of all workers in the industry. Meanwhile, 710,000 undocumented workers make up 10 percent of the administrative and support and waste management industries, and another 489,000 undocumented workers in nonpublic administration services are also overrepresented in the field. (see Methodological Appendix)

When it comes to broad occupational categories, again aggregating many different roles into generalized groupings, undocumented immigrants are overrepresented in six categories, aligned closely with the industries mentioned previously. Approximately 25 percent of workers in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations are undocumented, as are 16 percent of workers in construction and extraction occupations; 15 percent of workers in building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations; 8.7 percent of workers in food preparation and serving-related occupations; 7.7 percent of workers in production occupations; and 5.6 percent of workers in transportation and material moving occupations. (see Appendix Table 2)

Occupational data can be especially rich at more detailed levels. Table 2 shows the 15 largest occupations for undocumented immigrants, 14 of which have more than 100,000 workers.

Nearly 1 in 5 landscaping workers, maids or housekeepers, and construction laborers are undocumented immigrants. Nearly 30 percent of agricultural workers or painters are undocumented.

The undocumented agricultural workforce

This analysis uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS), and there is an important item to note about the survey with respect to agricultural workers. The ACS is administered throughout the year, which poses difficulty for capturing highly seasonal work such as agriculture. Depending on the time of year a respondent completes the survey, the ACS likely undercounts the actual number of workers in the sector. Combined with the ACS’ difficulty in measuring certain populations, including undocumented immigrants, the estimate of undocumented farmworkers presented here is likely to be lower than reality.9 To that account, the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture estimates that there are 2.4 million farmworkers in the United States, compared with the ACS’ estimate of 1.6 million, and the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey finds that 49 percent of workers in the field are undocumented.10

Table 2

Looking toward the future

Each year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes lists of the 20 fastest-growing occupations and the 20 occupations projected to have the most job growth over the next decade, several of which have sizeable undocumented populations.11 Although published amid the pandemic in September 2020, these projections recognize that the U.S. economy will at some point recover and the basic demographic changes facing the country are inevitable. As Baby Boomers across the United States continue to age, the country will need more care workers to meet the needs of the aging population The BLS projects that the United States will add 1.2 million new home health and personal care aides between now and 2029. It also projects large additions of fast food workers (461,000), restaurant cooks (327,000), freight and stock laborers (126,000), landscaping and groundskeeping workers (120,000), and janitors (106,000)—all occupations with already large numbers of undocumented workers.

Fiscal and economic contributions of undocumented workers

Beyond their presence in the workforce, undocumented workers make major contributions to the U.S. economy through the taxes they pay and their spending. Center for American Progress analysis finds that each year, undocumented workers and their households pay $79.7 billion in federal tax contributions and $41 billion in state and local tax contributions. These tax dollars fund public schools, infrastructure repairs for roads and bridges, and the military. Immigrants are not just economic producers, but consumers as well.12 These households hold $314.9 billion in spending power, and every grocery or small-business purchase made is money that is infused into local economies. Undocumented immigrants own 1.6 million homes, paying $20.6 billion in mortgage payments each year, while other undocumented workers pay $49.1 billion in rental payments annually.

On top of their federal tax contributions, undocumented workers also buoy the social safety net; their employers annually contribute payroll taxes totaling $17 billion for Social Security and $4 billion for Medicare, for which undocumented immigrants are ineligible. For state-level data, please see Appendix Table 3.

Celso Mendoza lived in a one-room apartment in Forest, Mississippi. The poultry plant worker and leader died of the coronavirus disease on May 2, 2020. He was 59. (Photo: Courtesy/

A note about the data

The data presented in this report come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2018 and 2019 1-year ACS public use microdata, which include the most recent data available but does not account for the millions of Americans—both U.S.-born and foreign-born—who have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and its economic devastation. Undocumented status further clouds the understanding of employment losses among these immigrants during the pandemic because the lack of immigration status places such individuals at heightened risk of being exploited. Undocumented immigrants are simultaneously vulnerable to being coerced into accepting dangerous work situations and may be among the first workers to be laid off, particularly if they raise concerns.13 Regardless of their current work status, this report analyzes the undocumented U.S. workforce as it existed before the pandemic-induced economywide job losses.

The most important thing that the next administration and Congress can do for the American people is to put the country on a path to recovery. Legalizing undocumented immigrants will advance this effort in myriad ways. As this analysis shows, undocumented workers are valuable contributors to the workforce and the economy, and legalization will provide greater security for millions of individuals in the workforce who are playing an essential role during the current pandemic. But these workers are also family members to millions and neighbors to even more. A pathway to citizenship for these individuals ensures not only that the undocumented community will not be left behind as the economy rebounds, but also that they can fully participate in and contribute to the recovery.

Undocumented immigrants on the front lines of the pandemic response

In March 2020, as the United States first recognized the coronavirus spread and state and local governments began to issue stay-at-home orders, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) published guidance on essential critical infrastructure workers, introducing a list of workers in roles that were deemed vital for continuity of public health and safety.14 This first iteration of critical infrastructure focused on those workers who would still need to access their workplaces despite locally enacted shelter-at-home orders.

These workers have put their safety on the line to help other Americans. In overcapacity intensive care units, doctors, nurses, and aides have treated COVID-19 patients as the understanding of how the coronavirus spreads and how to treat it has evolved. Farmworkers have picked crops; despite outbreaks, workers in meat processing plants have continued their work; and truckers have hauled food across a network of highways to ensure there would never be a food shortage.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 42 states adopted official essential worker orders, with 20 using the CISA framework and 22 shaping their own guidelines.15 States that created their own critical infrastructure lists tended to add sectors that CISA did not originally include. For example, more than half of states included child care providers in their critical infrastructure lists, while other states adopted broader consideration for new construction as opposed to solely repair and maintenance of critical facilities.16

As of November 2020, CISA had expanded this guidance three times. Now in its fourth iteration, released in August 2020, the guidance on the critical infrastructure workforce has been broadened.17 CAP estimates that 5 million undocumented workers—nearly 3 in 4 undocumented immigrants in the workforce—were employed in these sectors at the beginning of the pandemic. Alongside their colleagues, these undocumented essential workers keep critical operations such as energy and telecommunications running, hospitals staffed, and grocery shelves stocked.

Indeed, undocumented immigrants employed in critical infrastructure work in a wide range of jobs. An estimated 1.7 million work in the nation’s food supply chain—from 358,000 farmworkers and food processors to 154,000 working in supermarkets, grocery stores, and convenience stores.

Nearly one-quarter of a million—236,000—undocumented immigrants are working in a health care provision role, from 15,000 registered nurses and licensed practical nurses, to 19,000 lab and diagnostic technicians, to 139,000 home health aides, nursing assistants, and personal care aides. But beyond that, another 188,000 undocumented immigrants are working as custodians, food servers, and administrative workers to keep hospitals, nursing homes, and labs functioning.

Click here to read the original article on American Progress

Source: American Progress

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